Root (Raiz): Cartagena Review

La Bicicleta
This richly, atmospheric study of a road trip undertaken by two lonely people breaks no new ground, but is quietly evocative and features some haunting visuals.

Matias Rojas Valencia’s feature debut, a broken family drama set against the dramatic scenery of southern Chile, has been making its mark on the festival circuit through early 2014.

In Root, a young woman returns home for an ending in the form of a funeral and unexpectedly encounters a new beginning. Slow-burning, well-crafted and surprisingly poignant through its third act, this minor key item is both family drama and road movie, though perhaps too small-scale to truly be either. Its take on well-worn themes is nonetheless distinctive and affecting, and channeled through a discreet, intense central performance by Mercedes Mujica. Root’s quiet charms have taken hold on the Latin American festival circuit, and merit further exposure.

Unemployed 26 year-old Amalia (Mujica) travels from Santiago to her family home in southern Chile for the funeral of her former nanny. Amalia’s widowed mother Hilda (Elsa Poblete) is aggressive and unpleasant towards her daughter; snapping at her to help washing the dishes, because “plates don’t dry on their own here like they do in Santiago” – a nicely caught touch of dialogue in a film where dialogue doesn’t play a large role. Troubling details of their history will emerge later.

The nanny’s son, Cristobal (Cristobal Ruiz) has been left alone. This is one of those elliptical scripts which doesn’t go explicitly into causes, but Amalia, presumably in a spirit of protectiveness, decides that she will take off with Cristobal in her mother’s pale green Chevy pickup in search of his father – using a rather roundabout method that does, however, bring them into contact with a wonderful, wise old woman, Chela (Celia Uribe Velazquez), who for the first time elicits some serious self-reflection from the largely silent Amalia.

Mercedes Mujica, present in every scene, does good, brooding work, often in unforgiving, isolating  close-up. The dissatisfaction within her character is ever-palpable, with the camera lingering too long on her face at certain points to no obvious effect. But a dramatic opportunity has been lost with Cristobal, with whom she slides almost too easily into a happy relationship. One scene, the closest Root comes to comedy, has the boy reflecting aloud on the existence of UFOs and suggests a relationship in which his bubbliness might be counterpointed against her silences. But towards the end – albeit for dramatically explicable reasons --  Cristobal relapses into silence himself, and again the onus is back on the viewer to make sense of the small, incremental changes taking place inside each of them. Like other members of the cast, Ruiz is a non-pro.

Hand-held camera is used for the intimate scenes, but static camera for the longer shots, whether of interiors or, more memorably, of the mountains and lakes that characterize the region. There is snow on the mountain tops, there is mist on the water, and there are bears in the woods of a film which is almost as much about its atmosphere, and the effects of that atmosphere on the characters, as about the characters themselves. When Amalia and Cristobal sit side by side on a jetty together, it is their role in the visual design and the almost too-beautiful framing that draws the attention rather than their evolving relationship. At this point, the setting has overwhelmed the story.

The region’s air of non-plate drying damp chilliness and distance is heightened by Gabriela Larrain Soler’s camerawork, which uses only natural light; it’s a chilliness that seems to percolate not only into the atmosphere, into the characters and into their relationships – what little human warmth there is on display in Root is hard-won, brief and potent – but also the film itself, with Rojas Valencia seemingly opting for a coolly analytical approach rather than risking the sentimentality that getting too involved might mean.

The title, in its clever use of the singular rather than the plural, suggests that people like these have only one root -- and that just one root is not enough.

Production: La Bicicleta, Sueno Sureno, Vertebra Produce

Cast: Mercedes Mujica, Cristobal Ruiz, Elsa Poblete, Celia Uribe, Eugenio Morales

Director, screenwriter, editor: Matias Rojas Valencia

Producer: Gabriela Larrain Soler, Gonzalo Rodriguez Varas, Rojas Valencia

Director of photography: Gabriela Larrain Soler

Production designers: Larrain Soler, Rodriguez Varas, Rojas Valencia

Music: Pedro “Pollo” Dal Pozzo, Arturo Zegers

Sound: Andres Zelada, Jose Laguna

Sales: Sueno Sureno

No rating, 87 minutes