The Year of (Not) Living Dangerously

in 25th International Festival of New Latin American Cinema

by Jorge Letelier

The year 2003 will be remembered as the year in which Chilean cinema had an enormous success within Chile. It may sound paradoxical, but if there is one thing national films had not been able to do in decades it was to reach the local audience’s preference with easily accessible proposals and identifiable realities.

With over a million and a half spectators, greatly due to the massive contributions of Sexo con Amor (one million) and Sub-terra (500 thousand), the season is coming to an end with happy filmmakers and a satisfied audience, what has allowed to speak once again of an “explosion” in national cinema. Therefore, the fact that virtually all the films that have opened this year came to the Havana Film Festival is a significant indicator of how true this successful moment is.

Unlike what had happened until 2002, the mark that has identified this year’s production so far is variety. Far from the comedy of manners and the characters that are nearly a caricature of the underprivileged, this season ranged from radical proposals exploiting the temporal dimension (Sábado) to a revision of the thriller’s codes (Los debutantes), including a historical super-production (Sub-terra) and even a sexual comedy of Italian inspiration (Sexo con amor).

Nevertheless, even if the comedy of popular manners established by El chacotero sentimental (1999) was quickly outdated due to the insistence of filmmakers in recreating the successful formula without much imagination and even less audacity, this new surge of films has proven that, once the aesthetical uniformity has been left behind, they still depend to a great extent on a factor that remains a sure device when it comes to selling tickets: sex.

Guided by the straightforwardness of Sexo con amor – a film that exemplifies the sexual perturbations upsetting the Chileans with a great deal of nudity and funny but not too tasteful gags – these movies seem to depend almost obsessively on a scene of explicit sex, as we can clearly see in Los debutantes. The casting of a former prostitute who has become a public figure in Chile has been a central factor in the film’s marketing, although she has a marginal role, due to a scene depicting live fellatio.

For a country with a very conservative conception of sex, this aperture may result new and refreshing, but in cinematographic terms these titles’ contribution is limited to the fact that they are made by young filmmakers that seem unwilling to assume formal risks regarding the audience (in this sense Sábado, recorded in digital video and taking place throughout one chronological hour, may be the exception), and even less willing to dig deeper into more complex subjects that might touch on the fundamental contradictions of Chilean society.

It is rather telling that the film that seems to go a bit further in this ground is made by an experienced director, Gonzalo Justiniano. B-Happy accompanies the existential growth of a teenager (Manuela Martelli) in a naturalistic tone that does not hide the roughness of an underprivileged life or the dramatic background of the adventure. It may not be very sharp in its observation nor very inspired in its execution, but it is noticeably at a higher level than the rest.

In a moment in which speaking of a certain industry of Chilean cinema is no longer a delirious dream, and in which the increasing co-production schemes and the rather successful presence in international festivals show its healthy condition, Chilean cinema is still lacking the vital strength that characterises any cinematography in full possession of its expressive means: that energy that, either through achievements or failures, is the sign of filmmakers truly exploring their personal world, without hesitating for fear of upsetting their spectators.