Moving away from the postmodern cleverness of his first feature, “Optical Illusions,” writer-director Cristian Jimenez faithfully adapts Alejandro Zambra’s acclaimed novella, “Bonsai,” to deliver one of the finest accomplishments from the freewheeling new generation of Chilean filmmakers. By turns gentle, deadpan, droll and sarcastic, Jimenez’s film reflects on Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past” to track a sweet but doomed love affair between literary — and pleasurably randy — college students. Pic’s easygoing balance of serious artistry and unpretentious mood may break into the hard-to-crack North American theatrical market after a terrific fest run.
Perhaps reflecting the fact that Zambra’s book has already been canonized as a new classic, Jimenez wisely adheres to the source’s themes and narrative essence, as well as to its interplay between fiction and fact, and the miniaturist aesthetic suggested by the title. Indeed, the pic is equivalent in its 92-minute running time to the book’s 90 pages, though it shouldn’t be viewed as a merely slavish adaptation, since it contains plenty of its own inherently cinematic frissons and musicality.
The fates of Julio (Diego Noguera) and Emilia (Nathalia Galgani) are sealed from the start, as the viewer is informed that at the end of the film, Emilia dies and Julio remains alive and alone, which he had been years before Emilia’s death. This is leavened by a gently applied flashback-flashforward structure, which jumps between Julio’s college years in the provincial coastal city of Valdivia and his adult life eight years later when he’s still struggling to become a novelist in Santiago.
The paired time signatures are distinctively marked. Younger Julio is primarily a reader, and a fairly lazy one at that (albeit with serious literary aspirations), and it’s this interest that draws him to fellow lit student Emilia, to whom he lies that he’s read Proust before falling in love with her. Older Julio is less a reader than a writer, and also accompanied by a woman — apartment neighbor Blanca (Trinidad Gonzalez). In both sections, books, writing and sex are never far from each other.
“Bonsai” gets much of its quiet comic energy from Julio’s tendency to coast by on a sea of lies, which he then must confront. He’s first seen as a collegiate buffoon: Noticing that most of his classmates raise their hands when the professor asks if they’ve read Proust’s opus, Julio raises his, and then checks out the volumes, which he proceeds to read at the beach. His dry, somewhat expressionless manner is attractive to the obviously smart Emilia, though a good deal of the effect of the film’s compressed and economically told love affair comes from the low-key but assured chemistry between Galgani and Noguera, who dominates the film, and manages to be convincing at two slightly different ages.
Eight years on, Julio offers to transcribe to computer the handwritten manuscript of a veteran novelist (Hugo Medina, perfectly cast), though his asking fee proves too rich. Undeterred, Julio not only fibs to Blanca that he’s working with Gazmuri, but proceeds to write his own version of what he thinks Gazmuri’s novel should be, based on a reading of the manuscript — even putting the author’s name on the cover page and titling it “Bonsai.”
Not surprisingly, the novel’s narrative is a close version of his experience with Emilia, and there’s a way to view the film so that the college-era scenes are visualizations of the fraudulent/true, semi-autobiographical novel Julio’s writing.
It’s this flexibility of readings that lend the film the same kind of expansive emotional texture as the novel, especially in its consideration that the line between fiction and lies can be a narrow one. Although a pair of more symbolic scenes involving plants, including a bonsai, are a bit too precious, Jimenez treats them with a fine, light hand. This wasn’t always the case with “Optical Illusions,” and “Bonsai” marks the steady maturing of his artistry.
As was true of the previous film, every filmmaking department is executed with elegant aplomb, in particular Soledad Salfate’s occasionally syncopated editing (sometimes across multiple locales to amusing effect) and a rhythmic, rock-accented underscore by the group Panico.