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The parents of a recently deceased 4-year-old struggle to make sense of their lives together in The Memory of Water (La memoria del agua), the fifth feature from Chilean director Matias Bize (The Life of Fish, In Bed). Though abandoning his trademark stories told in real-time for a narrative that unfolds over several months, Water is still a reflective and a deeply affecting feature that again benefits from Bize and co-screenwriter Julio Rojas’s emotionally limpid dialogues, which are brought to stirring, even heartbreaking life by Spanish actress Elena Anaya (The Skin I Live In) and local star Benjamin Vicuña (Chef’s Special, Drama). Again playing in the Venice fest’s Venice Days sidebar, where The Life of Fish emerged as the breakout title of 2010, his latest should further consolidate Bize’s reputation as one of the most talented chroniclers of the emotionally volatile lives of Chile’s common men and women.
“It’s horrible but I can’t look at you,” says Amanda (Anaya) to her partner, Javier (Vicuña), while fiddling with the cover of their home’s swimming pool. She has decided she needs to leave and tells him he “should cry.” Shot by cinematographer Arnaldo Rodriguez with a slightly nervy twitch and edited by Valeria Hernandez in a staccato rhythm, this opening throws audiences straight into the messy aftermath of a major disaster in their lives while they, like the protagonists, struggle to find their bearings. What’s noteworthy is that the image and sound cues all suggest something terrible has happened but that the conversations are almost sotto voce, as if what’s happened was so big in magnitude it has left both of them dazed, incapable of anger.
Why does Amanda want to leave and is Javier clearly in need of her? A chilling upward tilt of one of their indoor walls explains everything wordlessly: The height of a child is marked in different colors up until the age of four, with the camera mercilessly panning further up after that, showing just a blank, white wall.
Bize keeps not only the fatal pool accident that killed their 4-year-old son, Pedro, off-screen but never shows any kind of representation of Pedro. And because he has no face, his absence is transformed into a kind of spectral presence, which is clearly driving a wedge between Amanda, who recognizes her dead son’s face in Javier’s and can’t deal with that, and Javier, who needs the support of his partner (and Pedro’s mother), to overcome the loss.
Like in his previous features, Bize is a master at using small details to illustrate larger problems, often using only very few words. “I still buy soy milk,” confesses Javier for example, suggesting that he’s not rationally capable yet of giving up old habits associated with Pedro. “I kinda like it now,” the bereaved Dad continues, pointing to a possibility he might be looking for a connection with his dead son. It would be an almost touching moment if it weren’t for the next shot, in which Javier violently throws soy milk cartons to the floor, suggesting his connection to Pedro’s milk isn’t so trouble-free after all. In the space of not even a minute and using something as commonplace as soy milk (though the link between milk and parenthood is right there for the taking), Bize incisively illustrates the oft-conflicting emotions a grieving parent might go through. In a pleasingly unifying turn, liquids play a large role throughout, as does snow.
Though the film is clearly an intimate character drama, Bize uses interactions with a small cast of supporting characters to explore ideas such as the home as a place of memories or the depressing notion that even a parent can never know everything about their child. But the focus is squarely on Javier, an architect, and, to a lesser extent his Spanish interpreter partner, Amanda, with the narrative not entirely on an even keel, occasionally cleaving closer to his rather than her point of view. A couple of occurrences also flirt with a bluntness that’s not typical of Bize’s cinema, including a scene in which Amanda has to translate the medical technicalities of drowning at a doctors’ congress and another in which Javier has to buy a present for the child of a friend who’s also a four-year-old boy. Both events feel more like facile writing shortcuts than occurrences that might have reasonably happened in real life.
Thankfully, Anaya and Vicuña, both also credited as co-producers, deliver two emotionally potent performances that help overcome the film’s few weaknesses, with local audiences no-doubt closely watching Vicuña, who lost his own 6-year-old daughter with well-known Argentinean model Pampita in 2012 (the South American press was reportedly in a collective shock). But his presence here hardly qualifies as stunt casting, with Vicuña and his on-screen “non-partner” Anaya, both in their first film with Bize, delivering carefully calibrated, hushed yet emotionally rich work throughout.
Their final confrontation, in a wintry forest, is one of the film’s highlights and feels like vintage Bize, with the couple’s minutes-long conversation — which touches on Pedro’s innocence, everyone’s guilt and how being together again would erase Pedro’s existence — unspooling in a sequence of tight shots and reverse shots that underlines the couple’s separate points of view before cutting to a medium two-shot in which the two dark-haired parents face each other, with their wiry figures in black coats almost blending into the background of leafless trees, as if they too had become spectral presences.
Production companies: Ceneca Producciones, Potenza Producciones, Sudestada Cine, Niko Film
Cast: Elena Anaya, Benjamin Vicuña, Nestor Cantillana, Sergio Hernandez, Silvia Marty, Antonia Zegers, Pablo Cerda
Director: Matias Bize
Screenplay: Julio Rojas, Matias Bize
Producers: Adrian Solar
Co-producers: Carlo D’Ursi, Ignacio Rey, Nicole Gerhards, Elena Anaya, Benjamin Vicuña
Director of photography: Arnaldo Rodriguez
Production designer: Sebastian Olivari
Costume designer: Pamela Chamorro
Editor: Valeria Hernandez
Sales: Global Screen
No rating, 86 minutes
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