The Year of the Tiger (El año del tigre): Film Review

Arduous tsunami-aftermath tale from Chile can't sustain its momentum after a sensational first act.

Chile's Sebastián Lelio shoots amid real wreckage in what is arguably the most impressive of the 20 movies competing for the 2011 Locarno Golden Leopard.

LOCARNO -- The parameters, paradoxes and perils of freedom are explored in The Year of the Tiger, an apocalyptic Chilean drama following a middle-aged convict's wanderings through a tsunami-devastated landscape. Grimly topical in the light of recent natural disasters across the globe, this frustratingly uneven third feature from Sebastián Lelio, after The Holy Family (2007) and Christmas (2009), is too austere and demanding to warrant art-house distribution. There's more than enough talent on display, however, to warrant film-festival exposure for a picture that overall was, narrowly, the most impressive of an admittedly mediocre bunch of 20 movies competing for this year's Locarno Golden Leopard.

Luis Dubó, surprisingly passed over for the Best Actor prize, carries virtually the whole movie for its 80-odd minutes. Grizzled and bearded, Dubó's rough-edged charisma brings viewers through the slower stretches as his Job-like character Manuel suffers the harsh vicissitudes of a capricious, indifferent cosmos. In the opening scenes we observe him in what we -- and he -- ultimately realize is his natural habitat -- prison, where's he's a swaggering alpha-male. Shortly after an explicitly-shot conjugal visit, Manuel seizes his chance to escape when an earthquake wrecks the jailhouse, sending the inmates flooding out into the surrounding countryside.

As Manuel dourly trudges off in search of his loved-ones -- wife, daughter, elderly mother -- it becomes apparent that The Year of the Tiger was shot amid real wreckage, as the catastrophic vistas captured are far beyond the meager budget of Chilean art movies. While some may question this on the grounds of taste and opportunism, Lelio's approach is impeccably tactful and sensitive. Miguel Ioan Littin's dingy, handheld-digital cinematography proves a fine match for the material, allowing us to experience the horrors of such catastrophes in an intimate way that TV news, for all its wide-ranging immediacy, can't match.

After burying his deceased mother, Manuel encounters a caged tiger, which he cautiously liberates, observing from a distance the creature's tentative first steps of freedom. The symbolism here is obvious but powerful as Manuel closely identifying with this magnificent, tormented beast. But when the tiger meets a sticky end, the picture itself also loses much of its momentum: Manuel falls foul of and starts working for a rifle-toting farmer (Sergio Hernández), who during a late-night booze-session confesses to having killed the tiger, an admission which seals his own fate.

The movie pretty much grinds to a halt during this wildly over-extended sequence of alcoholic verbiage, and never manages to fully recover despite a climax that concludes Manuel's story on a resonant note of nihilistic irony.

Gonzalo Maza's dialogue-light screenplay is thus not especially well-served by the editing — duties shared by the director and Sebastián Sepúlveda — as just a little re-balancing (i.e. trimming of that drunk-scene) might have rendered The Year of the Tiger among South America's more notable recent exports. Instead, there's the nagging sense that Lelio has squandered a terrific premise in what, one hopes for Chile's sake, will turn out to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Venue: Locarno Film Festival
Production company: Fabula
Cast: Luis Dubó, Sergio Hernández, Viviana Herrera
Director: Sebastián Lelio
Screenwriter: Gonzalo Maza
Producers: Juan de Dios Larraín, Pablo Larraín, Gonzalo Maza
Executive producers: Mariane Hartard, Andrea Carrasco Stuven, Juan Ignacio Correa
Director of photography: Miguel Ioan Littin
Art director: Fernando Briones
Music: Cristóbal Carvajal
Editors: Sebastián Sepúlveda, Sebastián Lelio
Sales: Funny Balloons
No rating, 82 minutes