Chile’s devastating 2010 earthquake and tsunami form the background of “The Year of the Tiger,” Sebastian Lelio’s understated exploration of fate, freedom and faith, which builds power and complexity via minimal means. Tackling larger issues than his previous pics “Navidad” and “The Sacred Family,” “Tiger” is Lelio’s first feature without a religious title, yet it’s also his most considered meditation on the presence or absence of God. Auds uncomfortable with religion-flavored pics shouldn’t be frightened off, since Lelio is no preacher and the story’s subtlety and satisfying indie concept make it deserving of cutting-edge arthouse attention.
Manuel (Luis Dubo, strong) is in prison for an unspecified offense. A conjugal visit from wife Marcela (Viviana Herrera) turns rough, hinting at a streak of violence in Manuel’s character. Later, when the earthquake strikes, the prisoners pour out of jail into a devastated landscape.
When Manuel reaches the coast and his former house, all he finds are ruins, along with personal items that indicate his family was swept away by the tsunami. He heads to his mother’s house, where he finds her dead amid muck and detritus. After burying the body, he wanders the area and comes across a dazed tiger in a cage. Manuel frees the tiger and keeps moving, but he’s held at gunpoint by an abusive farmer (Sergio Hernandez), demanding he work for an ear of corn he stole.
Scenes between the two men form the heart of “Tiger,” as the farmer descends into a drunken spiral of self-pity, shouting that God destroys the wicked and requesting divine forgiveness for being a terrible husband and father. Dialogue was improvised, with Lelio and scripter Gonzalo Maza providing guidelines rather than a set text; the results, especially in this scene (by far the most wordy in a largely wordless film), further a sense of untutored naturalness deliberately cultivated in the lensing.
Manuel’s violence reasserts itself, partly in response to the incomprehensible destruction around him and partly as a reaction to the farmer’s brutality. A scene during a service outside a ruined church throws into high relief the conflict between those seeking comfort in a benevolent God testing His flock and those who reject the existence of God in a world of unfathomable disasters. Lelio doesn’t privilege one viewpoint over the other, allowing both outlooks to exist uneasily side by side.
Instead, what the pic implies is that there is no point in looking for a reason, no matter what your beliefs, since there is no rationale behind catastrophe. At the same time, Lelio explores concepts of liberty (including, of course, free will) and the near-agoraphobia that can result from sudden freedom. The helmer and scripter do so via the subtlest of means and without a hint of sermonizing, instead presenting the struggle and trusting an intelligent audience to enter into the dialogue.
Though Lelio and d.p. Miguel Ioan Littin shoot on HD, they give the pic a sense of texture, especially in darker scenes, which likely will be enhanced following an anticipated blowup to 35mm. In shooting the earthquake’s shocking devastation and its aftermath, the collaborators give certain sequences the feel of amateur footage; it’s the right approach to the impossibility of capturing the wreckage, understanding that to make it look beautiful or consciously artistic would be unwise.