Reggaeton, an underground style that originated in Puerto Rico, claims the imagination of working and middle-class Chilean youths.
The protagonists’ stabbing exchanges are packed into mostly confrontational mid close-ups. Gastón, and for that matter 43-year-old Larrain himself (so modern just a few years ago), feel already obsolete. They assess the youths with some confoundment and equivalent admiration. These are also the responses viewers tend to feel for the film itself, despite (and because of) its haphazard manner. It released on Mubi, where it will stream until the end of May.
Dance, its hypnotic effects, and ageing were at the core of the director’s second film too, Saturday Night Fever. It is set in 1978, when the Hollywood film had gripped Chilean cinemas, and some years into the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990).
Undisturbed by the political shifts ravaging his own neighbourhood, the protagonist Peralta single-mindedly gathers props that mimic the world of his much-younger disco hero. No small comment by Larrain on the role the United States had in the fall of democracy and rise of dictatorship in his country. In the end, Peralta loses to someone with fewer wrinkles. This was the first of the director’s “Pinochet trilogy”, which includes Post Mortem (2010) and No (2012). Scholar Vania Barraza Toledo places these movies in the context of a need among Chileans in the 2000s to engage with their covered-up past.
No was where I first discovered Larrain, while on a mission to watch everything featuring Bernal. It depicts the final years of Pinochet’s rule, mainly how a cheery TV campaign had convinced citizens to partake in the referendum to remove him.
Instead of highlighting his crimes, the ad-man played by Bernal had simply said to vote “No” for future happiness. Post Mortem, Armstrong achieved a muted look apt for the grim moment, shooting with lenses popular in the 1970s.
In plots that are otherwise skilfully immersive, Larrain always leaves in some extraneous, even contrived, sequences that make you come up for air. He searches rather than sermonises. His characters are often morally ambiguous, and capable of the same torturous excesses totalitarian states are guilty of. The type to kill dogs and the elderly with little ado.
But, all things considered, his latest Ema could be his most hopeful story yet. It shows confidence in young people and invites everyone else to join in their infectious movements.