Sebastian Silva and Pedro Peirano’s “Old Cats” takes the bleakly comic dysfunctional-family genre and boils it down to one disputed apartment and a rancorous mother/daughter duo, flanked by their relatively sane significant others. Senile dementia and a broken-down elevator serve as dramatic catalysts, triggering the central conflict between maternal entrenchment and filial flightiness. Less cohesive and accessible than “The Maid” (which the Chilean duo co-scripted and Silva helmed solo), pic nonetheless contains unforgettable scenes, particularly those fronted by 92-year-old theatrical icon Belgica Castro. Pic is skedded for a March release.
Isidora (Castro) feels her mind slipping, awakening in a state of silent panic. Only her eyes express the difficult process of deciphering where (and perhaps who) she is, the tranquil presence of her second hubby, Enrique (Alejandro Sieveking), gradually reorienting her. A worn-out hip and a busted elevator prevent Isi from performing her usual chores, but full-blown terror doesn’t set in until she starts responding to imaginary voices, zones out entirely and lets the sink’s water overflow.
It is the worst possible moment for a confrontation with her embittered failure of a daughter. Rosario (Claudia Celedon) bursts into the apartment on a wave of coke-stoked hysteria, armed with the latest in a long line of ill-fated business ventures (selling Peruvian “healing” soaps) and brandishing an unsigned power of attorney that will allow her to sell her mother’s apartment. Mother and daughter square off in tired reprisals of long-festering arguments (Isi’s coldness vs. Rosario’s fecklessness), while Enrique and Rosario’s lesbian lover, Beatrice, aka Hugo (Catalina Saavedra), hover on the sidelines.
Pic’s improvisational style benefits greatly from its basis in reality. The apartment at stake, crammed with a lifetime’s accumulation of tchotchkes — the camera panning exhaustively over myriad glass roosters, horse figurines, art books, masks and paintings — in fact belongs to Castro and Sieveking, married in real life. Even the titular elderly felines who roam the apartment are theirs. The entire enterprise resembles an inhouse, de facto repertory project; the couple starred in Silva’s first film, “La vida me mata,” which also featured Celedon and Saavedra (who played mistress and servant in “The Maid,” the latter filmed in Silva’s own family home).
When the comfortable day-to-day routines that define Enrique and Isi’s habits become disrupted by the onset of Isi’s dementia, the scenes unfold organically. Rosario’s melodramatic eruptions, however, thrust the film into a higher-pitched dynamic that never quite meshes with the initial tension. Indeed, when Isi follows her hysterical, weeping daughter down eight flights of stairs in a belated display of caring, her step-by-step progress (edited by Gabriel Diaz for maximum suspense and pain) assumes the dramatic significance usually accorded the Stations of the Cross.
If the narrative skews toward the artificial, Sergio Armstrong’s somewhat documentary-like camerawork yields its own rewards. Isi’s tottering walkabout in the park, as she grows fascinated by the play of water in a fountain or bee-costumed actors shooting a commercial, succeeds less as a narrative turning point than as a sensory one.