As I mentioned in my write-up on En la Cama (In Bed), Jorge Morales' FIPRESCI report from the 2005 Havana Film Festival includes a deconstruction of the so-called Nuevo Cine Chileno, and culls out that what's actually being discussed are three distinct Chilean features making the festival rounds at the same time: Matías Bize (In Bed / En la cama), Alicia Scherson (Play), and Sebastián Campos (The Sacred Family / La sagrada familia).
Acknowledging that Scherson won the Debuts section of the Havana festival (Scherson also won Best New Narrative Filmmaker at Tribeca), and admitting that Play "is probably one of the best crafted of all recent Chilean productions" with cinematography "remarkably executed in a High Definition digital format" and "outstanding" sound and shot composition, Morales then asserts that all this excellence does nothing more than "support a naïf babbling, a sort of urban magic realism in which Scherson seems to be more concerned about making the most superfluous details seem exotic than of telling a story with a minimum support. The calculated idea of accentuating the color palette—with no further sense than embellishing the image—the fact of acutely working the sound but without giving it an expressive value, give away the questionable wish to surprise, of shyly impressing instead of moving, of making rhymes but no poetry."
Naturally, poetry is an extremely personal matter. Some prefer their Robert Frost. Others their Juan Ramon Jimenez. Some prefer their poetry dramatic and compelling. And others look up from the page shyly impressed, their forehead on flight.
When Doug Cummings "discovered" Play earlier this year at the Palm Springs Film Festival, he was "dazzled" by "its formal ingenuity, infectious spirit, and profound humanism." Sensing more poetry than rhymes, Doug evoked: "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."
Doug's enthusiastic guidance convinced me to give Play a second chance. I had seen it on screener tape and hadn't been drawn in—as often happens when I'm larger than the screen—but Doug suggested I watch Play projected big at the press screening and, as Susan Sontag has defined, I was "kidnapped."
My enthusiasm was shared by Chris Knipp, who attended the same screening, and who found it "extraordinarily accomplished" and "delightful" as well as "rich" and "delicate". "If Play seems to be about 'nothing,' " Chris opines, "look again. Antonioni's L'Avventura and Fellini's La dolce vita were about 'nothing' too. Scherson has modulated Antonioni's boredom into bemused loneliness and Fellini's wealthy idleness into a twenty-first century urban anomie of easy meetings and easy separations."
Since, along with Cathleen Rountree, Doug and Chris have both skillfully synopsized Play's storyline, I'm free to meditate on what impressed me most about the film: its comment on how class is always greener on the other side, its sound design and its gentle inflection of magical realism. As a great lover of Latin American literature and film, what I have come to appreciate over the years is that the worlds created by magical realism are not other worlds distinct from our own, but alternate worlds that share many qualities with our own, often indistinguishable, until something happens—a moth flies out of a rejected man's mouth, for example, and circles around a young woman observing him from across the street; a young woman who understands his loneliness.
For it is precisely in observation that the alternate worlds of magical realism can best express themselves. These expressions can be made so fantastic and over-the-top as in Like Water For Chocolate, or rendered as storybook illustrations like in the starry skies of Viva Cuba, or rendered as simple and nonsensical as dreams that appear to have no importance in waking life. Dreams play a big part in Play. But that's not to say they add much to the plot. Butter melts in the timelapsed sun. A black chick pecks breadcrumbs in the dreamer's shoes, along with his yellow brethren. A mother dreams her daughter gives birth to a chicken. The dreams of night don't seem to matter as much as the dream of fitting in among others in a new place or the dream of configuring a new identity and letting go of an old one.
Alicia Scherson allows the urbanity of Santiago to contain the crisscrossing dreams that don't make any sense, stitching together alternate perceptions of a shared reality, or rather, layering them. The cinematic texture of Play is one of many polyvalent layers. Its weave is nearly hypnotic. Watching Play a second time (which it definitely warrants), I caught so many connections and transitions lost in my initial, confused anticipation.
I love how Scherson uses sound to indicate alterity. Martial art moves practiced in front of a mirror resound with chopsocky swish. She'll show a boat on the shore and you hear seagulls and waves. She'll show a photograph of a nearly-extinct Amazonian tribe in a National Geographic magazine, and you hear their chanting, their drumming. You are, in effect, in two worlds. One of representation. One of evocation. We perceive things not only by how we see them, but how we hear them. And so she plays with the separate universes that individuals live in, determined simply by the shift of one Ipod to the other. I loved the scene where Cristina (Viviana Herrera) and Manuel (J. Pablo Quezada) kiss for the first time, each listening to their own music.
Curiously enough, when I first watched Play at home on screener tape, I watched it along with Underground Game, a cinematic riff on a Julio Cortazar story. I adore Cortazar, of course, I consider him a master of modern fiction because he repeatedly demonstrates that narrative shifts in and of themselves alter perception of reality and, thereby, create alternate worlds. And both films—Play and Underground Game—involved a somewhat necessary stalking or pursuit of one individual by another. One of the fun thrills of any kind of festival or retrospective is the chance cluster of themes that seem to gather movies together within certain circles of perspective. In Dignity of the Nobodies, as an example of a simple man standing up to the police state, another short story of Cortazar's is mentioned, "The Pursuer", wherein a man—who believes he is being pursued—eventually comes to the understanding that he is the one in pursuit. There's something of that resiliency in Play.
As if knowing that she needs to become a nurse for someone new, Christina finds herself someone lonely to care for. And the final shot of her observing Santiago from the hospital rooftop confirms her eye for detail, especially when it involves her future. Variety's Ronnie Scheib writes: "Final scene finds [Christina] high atop the city whistling in the wind as the camera pans over Santiago to end on her face, a very 21st century, feminine version of Balzac's intrepid Rastignac surveying the Paris he vows to conquer." Scheib further attributes the same eye for detail to director Scherson, stating: "Director Scherson tells her story in jigsaw-puzzle fragments—her camera focuses with equal interest on a section of tie or a character feeding rose petals to a rabbit. The devil, they say, is in the details and Scherson has a sharp eye for the telling minutiae and everyday surrealism of Santiago's streets. Moments and objects carry a charge that has little to do with plot, or perhaps are the plot."
My final agreement with Scheib is that Play "has less to do with romance than with class and how the other half lives" but Play's "all-pervasive class consciousness manages to be both gently empathetic and wickedly ironic."