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In And Suddenly the Dawn, an aging writer returns to his birthplace in search of inspiration for a book and ends up learning more than he bargained for. But such a bare-bones summary does little justice to this baggy monster of a movie. This is old-fashioned, ambitious storytelling that almost inevitably makes for uneven viewing, but there’s enough of life’s unquenchable variety on display here to make the experience, which lasts more than three hours, more than worthwhile. The pic may struggle to match its noble intentions, but its sincere and impassioned attempt to embody the struggles of a nation make it a worthy foreign-language Oscar entry for Chile.
Dawn shuttles back and forth between three different periods: the present; the 1960s and 1970s; and the narrator’s childhood in the 1940s. Pancho (Julio Jung), also known as “the Penguin” on account of his flat feet, returns to the Patagonian island of Chiloe from the capital after 40 years away. He will spend his time there in the company of his childhood friend, the irrepressible life force Miguel (Sergio Hernandez), who sadly accuses Pancho of returning only in search of inspiration, and Luciano (Arnaldo Berrios), a dying former mime artist. Back in the ’40s, the three were members of a kid gang that also included Rosita (Magdalena Muller).
The flashbacks to the childhood of the three, questionably often shot in softer focus, set up a kind of mythology, one that has colored the lives of the men ever since. It includes a woman called La Loca, whose house the gang are scared to enter, but who Pancho will finally visit many years later, and an old tramp who somewhat improbably lives inside a tree trunk, but who at least teaches the young Pancho a valuable life lesson that could have served as the film’s epigraph — “The only truth is that you have to save your skin.”
The middle period features Pancho (here played by Mauricio Riveras) as he deals with his alcoholic, violent father (Nelson Brodt) and negotiates the emotions involved in falling in love with Rosita. The mid-period Rosita is symptomatic of one of the film’s failings, which is in its defiantly non-PC, largely cursory treatment of its women: Why Pancho would fall so heavily for the bland Rosita is never explained, despite its crucial importance to the events of the last hour. These events, inevitably, are centered around the military coup of 1973, when many were “disappeared” from their homes, while others, like Pancho, were forced into exile.
There is a literary depth and complexity to the script. Symbols are carefully set up and run throughout as echoes, while the dramatic and emotional throughlines connecting the time periods are dutifully attended to; the film rarely falls victim to the crime of implausibility. As Dawn’s three-hour-plus running time suggests, it never feels hurried, never rushing to tell its story, and it is prepared to take its time over its character work. Space is found for several memorable, large-scale set pieces, such as the 100th birthday party of Don Olegario, during which everyone, as Pancho reminds us, dances to the same beat.
But on the smaller scale, the film sometimes suffers. One especially telling scene early on has Pancho calling on a house and speaking Mapuche to the indigenous owner. Initially welcoming, the owner turns unfriendly when Pancho reveals that he knows only a few words of the language. Times, in other words, have changed, and that tiny, true exchange, with ripples that extend far and wide into Latin American culture, has a subtlety which Dawn too often sacrifices to its range.
That said, the film rarely feels self-indulgent. Although several scenes are over-extended, every one earns its keep. The scenes that do run too long often involve the ’60s and ’70s Pancho, whose reputation as a wordsmith make him responsible for writing the epitaphs on the tombstones and whose self-consciously elevated poetic tone later becomes as wearisome as his art house moustache. One scene involves Pancho trying to save Rosita from her marriage to a soldier by unilaterally deciding that he and Rosita should have a baby. He then jumps in through the window and commits rape by any other name, a strategy that’s hardly guaranteed to awaken viewer sympathy for his plight.
Performances by the three vets at its heart are terrific, with Hernandez, whom audiences will remember as the love interest in Sebastian Lelio’s multi-garlanded Gloria, a standout (Miguel’s younger self, played by Diego Pizarro) is up to the job). The jowly, heavy-lidded Jung, whose general bearing is as fruity and rich as his guttural delivery, is a stalwart of Caiozzi’s and a quieter counterpoint to Hernandez’s hyperactivity. There are moments of comedy in their exchanges (to add to the slightly tiresome running joke about the phone calls Pancho receives from his wife) that the script could have exploited more. This is the kind of film with a teeming list of secondaries, which range from the memorable (Anita Reeves as Dona Maruja, the madame of the town brothel) to the confusing and forgettable.
There is a lot of voiceover in Dawn, as Pancho reads from the book he’s writing. Miraculously, it becomes tiresome only once, because both Caiozzi and Jaime Casas, whose work is the source of much of the material, are excellent writers. Things are only let down when Pancho tries writing about his first sexual experience with Rosita, a few seconds of unintended hilarity involving phrases like “his hands were scorpions,” “thirsty cat” and “hurt panther.” And perhaps the older Pancho is too seduced by the power of his prose to spare a single thought for the young soldier who at one point saves his life.
One indicator of the effort spent on mounting the production is that effectively the village where the shoot was originally intended to take place was in too tumbledown a state, meaning it had to be entirely rebuilt in a different place. Corresponding effort has been made on the photography. Like all of Caiozzi’s work a visual homage to its location, Dawn is sumptuously shot, on this occasion by Nelson Fuentes, with flocks of birds rising over the shimmering lakes of Chile to often magically lit effect.
Another of the film’s beautiful things, its title, is really explained only by its final image, an uplifting one of the sun rising over the ocean where, 70 years earlier, Pancho went fishing with his grandfather in the pic’s first scene. It shows, whether we’re talking about ourselves or our country, that only by tackling the issues of the past can we really hope for redemption and rebirth. These are big, loaded words, and it is to Caiozzi’s credit that his film, despite its failings, has been conceived and made on a scale appropriate to the loftiness of its themes.
Production company: Andrea Films International
Cast: Julio Jung, Sergio Hernandez, Nelson Brodt, Pedro Vicuna, Arnaldo Berrios, Diego Pizarro, Mauricio Riveros, Magdalena Muller
Director-screenwriter: Silvio Caiozzi, based on works by Jaime Casas
Producers: Guadalupe Bornand, Silvio Caoizzi
Executive producer: Edgardo Viereck
Director of photography: Nelson Fuentes
Art directors: Guadalupe Bornand, Valentina Caiozzi
Costume designer: Luis Yanez
Editor: Silvio Caiozzi
Composer: Valentina Caiozzi, Luis Advis
Casting director: Andres Pena
Sales: Turn Key Films
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