THE SUMMER OF FLYING FISH (El verano de los peces voladores) B+
Chile France (88 mi) 2013 d: Marcela Said
A film set within the non-narrative, impressionistic style of South American cinema where establishing mood is paramount, creating a recognizable visual landscape that the viewer frequently returns to, but what happens within this elusive realm may be subject to one’s own imagination, where the director creates an artistic canvas, but refuses to reveal significant details, moving seamlessly within an atmospheric dream state where it’s hard to tell the difference between what’s real and imaginary, leaving the viewer to sort out the details. Similar to neighboring New Argentine Cinema directors Lucrecia Martel or Lisandro Alonso, or even Mexican director Carlos Reygadas in 2012 Top Ten Films of the Year: #2 Post Tenebras Lux , this is a visually sublime style of cinema that tends to thrive in the subconscious realms, where it literally refuses to provide clarity or rational thought, instead only offering clues, existing along the periphery where each viewer is likely to have a different reaction. In this manner, fifty different viewers are likely to get fifty different reactions, all of which contribute to the experimental nature of this style of filmmaking. One recalls the hypnotic somnambulistic quality of Lisandro Alonso’s LOS MUERTOS (2004), a mesmerizing slow burn through a dense jungle, where the camera acts as the eyes of the audience exploring the vicinity, where alienation is revealed through fragmentary images that barely piece together a whole. LIVERPOOL (2008) is another intense, trance-inducing study in solitude, a near wordless movie that takes place almost entirely in the viewer’s head, as there are no connecting threads to a story, only a wandering, ghost-like journey that expresses how easily one can each lose their place in life. Lucrecia Martel’s first feature LA CIÉNAGA (2001) is a masterwork of claustrophobic cinema, providing an atmosphere of idle affluence, featuring a multitude of oddly populated Buñuel-like people lounging around an overgrown resort pool doing nothing, seemingly without purpose, becoming a dissection of class indifference. Even more compelling may be the art films of Mexican director Carlos Reygadas, where image is knowledge, where you can count on extreme visualization and an austerity of form. In his most recent film, 2012 Top Ten Films of the Year: #2 Post Tenebras Lux , he nearly disregards narrative altogether, becoming a profoundly influential modernist work that simply operates in a different cinematic vernacular, existing in a dreamlike plateau where humans often play a secondary role. While South American literature is known for magical realism, there is a cutting edge group of experimental South American film directors known for abstract often incomprehensible narratives, but extremely poetic, stream-of-conscious visual schemes, to which we must add Marcela Said, a Chilean filmmaker with a documentary background, having studied film and media at the Paris-Sorbonne University while also working as a photography assistant to Sara Matthews in New York.
First and foremost there is the morning mist creeping along the shadows of a lake surrounded by the abnormally pristine natural beauty in areas of Curarrehue, Coñaripe, and Liquiñe in southern Chile, where wealthy landowner Don Francisco, also known as Pancho (Gregory Cohen), has built a magnificent modern hacienda in the middle of a dense forest. This idyllic location is mesmerizing to the eyes, as impressive a place to live as one could possibly imagine, but it belies a growing undercurrent of unseen danger, underscored by a sinister threat lurking out in the forest, giving a slight feel of horror, which seems to be the source of the dark, unfolding mystery. Cinematographer Inti Briones, who also captured the wild natural beauty of the Caucasus Mountains of Georgia in Julia Loktev’s The Loneliest Planet (2011), as well as the completely artificial, literary world of Raúl Ruiz’s Night Across the Street (La noche de enfrente) (2012), uses the camera to probe the surroundings as we observe Pancho’s daughter Manena (Francisca Walker) in an opening walk through the forest, quickly getting under the surface when the pet dog disappears and gets lost in the lush foliage. Her father is an orderly patriarch used to having things done his way, where one of his obsessions is getting rid of the carp inhabiting the lake by using dynamite. Such an intentional violation of nature is not without consequences. The root of this conflict goes back to the era of the Conquistadors when the white Europeans colonized the South American indigenous populations, where there remains a difference of opinion on who owns the land that for generations was used by native people. Wealthy descendants of those original Europeans are landowners who build vacation homes on what has traditionally been the hunting and fishing grounds of the local Mapuche people, who comprise 85% of the Indigenous peoples in Chile. Plunging her camera into these primeval forests, Said brings to the foreground some of these grievances that are largely ignored by the larger population. Pancho’s hired help are all Mapuche natives, likely the lowest paid on the economic scale (nannies, maids, security guards, and servants) and also the most mistreated. When one of the young hired hands, Pedro (Carlos Cayuqueo), is injured from a dynamite blast, Pancho couldn’t be less concerned, as all he’s worried about is getting rid of the fish, in contrast to Manena who is outraged at the way her father treats his workers. We sense the frustrations brewing from the natives who are forced to see good fish go to waste, uncovering piles of dead fish buried indiscriminately throughout the forest. Don Francisco is also intent on placing fences along his land, making it difficult for natives to hunt in their natural habitat, causing friction when his unleashed dogs attack their livestock. His manner in addressing their concerns is expressed through a haughty superiority, crassly paying them off simply to make them go away, and then cursing them under his breath.
While we hear the offscreen sound of dogs barking endlessly, especially noticeable in the still of the night, it’s a sign of continuing instability, yet part of the overall mindset. While Manena smokes pot and jumps between two young guys, Lorca (Guillermo Lorca), a cute young painter, and Pedro, the indigenous hired hand, where she is eventually cheated on, leaving her angered, betrayed, and her dreams for a better world deflated. A drunk and completely wasted Pedro is found passed out in the pitch black of the night, lying in the middle of the road, unable to stand up, where he refuses aid, but the scene is shot from the back seat of Pancho’s SUV, where Manena is unable to decipher what she’s seeing, adding more than a touch of horror and suspense, amplifying a sense of the unease, compounded by an eerie score from Alexander Zekke. The details of the story became less and less relevant, where much more important are the "attitudes" being conveyed, where Don Francisco doesn't have to listen to anyone, not his daughter, his wife, his hired help, his neighbors, the townspeople, and ultimately not even the police, especially after he hides a known fugitive from justice, completely disregarding the laws of man, all of which contributes to an escalation of violence. By placing himself above the law, he is a representative of man’s folly, the delusion that money can somehow make things right and lead to happiness. In this case, it does the opposite, where the largely unseen presence of the Mapuche natives grow more irritable with his racist acts of indifference, where Pancho can be seen drunkenly joking and complaining about having to recognize indigenous “land rights.” While the colonialist people in the film are largely contemptible, they are secondary to the overall notion of cinematic art, which instead creates abstract impressionistic images that tend to stick in the viewer’s subconscious afterwards, where over time we'll remember much of the mixed messages and the jumbled mosaic. But the key to the film is the impressive camerawork, where the one constant throughout is the pristine beauty of the region, continually shot under a shroud of lingering fog or rain, where it's Said's use of location shooting that impresses the most, where the director uses “exterior” geographical landscapes to heighten the “interior” examination of the characters. It’s a film of astonishing subtlety and social conscience, where colonial man is not only out of balance from the natural world around them, which feels overwhelming and all-consuming, but also themselves, where the rich, who have everything, are in a perpetual state of delusion, completely indifferent to the world that they casually ignore. This is non-commercial arthouse cinema usually only screened at festivals, where the director’s first fictional feature premiered at Director's Fortnight at Cannes.