One of the most atmospherically doom-laden works of this year's Miami International Film Festival has to be The Summer of Flying Fish. It's the first feature by Chilean director Marcela Said, whose filmography includes four feature documentaries that date back to 1999. Her documentary work has mostly focused on her home country and reveals an intense social conscience. With her fictional debut, Said still taps into her social awareness of class divisions but submerses it in a sly, low-key drama with a poetic visual narrative.
Francisco (Gregory Cohen), is a rich Chilean landowner vacationing with his family on his farmland at their modern, sprawling home nestled in a luscious forest. He has grown obsessed with eradicating an invasive species of carp from his expansive lagoon. Allusions to his frustration with the Mapuche natives are not coincidental.
The film's conscience is Francisco's 20-something daughter Manena (Francisca Walker). She has a slight rebellious streak. She smokes pot and jumps between relations with Lorca (Guillermo Lorca), a young painter of opulent realist paintings, and Pedro (Carlos Cayuqueo), an indigenous farmhand Francisco puts in charge of helping get rid of the fish. However, the heart of the drama lies between the daughter and father. Manena often chastises him for his reckless behavior toward the land and the people. He only shrugs and tells her to calm down. Yet a sense of a stark force beyond their control permeates the film.
The story unfolds dreamily, enhanced by the fog-drenched landscapes. Droning ambient music by Alexander Zekke often accompanies transitional images of the land, which also include brief but incredible mood scenes filled with mystery. In one of these scenes, a carp is dug up from the earth by probing sticks held by unseen hands. In another, the hand of an unknown intruder opens a gate to cut across Francisco's land.
The drama has a remote quality, informed by an awareness of the gulf between classes that feels incidental yet firmly rooted. During fireside chats over wine, the bourgeois farmer and his friends often complain and joke about the frustration of having to deal with land rights. But the key to the film's narrative lies in the camerawork. Cinematographer Inti Briones is an amazing talent who most recently dazzled with the late-great Raoul Ruiz on Night Across the Street and captured startling landscapes in The Loneliest Planet. Said uses him to great effect.
The director seems to prefer to keep the camera distant from the drama, often shooting characters in groups. With these shots, her concern to show relationships becomes vivid and literal, almost anti-melodramatic. For close-ups, she is more interested in lingering on objects than on the actors' faces. Briones, in turn, offers lyrical work, whether tracing details in the paintings by Lorca or lingering on the tiny details that reveal the make-up of the land and it's dark soil. By the same token, the filmmakers also present breathtaking landscapes often encased in the ever-present, eerie fog.
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When tragedy finally arrives, the helplessness Manena feels is augmented by a rather symbolic gesture as she immerses herself in the land for a final, beautifully shot image of her porcelain body in the shimmering lake. The Summer of Flying Fish is a subdued masterpiece that can only culminate in tragedy as it begs for conscience while reminding us we are all of the same earth.
Follow Hans Morgenstern on Twitter @HansMorgenstern.