Young directors like Cristián Jiménez are proof that cinema is alive and well in Chile, and Latin America in general. "Bonsái" may only be the second feature directed and scripted by Jiménez, but his ambitiousness is already plain to see.
Delightfully, like some of the very best films from the French New Wave, Bonsái can be appreciated at different levels. You could simply choose to follow the storyline for what it is - at face value, it is a slow but engaging film, with deadpan humour and a sense of irony. Or you may want to delve a bit deeper, and rejoice at its intricate juxtaposition of timelines, not only to make a connection with the film's cryptic title, but also the psychology of human relationships seen through the words of Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time, and interpreted by Alejandro Zambra, upon whose novel the film is based. It's ultimately about the protagonist's existential angst - portrayed in not as much the intensity of an Antonioni, but perhaps, a less talkative Woody Allen, if there could be one.
Relying on the storyline can have its shortcomings too - especially if it is undermined at the very outset through an explicit spoiler, when the narrator says, "At the end of the film - Emilia dies, and Julio doesn't die. The rest, is fiction." Set in parallel time frames, eight years apart, we witness Julio (Diego Noguera), first as a literature undergraduate, and later as a wannabe writer, not only fumbling through life like everybody else, but also indecisive due to his fear of making mistakes, even if he may claim otherwise. He's nevertheless knowledgeable, and appreciates the virtues of failure when he admits to Blanca (Trinidad González), a neighbour and some-time lover, "...failure is underestimated." As befitting his character, Julio becomes a writer only through chance. He is initially offered the job of transcribing a manuscript, but when the novelist changes his mind after finding a cheaper hand, Julio pretends to Blanca that he's still working with the novelist, and forges a manuscript of his own creation, using episodes of his youth spent with his girlfriend from college Emilia (Nathalia Galgani), as his material. He wouldn't have ventured into writing a book otherwise. But by writing, he will discover the reason his relationship with Emilia ended, and also the depth in Proust's words, which he had read aloud on several occasions, albeit casually, while in bed with Emilia...
The film uses the hand-crafted appeal of a bonsai tree as metaphor to subtly illustrate the protagonist's nature of projecting an image of himself that isn't strictly true - just as a bonsai is shaped into form by mimicking the effects of a particular climate, his social interactions too were based upon well intentioned 'lies'. Whether it is in claiming to have read Proust's works, which helps him get close to an attractive classmate, or in pretending to transcribe the manuscript of a famous novelist, in order to retain his neighbour's interest, Julio's pretensions, while trying to please others, has stunted his own personality. He remains a bonsai so long as he is rooted to his insecurities, constrained by invisible strings that prevent his relationships from flourishing.
TR: One of the ways director Jiménez succeeds with the film, is in the manner in which he recalls events from eight years past using selective memory - details are either ignored, or left unsaid, giving the viewer the luxury of filling in the blanks. There is very little film wasted by Jiménez in conveying his message, and there's a purpose behind every scene and chapter shown. The performances by the small but dedicated cast is also exceptional, and aided by the ingeniuty of Alejandro Zambra's novel and Cristián Jiménez's screenplay, the film is Highly Recommended Viewing..!
Amazon DVD Link
The Nudity: Trinidad González, Nathalia Galgani, Gabriela Arancibia, and Diego Noguera
The film features some beautifully shot, tasteful scenes of nudity while observing Julio (Diego Noguera) and his interactions with college girlfriend Emilia (Nathalia Galgani), present-day neighbour Blanca (Trinidad González), and Emilia's close friend and flatmate Bárbara (Gabriela Aranciba).