If you're the kind of know-it-all film buff who predicts festival winners, you've probably already seen Bonsái, the Chilean film that took home the Knight Ibero-American Grand Jury Prize, the biggest honor (and biggest cash prize) at this year's Miami International Film Festival. But if, like most people, you didn't get the memo about Bonsái until the awards had been doled out, you're in luck. It's back in South Florida's art houses this week.
Adapted from a 2006 novel by Alejandro Zambra, Bonsái opens with a prophecy: "At the end of this film, Emilia dies, and Julio remains alone." Julio (Diego Noguera), it turns out, is a directionless literature student who grows up to be a directionless writer of half-finished novels and the occasional poem. His younger self falls into a relationship with fellow student Emilia (Natalia Galgani), which takes over his life the way young love tends to do, at least in the movies. Flash forward eight years, and Julio is sleeping with his neighbor Blanca (Trinidad González) in a passionless and, well, neighborly way. He also gets turned down for a job transcribing noteworthy novelist Gazmuri's (Hugo Medina) next book. But rather than tell Blanca he didn't get the job, he spends his days handwriting his own novel, based on one vague detail he learned about the book during the job interview: It's about a man who discovers his ex-lover has died. At night, he shares his work with Blanca as they work together to transcribe it. Naturally, Julio's novel tells the story of his failed relationship with Emilia.
The sad tale of the one who got away isn't a new premise, in film or any other artistic medium. But the way director Cristián Jiménez and his cast march stoically along the line between melodrama and dark humor adds a unique ambiance to the story. Noguera's performance, with his lanky build, awkward posture, and blank, deadpan stare adding much-needed levity to nearly every scene, has earned him comparisons to legendary silent film comic actor Buster Keaton — which is extra fitting, because Julio, compared to most lead characters in film, barely speaks at all.
His awkwardness is emphasized by Galgani; as Emilia, the love of his younger life, she's a dark ingénue of a manic pixie dream girl, with thick, silky bangs hanging in her wide, sullen eyes and a deep, feminine voice as smooth as a cello. You need only one hand to count the number of times the two of them smile in the entire hour and a half of the film. But aside from that, they display all the usual signs of young, artsy love: reading novels aloud to one another, making out in the library, ditching their roommate to have loud, passionate hipster sex. Rather than openly compliment each other, they mumble "blah, blah, blah" into each other's ears, a precious insider code for two people too cool to come out and say "I love you."
The moody drama of the pair's doomed love is right on the edge of obnoxiousness. But Jiménez breaks up the melodrama with darkly comic, awkward moments that are just understated enough to jolt us out of the spiral of despair.
Still, it's hard not to be frustrated, at times, at Julio's seeming inability to do something. Anything, really. Both younger and older versions of him are driven less by his own actions than by those of others — he's agreeable, sure, but also incredibly boring. His only skill, it seems, is fiction. In addition to pulling an entire novel out of his ass over the course of the story, he's also a liar; fibbing about having read Proust is the first thing he does in the film, and later he uses that same lie to impress Emilia. (There is also, of course, the extended charade of passing his own novel off as someone else's work to his neighbor.) Noguera's deadpan charisma gives Jorge a sympathetic bent, but the man never really strays into "likable" territory. Watching Bonsái, you're not so much rooting for a happy ending as you are watching a helpless insect get washed down the drain.
Of course, the movie is not really about long-lost love. It's about fate and action, the thin edge between fiction and reality, and how people are able to confuse the two until they become the same thing. Which is why when the prophecy at the film's end is fulfilled, and Noguera finally lets a tiny show of emotion break across his unchanging face, we're treated to an a-ha moment that makes up for all of the film's earlier faults.