PSIFF Diary #4

Play (Chile, 2005)

“The times were hard, but they were modern,” reads the Italian proverb that begins Alicia Scherson’s magnificent debut film about love and loss in contemporary Santiago, my favorite discovery at this year’s PSIFF. Technically, I suppose it’s not my discovery–Scherson recently won Best New Narrative Filmmaker at the Tribeca film fest for it. But it’s a film I knew next to nothing about and took a chance on, and its formal ingenuity, infectious humor, and generous spirit dazzled me.

After an inventive credit sequence placing titles and names along the streets and buildings surrounding Cristina–a young, obsessively curious attendant for an elderly invalid–the film follows a heartbroken thirtysomething, Tristan, whose wife has just left him. Scherson’s intercutting between these two characters is lively, rhythmic, and layered with evocative music (streaming from their iPods), until their chronologies converge. Cristina and Tristan walk through the colorful sights and sounds of Santiago (which Scherson captures on astonishingly rich digital video), experiencing eccentric, surreal moments (dream imagery, gazing into mirrors, quirky routines), and crossing paths in random, often secretive ways. Cristina–fascinated by scents and smelling–decides to trail Tristan, but less as an admirer than an anonymous kindred spirit clued in to his unhappiness. As Tristan undergoes his grieving process (part of which includes spending time with his blind flamboyant mother and her fatuous magician boyfriend), both characters search for their identities and emotional reference points.

While the movie exhibits an indulgent playfulness, unlike most contemporary films, its stylistic witticisms increase our emotional connections rather than decrease them. More tantalizing than ridiculing, more Jacques Rivette than Jean-Pierre Jeunet, the film celebrates the way personal curiosity and anonymous compassion can inform and enliven modern, urban lives. “I’m tired of thinking,” Tristan intones at one point, and the film is a tribute to the complex existential pulse of a city and its myriad inhabitants.

Much of the film’s pleasure can be found in its enigmatic associations, among them the interest Cristina’s client exhibits in an Amazonian tribe exposed to white civilization but nearly wiped out by foreign ailments. (I was reminded of Herzog’s recent short film documenting such a tribe for Ten Minutes Older: The Trumpet.) Perhaps the tribe reflects Tristan’s own emotional seclusion–something as “ordinary” as the loss of a relationship can devastate a life lived in isolation. “This lack of love,” Scherson has suggested, “when examined under a microscope, makes even the smallest things appear larger than life.”

Scherson grew up in Chile, but studied film at the University of Chicago; apparently, she teaches film in Santiago, and Play is her first feature. It’s a gem of a movie: bright, sexy, inventive, and deeply felt. Living in a large urban city myself, the film so effectively captures the paradox of public anonymity and connection, it has cast a spell on my perceptions for days.

* * * *

(I should also mention that I caught the Brazilian film Underground Game at this year’s festival, a movie based on a story by Julio Cort·zar–whose previous work inspired Antonioni’s Blow-Up–about a man who devises a mental game following attractive women in the Rio subway. It’s a stylish and clever film with similar themes to Play, but because it’s a cold neo-noir emphasizing a fair amount of convention and cruelty, and because I was so moved by the freshness of Play, I was underwhelmed.)

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