Bonsai - film review

Posted on: 30 March 2012 by Tony Kirwood

Tony Kirwood reviews Bonsai, Cristián Jiminėz's slow-burning film about the interplay between books and life

They’re a literary lot, those Chileans. When Julio’s (Diego Noguera) class at college are asked who’s read Proust, they all put their hands up. Julio and his lover Emilia (Natalia Galgani) read out books to each other before having sex. Even his grandmother calls her cat Gogol.

“Bonsai” is a slow-burning film about the interplay between books and life. Famous novelist Gazmuri (Hugo Medina) turns down Julio’s pitch to type out his new work (the film’s title is the book’s central image). 

Julio fools his current lover Blanca (Trinidad González) that he’s got the job by writing his own novel. His subject is his earlier affair with Emilia and he steals Gazmuri’s image. It’s all pretty mixed up but then so is Julio. In fact, he’s lost the plot.

Noguera gives Julio the unfocussed look of someone who’s baffled by life. Is he still haunted by his relationship with Emilia which finished mysteriously eight years earlier? Books and Bonsai trees, Jiminėz seems to be telling us, are a way of both nurturing and containing what’s slipping away.

Unfortunately, the bonsai is a metaphor with a hole at its heart. Julio’s and Emilia’s love comes across as less Abelard and Eloise than a Student Union bar pick-up. They listen to loud bands, get bored and drunk and vice versa. When he tells her she’s pretty she mutters “Bla bla bla”. It’s a little hard to care for them.

You feel that Alejandro Zambra’s original novel, which was a big hit in Chile, is full of psychological complexities which a movie can’t explore. For instance, why does Julio spend all those hours fooling Blanca he’s writing a book, when he’s obviously not that bothered about her?

However, Jiminėz is good with comedy. He fills the screen with quirky images. A man cycles past with a huge downwardly pointed arrow fixed to his handlebars. Julio falls asleep on the beach trying to read “Swann’s Way”. It drops on his chest. Asked to explain the untanned rectangle on his torso, he explains “It’s Proust”. 

Jiminėz says how his childhood dream was to become a comedian. The freeing of more of his inner comic might have rescued “Bonsai” from some of its rather over-anxious metaphor- making. He admits he found the tone difficult. Maybe he was over-awed by the novel. 

The film is shot with care and acted thoughtfully. Overall, it’s a welcome effort from the struggling Chilean film industry. And if it introduces more Brits to Chilean novels, that’s a pretty good thing in itself.

Bonsia is directed by Cristián Jiminėz

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