'The Strong Ones' ('Los fuertes'): Film Review

The Strong Ones - Los fuertes
A kind of rural Chilean 'Weekend.'

Samuel Gonzalez and Antonio Altamirano headline Chilean filmmaker Omar Zuniga's feature debut, which was inspired by his award-winning short 'San Cristobal.'

Two unmoored men in the chilly Chilean boondocks find warmth and solace in each other in The Strong Ones (Los Fuertes), the impressive feature debut from writer-director Omar Zuniga. The film explores the same world and characters as Zuniga’s short San Cristobal, which won the Teddy for best LGBTQ short at the 2015 Berlinale. And the transition from short to feature feels seamless.

The Strong Ones’ unforced naturalism and sense of intimate authenticity have made it a queer festival darling: The film picked up awards in Philadelphia, Atlanta, Rochester, at Outfest in L.A. and in Florida, where it netted not only the Best Narrative Feature prize at the OutShine fest but was named Best Foreign Language Film by the Florida Film Critics Circle. Distributor Breaking Glass Pictures is releasing the film stateside on VOD and DVD on Jan. 19.

Lucas (Samuel Gonzalez), whose scruffy stubble and twinkle in his eye suggest he’s a playful, easygoing type at heart, has sold his stuff and left Santiago. He’s about to embark on a postgraduate course in architecture in Montreal. But before heading to Canada, he’s come down to Niebla, a foggy — as the name suggests — fishing village in the Valdivida area about 500 miles south. He's to stay for a few days with his dentist sister Catalina (Marcela Salinas) and her husband Martin (Rafael Contreras) before leaving.

Though there’s quite a lot of affection between the siblings, their reunion isn’t exactly a happy one. In an economically sketched yet fully felt subplot, Catalina seems to be going through a rough patch with her hubby. And from several phone calls, it emerges Lucas and his parents aren’t on speaking terms. It is never quite named, but it’s clear that their lack of acceptance of his sexual orientation is to blame. Perhaps even Lucas’ decision to leave the country has been at least partially influenced by this as well.

It also seems to be a very unwelcoming and humid fall season. The beating rain on the roof, the occasional electrical blackout and all the soggy mud outside Catalina and Martin’s modest home become metaphors for the provincial quagmire in which the characters find themselves. But just when you’re starting to wonder why anyone would want to live in a place like this, enter the grandson of Catalina’s domestic help (Gabriela Fernandez), the quiet but steely Antonio (Antonio Altamirano). The boatswain on a local sardines-fishing vessel couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. He even participates in re-enactments of events from the Chilean War of Independence staged at a historic seaside fort (the film’s Spanish title can refer to both “forts” and “strong people”). With a head of playful dark curls and an Errol-Flynn-but-hipster mustache, he immediately catches Lucas’ attention.

The two men take an instant liking to each other and slowly the sun occasionally starts to come out — at least metaphorically speaking. Their spontaneous first kiss takes place in a parked car at night. The only available light seeping into the vehicle is a fiery red, almost literally setting the moment ablaze. Zuniga has a real knack for taking everyday elements, such as red taillights or a tea kettle on a stove, and transforming them into objects that help tell the story visually or aurally. The kettle plays a major role in the couple’s first visit to Antonio’s dwelling, as the two, finally alone, can’t keep their hands off each other while they wait for the water to boil. The resulting build-up to the whistling of the kettle makes the mounting pressure of their mutual desire clearly audible. It also offers the characters something to chuckle about as the boiling water requires a measure of attention they’ve firmly invested elsewhere.

There are a few moments when Zuniga risks over-egging the pudding, like when the two lovers dance, morning tea in hand, to a version of Paulina Rubio’s Ese hombre es mio (“That Man is Mine”), a rather on-the-nose title. And the film’s narrative trajectory isn’t exactly surprising, as the queer-strangers-meet template is, of course, familiar from films such as Andrew Haigh’s Weekend. As in that film, there’s even the pressure-cooker detail of one of the men having to leave the country very soon.

But besides the casually sensual presence and incredibly lived-in performances from Gonzalez and Altamirano — both fully in tune with each other and with the relaxed naturalism of the material — it is Zuniga’s eye for telling everyday detail that makes the work stand out. We never see or hear anything about Lucas’ backstory, for example, but from the way he puts on his underwear in the middle of the night after they’ve made love for the first time, it’s clear he’s used to one-night stands.

Similarly, it becomes clear from both behavior and oblique references in the dialogue that there seem to be different levels of acceptance in Chilean society for gay relationships — and differences between the city and the countryside. But  Zuniga ensures the sociopolitical backdrop remains just that, a backdrop to an intense love story atop a ticking time bomb. Will they be strong enough to choose each other? Or would the stronger option be to enjoy their unexpected romance while it lasts and then move on to trying to make their bigger ideas for their future a reality (Lucas becoming an architect and Antonio owning his own fishing vessel)?

While the characters ponder their options, to the viewer it becomes clear that the fact that society, religion or conventional morality aren’t immediately dictating what the protagonists do has to at least be seen as some kind of progress. 

Production companies: Cinestacion, Terranova
Cast: Samuel Gonzalez, Antonio Altamirano, Marcela Salinas, Rafael Contreras, Nicolas Corales, Luis Montoya, Gabriela Fernandez
Writer-Director: Omar Zuniga
Producers: Omar Zuniga, Jose Luis Rivas
Executive producers: Dominga Sotomayor, Josemaria Naranjo
Cinematography: Nicolas Ibieta
Production design: Nicolas Oyarte
Costume design: Consuela Fernandez
Editing: Catalina Marin, Omar Zuniga
Music: Sokio
Casting: Jorge Quagliaroli
Sales: Meikincine Entertainment

In Chilean Spanish
No rating, 98 minutes