THE STORY – María Margarita is the youngest of four siblings in a family living in a mining town in the Atacama Desert (Chile). The most special time of the week for this family is Sunday, when they all go to the movies to enjoy stories that let them escape their everyday lives by transporting them to other worlds. The girl’s parents soon realize that the little girl has a very special gift: an almost uncanny ability to recount movies. The girl’s extraordinary talent will spread throughout the village, changing the fortunes of her family as the country is transformed forever.
THE CAST – Bérénice Bejo, Antonio de la Torre, Daniel Brühl, Sara Becker & Alondra Valenzuela
THE TEAM – Lone Scherfig (Director), Rafa Russo, Walter Salles & Isabel Coixet (Writers)
THE RUNNING TIME – 116 Minutes
In Chile’s Atacama Desert, the air is as dry as a bone. There’s not much for young people to do in the town that has been built up around one of the area’s salt mines. Young María Margarita (Alondra Valenzuela) and her three brothers live for one day a week when their miner father, Medardo (Antonio de La Torre), and beautiful mother, María Magnolia (Bérénice Bejo), take them all out to the movies. When Medardo suffers a debilitating injury, the family’s finances suffer so much that they decide to send one of the children each week, and they will tell everyone what happened in the movie afterward. The boys are terrible at this, but it turns out that María Margarita has a gift for it, and eventually takes on the mantle of Rita Valentina, “The Movie Teller,” charging a small fee for their neighbors to sit in their backyard and watch her reenactments of the town’s weekly film. There’s only so much hardship a person can take, though, and one day, María Margarita and her brothers come home to find that their mother has left. Years pass, and the teenage María Margarita (Sara Becker) finds herself at a crossroads when television comes along and takes her audience away. What will become of her and her family? And what has become of her mother?
From its opening moments, Fernando Veláqzquez’s score tells you exactly what kind of film this is going to be, with guitar strings being plucked just like the film hopes to pluck the audience’s heartstrings. Thankfully, director Lone Scherfig understands how to leaven that heartwarming sweetness with bitterness, keeping the film’s tone bittersweet. She also understands how to create a sense of place, suffusing the whole film with the dry, arid heat of the desert in which the story takes place. Our characters’ environment is harsh, and so is their life, but the cinema is their oasis. The scenes when the family watches movies together – whether in the theater or at home watching María Margarita – are full to bursting with movie love and no small amount of movie magic all their own. Even if you weren’t already a fan of the movies, it’s nearly impossible not to fall in love with them through the eyes of this immensely lovable family. The staging is so clever, and Valenzuela’s performance is so charming that you can feel the cinephilic love even when María Margarita is acting out the films.
As genuinely heartwarming as those scenes are, though, the film’s warmth and generosity of spirit are best exemplified by the central family. Each family member is given one defining character trait that feels like clichés: one brother has a lisp, one is only interested in girls, and one is a science whiz. Somehow, though, every character ends up feeling specific to this story and not at all like a stock character because the relationships between them are so well-drawn. Everyone’s relationships are slightly different from each other, and the way they interact makes it feel like we are watching scenes from a real family. Even after María Magnolia leaves and we skip forward in time, the transition to older actors feels seamless. Even though the kids are older, they’re all instantly recognizable because of how smartly the characters are written and how good the casting is. The entire cast is excellent, but Becker and Valenzuela are just remarkable, giving star-making performances of open-hearted vulnerability and wisdom beyond their years. Becker has the difficult job of carrying the film once Bejo is gone, a tall order for anyone given the tremendous screen presence of the Oscar-nominated actress (for “The Artist“). Bejo is sublime here, using her otherworldly poise and period-perfect beauty to hide the ache in María Magnolia’s heart that only grows when the family’s troubles begin. Bejo is so good that even though it’s not surprising when María Magnolia leaves, it still feels like a knife to the heart – she was clearly unhappy and waiting for the moment when she knew that her family would be okay without her, but it’s still a cruel thing to do, and the film understands this, letting her absence hang over the film’s second half like a shroud.
The film’s first two-thirds promise a heartbreaking wallop of an ending. Still, the screenplay (adapted by Isabel Coixet, Rafa Russo, and Walter Salles from Hernán Rivera Letelier’s novel) doesn’t make good on that promise, instead becoming a wistful memory play as it rushes through wrapping up storylines for every single character in its last act. What has heretofore been one of the film’s greatest assets, its tonal control, becomes its biggest hindrance at the end, keeping everything restrained and denying proper emotional closure to the audience. This is in line with what is in store for the characters, as well, as their lives pointedly do not follow the arcs of the Hollywood movies that they love so much. Unfortunately, the film decides to end less as the saga of this one family and more as a tribute to the strength of those who built and lived in these desert mining towns. It is a worthy idea, to be sure, but one that feels miscalculated given that we are so connected to this one particular family throughout the rest of the film. This focus shift gives the film a lot of ground to cover in its last twenty minutes, and it ends up feeling like the rare film that could have used another ten minutes or so to really bring its final message home. As it is, the film feels unbalanced, which is sad, given how wonderfully it starts and how beautifully it controls its emotions. That first half, though, is magical, as wonderful a testament to the magic of the movies as you’re likely to see this year.