The Magnetic Tree (El arbol magnetico): San Sebastian Review

Though continually under threat from its long-windedness, the film´s sensitivity and perception eventually cut through.

Spaniard Isabel Ayguavives debuts with an intimate portrait of an extended Chilean family.

Like watching a movie length home video of a stranger's family, The Magnetic Tree, Isabel Ayguavives’ part-celebration and part-critique of family life, is sometimes too slow and sometimes eyeball-rolling dull. But luckily, the fact this is an interesting family makes it often rewarding. Lively and intimate, it's a film made by someone whose interest in and compassion for her people is deep and forgiving to the extent that she's afraid to make them shut up on the viewer's behalf. It therefore strikes home more by accident than design, but the human sympathy that underlies it, and its thoughtful presentation, in its final stretch of generations unknowingly at war with one another make this a solid debut deserving of further festival play beyond Spanish-speaking territories.

Only a few of the vast cast of characters are allowed fully to emerge. Mother Carla (Catalina Saavedra, best known abroad for Sebastian Silva’s The Maid), amusing, shambolic father Diego (Gonzalo Robles) and their daughter Marianela (Manuela Martelli) are preparing for the return of Marianela's cousin Bruno (Spanish actor Andres Gertrudix, hence Bruno´s convenient loss of his Chilean accent) from Germany for a gathering to celebrate their moving away from the old family home. The characters are set up quickly enough, but Ayguavives seems to want to record, almost like unedited documentary, the totality of what they say so that the dynamics of their highly typical family life are rendered too fully.

With the arrival of Bruno, they all head out for a spot of duck shooting before Bruno suggests that they visit a spot he remembers from his childhood -- a magnetic tree with the power to pull a parked car towards it. The scene provides a welcome, poetic moment of magical realism in a film whose focus is otherwise entirely on the family and what they say: the film's very title has surely come from Ayguavives' understanding that such strange and special tree would make a tidy metaphor for a reunited family.

Following that, the wider family joins them for the rest of the day. Two characters stand out; a tubby bespectacled kid who refuses to do as he's told and the aging, matriarchal grandmother (Ruth Omemcke), apparently magnificently passive, but in fact perfectly aware of what's going on. Other characters, on first viewing at least, blur into one another.

The second half of the film is effectively a commentary on the first, as the relentless celebratory tone of the gathering gives way to a darker view and the youngsters take control of the story. It emerges from heated conversations between Marianela, Bruno and Javier, that Ayguavives is exploring the different perceptions of family across the generations, and that seen from the younger generation's perspective, families are both a blessing and a curse, creating dependencies from which it’s hard to break free. Bruno has done so, but the price is that he must live thousands of miles away. Javier has not been able to, and for him the family is a cage.

There is a point at which the dialogues are little more than an overwhelming babble as the characters reminisce and bicker, and it could all have done with more shaping. The babble may be realistic, and the point may be that families survive precisely by employing language to conceal  significant communication, but if so, it’s rammed home just too hard.

Performances are good, and though there are too many people talking too much, there’s no doubt that Ayguavives really understands both them and what the family has done to them. The nostalgic sense of place which is so important to her purpose is superbly rendered by d.p. Alberto D. Centeno, using rural locations to enchanting effect, with the whole subtly underscored by Nico Casal´s plaintive, minimal score.

Production: DOS35, Parox
Cast: Manuela Martelli, Andres Gertrudix, Catalina Saavedra, Gonzalo Robles, Juan Pablo Larenas, Edgardo Bruna, Ximena Rivas, Ruth Omemck
Director, screenwriter: Isabel Ayguavives
Producers: Rafael Alvarez, Nacho Monge, Sergio Gandara, Leonora Gonzalez
Director of photography: Alberto D. Centeno
Production designer: Soledad Morales
Costume Designer: Carola Reis
Editor: Jose Manuel Jimenez
Music: Nico Casal
Sales: DOS35 Producciones
No rating, 85 minutes