In its quiet, modest way, Chilean actor-turned-actor/director Pablo Cerda’s stunningly composed debut feature mines unexpected depths in its portrait of a man who lets life pass him by. Sporting a beer belly developed for the role, Cerda portrays Exequiel, a 32-year-old gym teacher living with his father in his childhood home and teaching at the school he attended as a kid, seemingly content with his circumscribed existence. In observing his character’s unchanging everyday activities through changing perspectives, Cerda develops a nuanced visual language that supplants narrative. Never boring, “P.E.” nevertheless will require strong critical support to pique international arthouse interest.
Exequiel’s slow, laid-back style extends to every aspect of his movement. He sits down and watches his little students running laps, exerting himself occasionally to push them to greater effort. He engages them in basketball, his sole passion, and one which his students fail to fully appreciate. But even at work he appears solitary, the camera often catching him after school as he picks up the balls strewn around the court before lumbering homeward. He shares dinners at home and lunches in town with his father (Tomas Vidiella), with whom he enjoys a close friendship. Finally, at day’s end, Exequiel clambers onto his dad’s bed to watch TV.
Exequiel and his best (and seemingly only) friend, the extroverted Fabian (Rodrigo Soto), dress in hard hats and orange vests, and hang around the water watching the ships at night. Cerda set the film in his hometown, the port city of San Antonio, where shots of boats in the bay under harbor lights, or floating on the shimmering ocean against the breaking dawn, set a contemplative mood.
Having failed to become a professional basketball player, Exequiel doggedly refuses to think about past or future, ignoring opportunities his sister Carmen (Carmen Fillol) sends his way, spending big chunks of his time shooting hoops on a deserted outdoor court. These long, solitary moments constitute the film’s leitmotif: With Cerda’s contemplative thesping, and lenser Jorge Gonzalez’s control of angle and lighting, the rhythm of the ball’s bounce and the energy behind the throws becomes a nuanced gauge of Exequiel’s state of mind.
Though Cerda figures in virtually every shot, he rarely opts to frame himself in closeup, instead choosing long and medium shots that define his character in relationship to his surroundings. Thus a long scene in which a solitary Exequiel eats a large, messy sandwich at a table in a featureless restaurant conveys a strong sense of his self-absorbed concentration on the moment.
A reconnection with Emiliana (Francisca Lewin), a high-school sweetheart, awakens him to possibilities for change he has consistently ignored, briefly transforming him into someone with a purpose. But evolved beyond his mindless acceptance of his lot and denied his comforting rituals, socialization could prove a mixed blessing.
Accomplished production values, particularly Gonzalez’s impressive lensing, belie the pic’s reported $40,000 budget.