A Book Review by Thomas Puhr.
The book’s overarching focus [is] on the sometimes problematic intersections of art and global commerce in an increasingly transnational cinematic landscape. Is it even possible to have a ‘purely’ national – let alone local – cinema anymore?”
For those who associate Chilean cinema with the last decade’s festival hits, like Pablo Larraín’s No (2012) or Sebastián Lelio’s A Fantastic Woman (2017), it may come as a surprise to read that the country helped provide the literal resources for early cinema. “Chilean nitrate was one of the raw materials that went into the manufacture of celluloid,” editors Vania Barraza and Carl Fischer note in their introduction to Chilean Cinema in the Twenty-First-Century World (Wayne State UP). “The arrival and circulation of cinema was thus a key benchmark of Chile’s integration with world markets” (3). More than mere factoid, this remark points to the book’s overarching focus on the (sometimes problematic) intersections of art and global commerce in an increasingly transnational cinematic landscape. Is it even possible to have a “purely” national – let alone local – cinema anymore?
The festival circuit is the incubator for many of these films, and its omnipotence yields critical adulation and cultural controversy alike. María Paz Peirano navigates such fraught territory in “Learning to be ‘Global’: Chilean Filmmakers at International Film Festivals.” The likes of Cannes and Berlinale provide undeniable social capital, but at what cost? Peirano sees directors like Larraín as “agents of transnationalization” (37), artists who have been trained by such festivals to be less national and deliver a “delocalized, cosmopolitan ‘auteur cinema’” (39). Festivals exert just as much control over their products as major Hollywood studios, and their output is similarly homogenous. For Peirano, a film like No is “exotic” rather than authentic (39); the bottom line is to appeal to as wide a viewership as possible, including those in America who may know little to nothing about Augusto Pinochet.
Although the text is divided into five sections – with dauntingly phrased subtitles like “Other Texts and Other Lands: Intermediality and Adaptation beyond Chile(an Cinema)” – it’s perhaps easier to approach the framework as an explication of four distinct threads in contemporary Chilean film. One thread, genre film, is the focus of multiple chapters, such as Jonathan Risner’s “The Reach of Genre: The Emergence of Chilean Horror Cinema.” One need only look at the poster for Pablo Illanes’ Video Club (2014) to notice its indebtedness to ‘80s American VHS covers. It’s ironic, then, to read how Illanes’ film, though “the fifth best-performing Chilean film released in box offices in 2014” (111), drew nearly a million fewer moviegoers than its American competitor, Annabelle (2014). What emerges is a fan culture (composed of audiences and directors alike) simultaneously inspired and marginalized by its American predecessors.
Even the chapters concerning documentaries – another of the four threads – address Chilean cinema’s global ramifications. The most striking example is María Constanza Vergara Reyes’ “The Life of Things: Materiality and Affectivity in Atrapados en Japón by Vivienne Barry,” the titular documentary of which translates as Trapped in Japan. Released in 2015, the film captures Barry’s quest to retrace the steps of her father’s journey to WWII-era Japan and – with its fusion of animation, fictional reenactments, and archival footage – aligns with a recent trend in Latin American documentary films of “first-person accounts in which their [the directors’] own histories are intertwined with reconstructions of the lives of their ancestors” (294). Interestingly, the chapter itself best embodies this cross-culturalism in that it is one of two translated pieces included in the collection. It’s also representative of Barraza and Fischer’s overarching goal to look beyond widely recognized auteurs – some of whom, like Larraín, have since worked in the United States – and shine a much-needed light on peripheral art.
The crux of the text hinges on the remaining two threads: the intimate and arguably nationless aesthetic of so-called “Novísimos” filmmakers on the one hand, and the more socio-politically conscious (albeit still personal) efforts of their contemporaries.
Emblematic of the former is 2017’s Family Life, the subject of Barraza’s “Intimacies and Global Aesthetics in Vida de Familia by Alicia Scherson and Cristián Jiménez.” Barraza convincingly argues that the duo’s family dramedy – which focuses on the existential journey of a young and relatively wealthy man – appeals to both national and international demographics without explicitly alienating either (201). For some, this trade-off is inexcusable: a watering down of Chilean culture in order to mimic the cool, ironic detachment of arthouse cinema. Or worse: an insidious reincarnation of colonialism and forced assimilation (208). However, Barraza assumes a measured stance, claiming that even the most intimate of these films are suffused with subtle cultural allusions which are lost on viewers looking from the outside in (210).
As for the latter, Carolina Urrutia Neno’s “Centrifugal Cinema: Updating and Rereading Chilean Feature Films” is an accessible entry point for scholars. Rather than being solely “inward-facing,” these films retain a personal, “universal” touch while still “moving from a formal realism to another kind of realism anchored in the social issues of today’s Chile” (58). Neno traces this shift in realism to, surprisingly, genre exercises: Alejandro Fernández Almendras’ To Kill a Man (2014) is cited as an important milestone. Other examples – like Pepa San Martín’s Rara (2016) – take the movement a step further by “showing points of view and specific situations in a socially and politically realistic and reflective way” (61).
Chilean Cinema in the Twenty-First-Century World offers no easy answer to this ongoing dilemma of respecting national particularities while reaching out to wider audiences, though María Helena Rueda’s “Films on Loss and Mourning: Bridging the Personal and the Collective” offers a persuasive suggestion; fittingly, it’s the closing chapter. She describes Lelio’s A Fantastic Woman – and others like it – as “a bridge between Chilean and transnational concerns. The loss and mourning faced by the people in these films are the result of localized circumstances, but are also essentially human ordeals that transcend nationality and culture” (340). A country can no longer exist (let alone thrive) in an isolated bubble. To recognize this truth does not require an erasure of what makes it unique.
Thomas Puhr lives in Chicago, where he teaches English and language arts. A regular contributor to Bright Lights Film Journal, he has published “‘Mysterious Appearances’ in Jonathan Glazer’s Identity Trilogy: Sexy Beast, Birth and Under the Skin” in issue 15.2 of Film International.