Film Review: 'The Life of Fish,' Chile's Oscar Submission

A well-observed, at times poignant but often on-the-nose look at thirtysomething angst.

PALM SPRINGS -- A quiet study of the unbridgeable chasm between past and present, "The Life of Fish" is built upon the acute pangs of early-midlife regret.

Chile's foreign-language Oscar submission too often overstates the momentousness of its material, but its expatriate's-eye-view of old friends and old loves, unfolding at a party in an approximation of real time, achieves well-observed moments as it moves toward an affecting clincher.

Thirty-three-year-old writer Andres (Santiago Cabrera), briefly back in his hometown of Santiago after 10 years, is trying to extricate himself from a birthday gathering as the film opens. A single Berlin-based writer who travels the world, he's the envy of his friends, most of them married and raising families. But the screenplay by Julio Rojas and director Matias Bizemakes deft distinctions between the perceived glamour of his life and the reality of a less-than-imaginative working grind, with Andres cranking out cliches for tourist-targeted guidebooks.

The obvious point -- and all the film's points are pronounced, however subtle the performances -- is that Andres is something of a tourist in his own life. The film variously suggests, circles and zeros in on the reasons behind his rootlessness, as Barbara Alvarez's fluid handheld camera follows him through the labyrinth of the party. He listens to a pregnant wife's confessions, gently rebuffs the drunken come-ons of a friend's all-grown-up little sister and, in one of the strongest scenes, fields blunt questions about his sex life from a couple of videogame-playing tween boys.

But the heart of the matter are two rather more predictable backstory staples of such dramas: the death of a friend and the end of a romance. To its credit, the film maintains mystery about these elements and doesn't milk them for trite redemptive tears. When Andres and Bea (Blanca Lewin), the ex he's curious to see yet eager to avoid, break their years-long silence, they're both intimate and formal, the awkward conversation a warm-up to a climactic confrontation filled with accusation and hope.

There's a sense of time standing still, an aquarium-glass quality that serves the story to a point (and gives the film its name). With so much evident on the surface, though, and nerves tender from the get-go, the film's tension dwindles rather than builds, limiting the emotional yield of the long takes and tight close-ups -- with a couple of significant exceptions.

Like the character he plays, Cabrera (who appeared in Part One of Che) is a Chilean who has long lived elsewhere, and with his low-key good looks he convinces as an outsider looking in -- intelligent, reserved and grappling with a new self-awareness. Lewin is at once self-possessed and vulnerable, and Bize beautifully orchestrates a crucial wordless exchange to let the two actors convey a novel's worth of character insights.

Similarly effective is a scene in which emotions play across the faces of rapt listeners while a singer entertains the partiers. But elsewhere, Bize relies too heavily on the plangent score, and the dialogue, however spare, is often on-the-nose rather than evocative. 


Venue: Palm Springs International Film Festival
A Ceneca Producciones presentation in association with Cine Sur, ARTE France, Television Nacional de Chile and Cachoeira Films
Cast: Santiago Cabrera, Blanca Lewin, Antonia Zegers, Victor Montero, Sebastian Layseca, Juan Pablo Miranda
Director: Matias Bize
Screenwriters: Julio Rojas, Matias Bize
Producer: Adrian Solar
Director of photography: Barbara Alvarez
Art director: Nicole Blanc
Music: Diego Fontecilla
Editor: Javier Estevez
No MPAA rating, 83 minutes