The Third Age and the Seventh Art

in 20th Miami International Film Festival

by Ronald Bergan

In recent years there seems to have been a spate of gerontophile films, those dealing with old age and old people in a deeply sympathetic yet unflinching manner. In a medium dominated by youth and beauty, it is sometimes salutary to contemplate a sagging and wrinkled body and discover a different kind of beauty in it. Naturally, it is not surprising that nonagenarian Manoel De Oliveira in Je Rentre A La Maison or septuagenarian Jean-Luc Godard in Eloge De L’Amour should philosophise about old age. What is surprising is that 30-something directors like the Mexican Carlos Reygadas in Japon, which has the courage to present an old woman having sex, should take the aged as their subject.

At the Miami Film Festival, there were at least four films in the first and second feature section which our jury had to judge, that had old people at their centre, made by relatively young directors. There were two in particular that could be seen as companion pieces, both from South America and both concerned with young women caring for ailing, elderly relatives: Caja Negra (Black Box), directed by 23-year-old Luis Ortega from Argentina, and La Espera (The Wait), directed by 34-year-old Aldo Garay from Uruguay, the latter just edging the former as the FIPRESCI prize winner.

La Espera, based on a novel by Henry Trujillo, focuses on a strained and ambivalent mother-daughter relationship, the title possibly referring to the waiting time before death. The young woman works at her sewing machine in a sweat shop during the day, only to return to her apartment to look after her irascible, complaining, possessive bedridden mother. The film does not spare us the details of what caring for an elderly person entails, and shows the daughter having to help her mother with the most unpleasant physical tasks. In these difficult conditions the girl struggles to lead an independent existence. She has a boyfriend who works in a flower nursery, where the growing contrasts with the dying in the apartment.

The description above may give the impression of a depressing realist drama, but Garay has a painterly eye that imposes itself right from the start. The film opens with almost abstract patterns of the windows and balconies that form the façade of the apartment building. This motif is repeated throughout, reflected at one moment by the various pictures on the mother’s grave.

The interiors, too, are delicately and imaginatively composed, with the director often using ’empty shots’ reminiscent of Ozu and long, silent takes which evoke the film’s title. Again, inspired by another Japanese master, Mizoguchi, he uses the medium shot discreetly keeping a distance at emotional moments when the mother holds out her hand to her daughter. There is also a scene, shot through a window, which captures the lovers quarrelling, each separated by the division of the window pane.

Shot for $70,000, Garay’s debut film is further indication of the richness of South and Central American cinema at the moment.