Last week, Pablo Larraín’s “Jackie,” starring Natalie Portman as the embattled, shellshocked and grieving First Lady in the days immediately following the assassination of her husband JFK, came to Blu-ray. It’s a stunning film, one that marks the English-language debut of one of our favorite working filmmakers and that picked up three Oscar nominations. It’s also the highest-profile Larraín film to date, but really it only represents the crystallization of his building buzz, which dates back to his “Tony Manero” (2008), “Post Mortem” (2010) and “No” (2012) days. Together, those three films form an unofficial, loosely affiliated trilogy about the trauma and consequences of the military regime that followed the 1973 coup in which the democratically elected Salvador Allende was overthrown and the murderous dictator Augusto Pinochet installed in power.
Larraín’s keen eye for what still is a contentious period in Chile’s history, as well as his audacious visual style, and intelligent approach to scripting and editing that saw each film become distinctly its own animal, made him instantly noticeable and a frequent guest (and award-winner) at festivals around the world. After the Foreign-Language Oscar nomination for “No,” a first in Chile’s history, Hollywood came knocking. He was tapped to helm a remake of “Scarface” (he eventually left the project due to creative differences) but along the way, was noticed by Darren Aronofsky and his Protozoa Pictures producers, who wooed him to take on “Jackie.” While this was all happening, Larraín turned in two further, completely different and completely terrific films, “The Club” (2015) and “Neruda” (2016). That “Jackie” came hot on the heels of those two titles made it not only a career high to date for Larraín, but also the biggest stateside and international success for a whole movement in cinema that has been quietly building momentum over the last decade, with Larraín as its vanguard.
Much like the New Romanian Wave, which appeared around the first half of the last decade, this New Chilean Cinema (Novísimo Cine Chileno as its been called by critics and academics from the country) grew roots circa 2006. But it started to make inroads internationally around the end of the last decade and the beginning of this one when Sebastián Silva’s “The Maid “(“La Nana”) won the Best Film award in the International Competition at the Sundance Film Festival in 2009. Let’s go beyond Larraín, and discover six other directors, established and emerging who are participating in the remaking and renewing of Chile’s filmmaking landscape.
The one who started it all and the one who “made it” first, one could say. With “The Maid,” Silva brought attention to the country’s filmmaking after years of anonymity in the world cultural landscape. Already in evidence in this great movie is the visual style that he would cultivate further, in which muted colors and enclosed spaces are favored along with a quiet, watchful approach to performance. This yields some unforgettable powerhouse turns, often from unexpected quarters. He followed up his Sundance win for the”The Maid,” with another film that won a prize in the same festival, “Old Cats” (2010), which gave Bélgica Castro (a classical Chilean theater actress) a rare, intensely felt and brilliantly written role for an older woman, and Castro for her part gave a tremendously moving performance that felt both personal and important.
It was the international success of these two films that garnered him a chance at getting a co-producer from the United States and some international talent for two films that he’d shoot back to back in Chile, both with Michael Cera as part of the cast. “Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus and 2012” came first, a loose, improvised comedy that starred Cera as an obsessed American tourist who travels to the north of Chile, his sole aim to experience ayahuasca, a cactus that can be cooked into a massively hallucinogenic soup. “Magic Magic” followed soon after, in which Cera is joined by Juno Temple, Emily Browning and Catalina Sandino Moreno, in psychological thriller shot by Christopher Doyle. Both films demonstrate Silva’s fresh, genre-hopping approach, as well as his keen eye for cinematography, which was also in evidence in his U.S. breakthrough picture, “Nasty Baby.” In this surrogacy drama, Silva himself also stars, alongside Kristen Wiig and Tunde Adebimpe, and the film’s scabrous take on its hipster premise further cemented Silva’s status as one of the most idiosyncratic and interesting filmmakers to have emerged onto the American indie scene in recent years. He suffered a setback recently when Will Ferrell dropped out of his next slated project, “Captain Dad,” just nine days prior to shooting starting, but we hope it won’t put the brakes on Silva’s well-earned momentum for too long.
As so often with “new” national cinema movements, some of its founding fathers are not “new” at all — veteran documentarian Patricio Guzmán has been at work since the early ’70s, but there’s no doubt his recent films have gained greater exposure on the international stage than ever. Even though he has lived most of his life in France after his exile following the military coup in 1973, most of his works have dealt with the history of Chile, especially regarding the event that deprived him of a home. The coup’s horrific consequences can still be felt until this day in various areas of society, and as Guzmán has grown older, his perspective on his homeland, as both a native and an outsider, has both deepened and sharpened.
But at the very beginning of his exile, he created one of the most important documentaries in the history of cinema. “The Battle of Chile” (divided in three parts that came out in the years 1975 , 1976 and 1979, but were not screened at home in Chile until 1996) is one of the most crushing and accurate portrayals of the Chilean coup. And the first part ends with one of the most powerful images in documentary cinema, as a cameraman shoots his own death, pointing the camera at the military, only to have a gun trained on the lens, a shot rings out and the image stumbles as the camera falls to the ground.
In the last decade he has come back with full force to make films that go beyond the retelling of history, adding into the mix an element of poetry that makes them increasingly personal. His last two exceptionally beautiful documentaries have been unafraid to broaden his canvas but also to go inward, to expose his own deep feelings about the deaths, disappearances and martyrdoms that Chile experienced for 17 years and which scar the culture to this day. Both “Nostalgia for the Light” (2010) and “The Pearl Button” (2015) tell stories about families searching for those whom the military arrested and then killed, but they also connect those events to wider cosmic realities: the beauty of the universe, the eternal ocean, the vast dry deserts. Guzmán is now working on a new film to close this unofficial trilogy, this time focusing on the mountains and the earth, which will mean his remarkable career will be bookended by two astonishing trilogies, that chronicle not just a country’s history, but the story of a profound, examined life.
Since his feature debut in 2005 with “The Sacred Family,” Sebastián Lelio has been turning in acutely well-observed, tightly coiled, character-rich dramas set in contemporary Chile and thrumming with a very singular and intense sense of psychological realism. His first three films “Family,” “Christmas” and “Year of the Tiger” also dealt in various ways with issues of faith and religiosity which still permeate Chilean society, and all played at international festivals to quiet acclaim. But the acclaim became loud — unignorably so — with his fourth picture, “Gloria” which lightened the tone somewhat from his previous dramas to yield an unforgettable portrait of a woman refusing to be overwhelmed by later-life adversity. “Gloria” brought an immensely well-deserved Berlin Best Actress award to Paulina Garcia (in fact she deserved much more, given that her performance was undoubtedly one of the two or three best of that year) but it was also a turning point of sorts for Lelio, with the accessibility and critical success of his film launching him to the forefront of a newly re-energized Chilean filmmaking movement.
He parlayed that success into this year’s “A Fantastic Woman,” a wonderfully rounded, intricate and unpatronizing portrait of a trans woman in the immediate aftermath of the death of her older lover. Trans actress Daniela Vega turns in the astonishing central performance here, though this time, the film plays out in a darker register that is almost Hitchcockian at times and great credit is due to Lelio for his control on the tone and the mood of foreboding which is so much more resonant for being rooted in such an unusually self-possessed central character. Even before the universally strong notices out of Berlin, the film had been acquired by Sony Pictures Classics, so expect to see it open in the states sometime this year.
And before that again, Lelio had started prepping his next feature. Starring Rachel Weisz, Rachel McAdams and Alessandro Nivola, “Disobedience” which is currently shooting, is based on the novel by Naomi Alderman and deals with a Jewish woman’s return home after the death of her father — it sees Lelio further away from his homeland than he has ever been and working for the first time in English, with Hollywood stars. It’s almost daunting enough to make us worry, but then we think of Lelio’s total directorial assurance, and of the fact that Pablo Larrain (who also produced “A Fantastic Woman,” alongside “Toni Erdmann” director Maren Ade) just recently scaled that same mountain, and gave us all “Jackie” as a result, and we stop worrying and start anticipating.