Old Cats Sundance Review
A tricky but mostly successful dramatization of an older middle-class family on the verge of a communal nervous breakdown.

PARK CITY -- There are two old and rather tubby cats in "Old Cats," but one suspects the title of this film by Chilean writer-directors Sebastian Silva and Pedro Peirano really refers to the elderly couple that shares a spacious 10th-floor flat in Santiago’s downtown district with those felines. This flat makes the single setting for another examination of the comic stresses and horrors of family life by these filmmakers, who follow up on their 2009 Sundance prize-winner "The Maid."

The new film, playing here in the Spotlight section at Sundance, doesn’t contain the dramatic fireworks of the previous pic, but art-house patrons will appreciate its acute attention to detail in its portrayal of a toxic mother-daughter relationship.

The mother, Isadora, played by one of Chile’s biggest theatrical stars, Belgica Castro, is rapidly declining into senility. “I got lost,” she cries to her husband Enrique (Alejandro Sieveking) when he returns to find the apartment nearly flooded by an untended tap. She drifts in and out of reality but is at the tragic stage where she can still comprehend what is happening to her.

On this particular day, the building’s elevator has broken down, trapping the frail woman on the 10th floor. Then her black-sheep daughter Rosario shows up with her female lover, who goes by the name of Hugo — the two played by Claudia Celedon and Catalina Saavedra, who also starred in The Maid.

The film’s biggest challenge to audiences is to find any way to empathize with Rosario. A coke-snorting conniver, she isn’t in the flat long before she has kicked one of the cats and slapped her mother. You are led to believe that the mother’s poor parenting and lack of intimacy with her daughter helped to create this disturbed personality, but even so — elder and animal abuse?

Rosario’s latest plan is to convince her mother to sign over the lease to the flat in a get-rich-quick scheme. Isadora’s refusal triggers her daughter’s hysterics that even her girlfriend, no stranger to coke either, struggles to contain.

The third act — the film does feel like a play — finally escapes the apartment confines when the “lost” woman somehow descends the many stairs to wander the streets. The desperation to find Isadora feels very real, but the final resolution — a somehow contrived move toward forgiveness on everyone’s part that seems imposed on the material — feels just the opposite.

Silva and Pierano again create a drama that acts like a documentary as the camera observes intimate human behavior within a family apartment that becomes a war zone. The dark humor comes from the startling outbursts and escalation of erratic behavior that one immediately recognizes as the kind of thing that only happens within family life. One treats friends or even strangers with much more civility.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival: Spotlight
Production company: Elephant Eye Films
Cast: Belgica Castro, Alejandro Sieveking, Claudia Celedon, Catalina Saavedra
Directors/screenwriters: Sebastian Silva, Pedro Peirano
Producers: Kim Jose, David Robinson
Director of photography: Sergio Armstrong
Production designer: Rodrigo Guerra
Music: Juan Andres Silva
Costume designer: Mary Ann Smith
Editor: Gabriel Diaz
Unrated, 90 minutes