Delightfully observed comic drama whose gauche, homemade quality seems to enhance its charm.

The struggles of Chilean society to come to terms with the marketing era are brought into sharp, witty focus in “Optical Illusions,” a delightfully observed comic drama whose gauche, homemade quality seems to enhance its charm. Featuring a straightforward, unpretentious script, an engaging range of insecure simpaticos and a high-scoring gag rate, the pic goes where a thousand social-issue dramas have gone before but thankfully manages to keep its tongue in cheek at least, until a final half-hour that struggles to go the distance. Fests with a taste for thoughtfully quirky crowdpleasers might take a closer look.

Pic, which unwittingly reps a minor addition to the ongoing health-care debate, is set in the southern Chilean outpost of Valdivia. Following an operation paid for by a private health firm, Juan (Ivan Alvarez de Araya) has partially recovered his sight, but doesn’t like what he sees; the suggestion is that in a world where only appearances matter, it’s better to be blind.

Juan is drafted by the health firm’s cynical manager, Gonzalo (Alvaro Rudolphy) — who incentivizes his employees with discounts on plastic surgery — to appear in an ad campaign touting the company’s treatments. This happens after Juan witnesses an elderly shopping-mall security guard, Carrasco (Cristobal Briceno), collapse and die after eating a hamburger.

Meanwhile, Carrasco’s replacement, Rafa (Eduardo Paxeco), gets involved with Gonzalo’s ex-wife, wealthy shoplifter Rita (Valentina Vargas). One sweetly vengeful scene later has Gonzalo tipping Rafa for doing some odd jobs around his house.

Rafa’s sister Manuela (Paola Lattus), worried about her breast size, is an object of desire for solid company employee David (vet Gregory Cohen). When David is fired — or “transferred to the outplacement department” — his response to the world of cruel euphemism in which he finds himself is devastating.

Though thesping at times borders on the amateurish, perfs are bubbly and attentive. Vet Cohen stands out as a man with a permanent hangdog expression, forced to tolerate a brave new world he despises (though the pic’s weakest strand involves David’s relationship with his son). The script is careful not to make judgments, extending understanding even to the vile, egotistical Gonzalo.

Pic fires off satirical arrows at our neuroses over appearances, obsession with work, cod psychology and the surveillance society. That it all adds up to a pretty bleak picture of the world we’ve made is more than mitigated by much well-judged, dark-hued humor.

Budget limitations are seen most strongly in the flat lensing, with some outdoor snow scenes looking as though a single take was all they could afford. Simple, strummed guitar music adds an edge of wry melancholy.

Optical Illusions

Chile-Portugal-France

Production

A BF (in Chile) release of a Jirafa, Retaguardia, Roos (Chile)/Films Fundo (Portugal)/Les Films du Requin (France) production in association with Zoofilms, MC Films. (International sales: Films Boutique, Berlin.) Produced by Bruno Bettati, Andres Waissbluth, Miguel Angel Labarca, J.J. Harting, Ignacio Eyzaguirre, Pandora da Cunha Telles, Cyriac Auriol. Directed by Cristian Jimenez. Screenplay, Jimenez, Alicia Scherson.

Crew

Camera (color), Inti Briones; editor, Isabel Monteiro de Castro, Galut Alarcon; music, Cristobal Briceno; sound (Dolby Digital SRD), Andres Carrasco, Elsa Ferreira, Jean-Guy Veran. Reviewed at San Sebastian Film Festival (Horizontes Latinos), Sept. 24, 2009. Running time: 105 MIN.

With

Ivan Alvarez de Araya, Gregory Cohen, Eduardo Paxeco, Paola Lattus, Alvaro Rudolphy, Valentina Vargas, Cristobal Briceno.

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