The Quispe Girls (Las ninas Quispe): Venice Review

A searching, unsettling and absolutely engrossing depiction of extraordinary lives being lived under the threat of extinction.

A tragic footnote in Chilean history plays out in remote surroundings in Sebastian Sepulveda’s feature debut.

“There is no one, anywhere,” mutters one of the three goatherd sisters in The Quispe Girls. “They have all gone.” A deceptively simple rural drama about a family tragedy set in the isolated Chilean wilds, the film ripples with universal meanings, its bleak austerity spilling over into the authentically tragic. A thoroughly unsentimental study of the passing of a way of life and of the people who lived that life, Sebastian Sepulveda’s beautifully written, played and shot feature debut is as dark, pure and bleak as the lives of its subjects, so it’s unlikely to warm viewers’ hearts. But the remarkable nature of the story it tells and its striking aesthetics should guarantee it an extended festival life.
The film is based on events dating back to 1974, and as a study of social isolation, it has much in common with Sepulveda’s documentary O Areal (2008). The sisters, aging matriarch Justa (Digna Quispe, the sisters’ niece), Lucia (Catalina Saavedra, widely acclaimed for her performance in Sebastian Silva’s The Maid, and Luciana (Francisca Gavilan, who played Violeta Parra in Andres Wood’s biopic of the Chilean singer), are goatherds in an isolated mountain range in northern Chile, a fittingly grandiose backdrop beautifully captured throughout by d.p. Inti Briones. The shadow of a fourth sister, who raised them but who is now dead, hangs over the trio, who seem a little lost without her.

The early part of the film is a depiction of their hardbitten, cave-dwelling lifestyle, which is a struggle for survival even before the bad news starts coming in. The rhythm is accordingly leisurely. There are rumors that other goatherding families in the sierra are selling off their animals cheaply due to an edict from General Pinochet making it illegal to herd; the rumors are confirmed by Juan Sicardini (Segundo Araya), the frisky septuagenarian who visits from time to time to sell them clothing and flirt with Luciana. The edict has effectively removed their identity at a stroke.

Movingly, Luciana has a romantic, dreaming spirit, girlishly donning her new clothes with no man to admire them: “Why are you dressing like that when we’re going to make charcoal?” Justa asks her in one of several moments of sly humor. The young, handsome Fernando (Alfredo Castro), probably on the run from Pinochet’s forces, passes through, and the sisters, suspicious of men since Justa was raped at 17, set up a warning bell to protect them from any unwanted advances he might make. Fernando is the last person the sisters will see, with events winding up to a terrible, haunting final tableau of the three which reconstructs an image which briefly troubled the Chilean newspapers in 1974.

Low on dialogue, the script engrossingly tackles a range of themes, presenting the sisters as a self-sufficient, quasi-feminist micro-community under threat from forces of power beyond its control. Though clearly not endorsing their’ terrible final fate, neither is it a simplistic, nostalgic homage to a passing way of life: the conditions under which the sisters live are too brutal and basic for that, with physically demanding and committed performances from all three actresses ensuring that all sentimentality is excised. Background information is also delivered sparingly, echoing the lack of hard information which is creating such uncertainty in these desolate lives.

Often shot through dust raised by the hooves of their goats, so that it’s hard to distinguish them, the sisters are presented as being a part of the landscape. Though all performances are superb in their unsmiling intensity, it’s the dynamics between them that matters more, Luciana’s romantic dreams isolating her more and more from the other two even within their already total isolation from humanity. Sobbing by the side of a river, she cuts a hauntingly hopeless figure in just one of several scenes from this haunting, carefully-made film which promise to linger in the viewer’s memory.

Venue: Venice Film Festival (Critics’ Week)
Production companies Fabula, Dolce Vita Films, Cinema Uno
Cast: Digna Quispe, Catalina Saavedra, Francisca Gavilan, Alfredo Castro, Segundo Araya
Director: Sebastian Sepulveda
Screenwriter: Sepulveda, based on a play by Juan Radrigan
Producers: Juan de Dios Larrain, Pablo Larrain, Marc Irmer, Diego Urgoiti-Moinot, Fernando Sokolowicz
Executive producer: Juan Ignacio Correa
Director of photography: Inti Briones
Production designer: Cristian Mayorga
Costume designer: Muriel Parra
Editor: Santiago Otheguy
Sales Agent: Swipe Films
No rating, 83 minutes