A globe-trotting journo goes back home to explore a road not traveled in "The Life of Fish."

A globe-trotting journo goes back home to explore a road not traveled in “The Life of Fish,” the latest slow-burning yakfest from Chilean scribe-helmer Matias Bize (“In Bed”). While the film, like its predecessors, unfolds in real time and is shot in an easygoing handheld style, Bize’s by now familiar Linklater-esque approach finally feels like a solid fit for the material, with both the mise-en-scene and the screenplay (co-written by regular collaborator Julio Rojos) less claustrophobic and inward-looking than usual. Loquacious and ultimately poignant, Chile’s Oscar submission will extensively travel the fest circuit.

Ruggedly handsome Andres (Santiago Cabrera, “Heroes”) is a travel writer in his early 30s who’s practically never at home and has just sold his parents’ house in Santiago. Before boarding an early morning flight to Europe, he’s at the birthday party of a childhood friend, Pablo (Victor Montere, a Bize regular), though in the pic’s opening frames, Andres is already saying goodbye to those present.

Friendly, semi-inebriated banter quickly fills in the backstory and also reveals the real reason Andres went to the party: Beatriz (Blanca Lewin, another regular Bize collaborator), an ex-g.f. who could have been the love of his life but is now with a gringo, with whom she has 5-year-old twins. Andres feels their story hasn’t quite finished yet, even though he’s unsure what he really wants out of this late-in-the-game encounter.

Real-time pacing is thankfully accomplished through artfully edited sequences rather than endlessly long takes, and the naturally acted dialogue is what will keep auds hooked. But this is no “In Bed,” in which two people meet for the first time, and unlike “Saturday” and “About Crying,” pic is not narrowly focused on just one thing a couple shared before things went awry. The strong suit of “Fish,” which is of a piece with Bize’s oeuvre but also reps an impressive leap forward, is that it focuses not on possible things in the future or concrete ones in the past, but the nebulous notion of what might have been.

As Andres wanders around the house where the party is in full swing, he gets pulled into conversations that tie into this subject, though the dialogue never is overly didactic. “It’s easy to live in this world as a tourist, but hard to deal with the day-to-day reality of life,” remarks one of the characters, and it’s clear that Andres, through his occupation, has been avoiding settling down like his peers, whether subconsciously or not. Pic also raises questions of how people, places and even relationships remain recognizable over time, as time seems to change everything.

Though the film’s home stretch focuses on an intense one-on-one conversation between Andres and Beatriz, its scope feels much wider; its themes and motifs have emerged in the preceding party conversations, whose ruminations have the ring of truth.

Working for the first time with ace Uruguayan d.p. Barbara Alvarez (“The Headless Woman,” “Whisky”), Bize gives the handheld pic a fluid look that’s subtly enhanced by reflective and transparent surfaces, including an aquarium. Lighting is occasionally on the harsh side (pic was shot in HD) but is also used to soften the atmosphere; score is not too insistently melodramatic, and sound mix is superb.

The Life of Fish

Chile

Production

A Banco Estado presentation of a Ceneca Producciones release and production, in association with Cine Sur, Arte France, Television Nacional de Chile, Cachoeira Films. Produced by Adrian Solar. Directed by Matias Bize. Screenplay, Julio Rojos, Bize, based on a story by Rojos.

Crew

Camera (color, HD), Barbara Alvarez; editor, Javier Estevez; music, Diego Fontecilla; production designer, Nicole Blanc; costume designer, Fernanda Duran; sound (Dolby Digital), Martin Selzer; associate producers, Ricardo Estay, Paulo Parra, Paulo de Carvalho, Klara Beverly, David Matous, Nathalie Trafford; assistant director, Fernando Aljaro. Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (Venice Days), Sept. 9, 2010. (Also in Abu Dhabi Film Festival -- competing.) Running time: 84 MIN.

With

Santiago Cabrera, Blanca Lewin, Antonia Zegers, Victor Montero, Sebastian Layseca, Juan Pablo Miranda. (Spanish dialogue)

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