Illiterate (Las analfabetas): Venice Review

The Illiterate Venice Film Festival Still - H 2013

The Illiterate Venice Film Festival Still - H 2013

A richly layered but frustratingly indirect take on illiteracy in all its forms, played out through the fascinatingly awkward relationship between two women.

Starring Berlin award-winning actress Paulina Garcia, Moises Sepulveda’s two-hander brings Critics Week to a quietly thoughtful close.

Full of meanings that reverberate way beyond the small room in which it’s mostly set, Chilean debutante Moises Sepulveda’s Illiterate is a richly metaphorical and emotionally subtle two-hander about the painful efforts of a middle-aged woman learning how to read. Partly scripted by Pablo Paredes from his own play and magnificently performed by actresses hired from the stage version, the film paradoxically feels both overlong, due to its occasional longueurs, and too short, in that more detail about this engagingly odd couple could have given it more dramatic vividness and heft. But Garcia’s reputation and the film’s attractive concept should nevertheless combine to generate festival and art house interest.

Ximena (vet Paulina Garcia, who got the Berlin nod for best actress this year for her leading role in Sebastian Leilo’s Gloria) lives alone in her shabby apartment, smoking incessantly, tending to her garden and listening to the radio. She is surprised by a visit from Jackeline (Valentina Muhr), young enough to be her daughter, who offers to read out newspaper stories to the illiterate Ximena: Jackeline offers to carry on her mother’s job, and somewhat reluctantly Ximena agrees, although her cockiness toward Jackeline is a poor mask for her insecurity.

What little plot there is turns when we learn that Ximena has kept a letter from the father who abandoned her, which she has never read -- implausibly but significantly, her shame at not being able to read has kept her from ever asking anyone to read it to her. Jackeline takes on the task of teaching Ximena how to read, an act of empowerment with which Ximena feels uncomfortable. They enter into a slightly uneasy relationship, the film’s backbone, each instinctively sensing and responding to the other’s isolation as the naturally suspicious Ximena overcomes her insecurities and learns to properly interpret the younger woman’s intentions.

The film’s Spanish title is in the plural, suggesting that it’s dealing with more than just Ximena’s specific problem. Jackeline is a frustrated teacher who has not been able to find a job, but her passion for teaching suggests that the educational system unable to find a place for her may be the real illiterates of the story. The poignant final scene suggests that perhaps Chile as a whole has been backward about “reading” its own troubled history.

The film’s dramatic effects depend almost exclusively on the nuanced shifts in the relationship between the two women, captured in intimate close up by DP Arnaldo Rodriguez. Garcia and the compelling, sad-eyed Muhr do full justice to it, though the occasional histrionic moment from Garcia seems to be a leftover from the stage production. Each actress is given one overstated, big let-it-all-out speech in which her emotional damage comes explicitly to the surface. Both these monologues come unexpectedly and feel out of character, as though the script had suddenly decided to sacrifice credibility in order to make way for some dramatic variety.

Cristobal Carvajal’s score uses xylophone, guitar and double bass to good effect, but it is slightly overemployed. Widescreen photography brings a touch of extra space to the claustrophic surroundings of Ximena’s cluttered home. Naturally enough, Paredes has felt the need to get her out of the house, but street scenes of Ximena awkwardly interacting with passers-by add little, apart from one wonderful moment of wry comedy in the final stretch.

Production companies: Planta, Kine Imagenes, La Ventura, Provincianos Films
Cast: Paulina Garcia, Valentina Muhr
Director: Moises Sepulveda
Screenwriter: Pablo Paredes, Moises Sepulveda (adapted from a play by Paredes)
Producer: Fernando Bascunan, Florencia Larrea, Alicia Scherson
Director of photography: Arnaldo Rodriguez
Production designer: Nicole Guzman
Music: Cristobal Carvajal
Costume designer: Muriel Parra
Editor: Rodrigo Fernandez
Sales Agent: Habanero Film Sales
No rating, 73 minutes.