'Tea Time' ('La Once'): IDFA Review

Tea Time Still - H 2014
Courtesy of International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam

Tea Time Still - H 2014

Chilean mid-lengther offers wry, spry refreshment

Maite Alberdi's Chilean documentary eavesdrops on a group of senior citizens' monthly reunions

A bite-size confection whose surface sweetness hides hints of more complex flavors, Tea Time (La once) is an intriguing sophomore outing for Chilean writer-director Maite Alberdi. Filmed over a four-year period, it attentively and sensitively documents the monthly tea-and-cakes ritual enjoyed by a group of well-heeled septuagenarian Santiago ladies who graduated high school together in the 1950s.

World premiering at the city's SANFIC before bowing internationally at IDFA, the picture — partly funded by Tribeca's TFI Fund — will strike a particular chord with more mature audiences and can expect plentiful festival play, with some potential for niche theatrical exposure.

Savvy catalogue writers and distributors will doubtless emphasize parallels with Gianni Di Gregorio's fictional Mid-August Lunch (2008), the 75-minute low-budget Italian miniature that wowed festivals before a nicely lucrative run in Stateside art houses. Alberdi's 70-minute enterprise, also available in a tube-friendly 52-minute version, is likewise a chamber piece dominated by the voices and faces of elderly women.

But whereas Di Gregorio's comedy transpired in something akin to real time, Tea Time is relatively "epic" in chronological scope, if such a term can sensibly be applied to such an intimate affair. Just as T. S. Eliot's J. Alfred Prufrock measured out his life "with coffee spoons," the central quintet here AliciaGema, Angelica, Ximena and first-reel narrator Maria Teresa — meet up for tea, cakes, gossip and reminiscences once a month at 5 p.m.

Certain rituals are faithfully observed, starting with a solemn if perfunctory "grace" prayer. And it's clear that cozy repetition, both in terms of the refreshments consumed and the subjects discussed, is a crucial component in the women's long-standing, rock-solid friendships.

Avoiding establishing shots, wide images and any glimpse of the world beyond the parlors where the reunions take place (apart from brief visits to the kitchen), Alberdi instead maintains a claustrophobically intense focus on her carefully coiffed, smartly attired protagonists' wrinkled, immaculately made-up faces.

She's particularly fond of keeping her camera on listeners rather than speakers, the ladies' expressions conveying at least as much as any dialogue could hope to achieve. And while three additional writers and two researchers are cited in the end credits, Tea Time seems much more straightforward in terms of categorization than Alberdi's critically acclaimed 2011 debut The Lifeguard, an ostensible documentary whose fictional aspects became increasingly apparent during its 64 minutes.

The key, of course, lies in the editing, with Alberdi and her two cutters selecting and condensing what must have been a daunting amount of chatty verbiage down to bare-minimum feature length. Their choices are balanced and tactful, allowing us to get to know the participants to the extent that a final-reel memento mori packs an unexpected emotional punch.

That said, they don't shy away from occasionally presenting the ladies in a way some audiences may find less than sympathetic. A discussion of lesbianism, for example, sparked by Maria Teresa's enthusiasm for Cannes winner Blue Is the Warmest Color, underlines the extent to which the tea sippers are products of their conservative, faith-based upbringing.

Two of them, we learn, had husbands in the military — men who presumably must have played some part in General Augusto Pinochet's notoriously repressive dictatorship. Not that any kind of unpleasantness or discord is allowed to intrude too disturbingly into these genial get-togethers, reliant as they are on the expert contribution of (invariably Peruvian) servant women silently dishing out the goodies. Food for thought, anyway.

Production company: Micromundo Producciones
Director-screenwriter: Maite Alberdi
Producer: Clara Taricco
Cinematographer: Pablo Valdes
Editors: Juan Eduardo Murillo, Sebastian Brahm
Composer: 'Miranda & Tobar'
CAT&Docs, Paris

No Rating, 70 minutes