‘Natural Disasters’ (‘Desastres Naturales’): Film Review

Natural Disasters - H 2015

Natural Disasters - H 2015

Classroom power-politics, done with wit and charm

Chilean Bernard Quesnay's third outing features a high-profile writer and cast

A witty, lively and fresh exploration of the complex web of power relations at work in rural Chilean high school, Natural Disasters is small-scale filmmaking that thinks big. Gentle and biting at the same time, this thought-provoking, wide-rippling item about a fired teacher who refuses to retire is the perfect story through which to deliver a reflection on authority and power, and though lacking in dramatic highs and lows and sometimes over-schematic, it's always rewarding.

Bernardo Quesnay's third film (he's still in his mid-20s) was co-written with Pedro Peirano, also the writer of two of Chile’s recent higher-profile projects, Sebastian Silva’s The Maid and Pablo Larrain’s Oscar nominee No. Its quality means it can stand the comparison. Disasters deserves to be added to the lengthening list of Chilean movies which have made an impact on the international festival circuit.

In black and white, an elderly teacher, Raquel (Ana Reeves) strides across fields and into a schoolroom where, disconcertingly to the students, another class should be taking place. Despite the protests of the class rep, Diego (Sebastian Ayala), Raquel insists on teaching anyway. It transpires that she has turned up in protest at her unfair dismissal by the director, Valentina (Catalina Saavedra).

After the regular teacher, Manuela (Fernanda Toledo) is 'kidnapped' by the students, the film becomes a showdown between them and Valentina, who is desperate to close the issue down before the school governors arrive for an afternoon performance of The Tempest.

But things spiral out of control. Fired up by the Save Raquel's Job campaign, orchestrated from the schoolroom by the rebellious, significantly-named Caesaria (Montserrat Ballerin), the students' inner animals take over and they begin their wild destruction of the premises. Even the arrival of Raquel's daughter Lucia (Amparo Noguera) will do nothing to halt the process.

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The film directly addresses issues and abuses specific to the Chilean educational system and indirectly tackles Chilean history and politics, but its appeal for international audiences is in its witty general depiction of the push and pull of power and authority -- ideas which can be extrapolated to any number of situations. Who holds sway here? Raquel, who has the support of the students/the people? The director, who has the institution behind her? Cesarea, who represents the future, but who may be turning the situation to her own advantage?

Visually, the film's mostly from-the-shoulder lensing shuttles between the cramped interior of the schoolroom and the world outside, sometimes moving beyond the grounds to abandoned buildings where an unspecified Terrible Event has previously taken place -- perhaps a cruelly put-down student rebellion like the one we're witnessing. Scenes set here are rich in political metaphor, as are the attractively surreal shots, more formally-composed shots of the sheep and deer roaming around, but they work less well as drama.

All of which could easily come over as dry and abstract were it not for engaging, involving performances from a cross-section of the finest acting talent which Chile has to offer: Catalina Saavedra was the maid in Silva’s film, while Noguera was magnificent in Rodrigo Sepulveda’s recent Aurora. But it’s the veteran Ana Reeves who holds it all together, apparently befuddled as she peers over the top of her bifocals, but mentally razor-sharp and in control of things.

On the downside, it's hard to see why Valentina doesn't supply Raquel with crucial information earlier, except for a surprise payoff that depends on it, while liberal use of on-screen graphics reveal Quesnay's pop video heritage but adds little. Indie folk songs add a nice running commentary, while sudden blasts of orchestral strings are also wittily employed.

Production company: Rampante Cine, Americana Productions
Cast: Ana Reeves, Catalina Saavedra, Montserrat Ballarin, Sebastian Ayala, Fernanda Toledo, Paola Lattus, Amparo Noguera
Director: Bernardo Quesney
Screenwriters: Bernardo Quesney, Pedro Peirano
Executive producers: Eugenio Ramirez, Bernardo Quesney
Director of photography: Francisco Jullian
Production designer: Patricia Ahumada
Costume designer: Melisa Nicitich
Editor: Mayra Moran
Composer: Nua Orleans, Milton Mahan
Sales: Americana Productions
No rating, 75 minutes