José Luis Torres Leiva: The beauty of melancholia

  • Datum 14-04-2011
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Chilean film critic Pamela Biénzobas explores the work of compatriot film maker José Luis Torres Leiva, no stranger to the Rotterdam line-up and returning with his short primer día de invierno.

Winter has come. The black and white image exudes the cold, the pollution, the dull light of the shortest day of the year. A young man carries a small baby around the streets of Santiago. His distress, that a couple of short lines at the end will suffice to explain, is there in his shoulders, in his eyes and the way they tend to look away, and in the hesitation of his gestures and scarce words.
The 17-minute film primer día de invierno (first day of winter, to be screened in this year’s IFFR program) is built with few characters, few spoken words, few actions and few shots, as usual in the cinema of José Luis Torres Leiva. As usual, as well, this austerity conveys an intense, humble emotion.
The Chilean filmmaker’s assumedly contemplative style could easily be accused of following a certain ‘festival-film’ trend. But each one of his films has something that those made to please these festival audiences, have not: sense. The rhythm, the framing, the words spoken or kept unsaid all make sense, literally. They create a meaning, a sensation, an emotion and, eventually, a breathing, beating world.
As shy and humble as his work, José Luis Torres Leiva has a way of observing this world and portraying it as if it were disclosed for the first time. Wherever he looks, he finds that gripping, strange beauty that comes from what is profoundly human. He directs his gaze towards people and places that are often left unseen — by the cameras and by our own eyes. And the shyness and generosity naturally position him at the precise distance where respect and interest find a delicate balance.

José Luis Torres Leiva’s two feature documentaries, both screened in Rotterdam at earlier occasions (ningún lugar en ninguna parte [no place nowhere], in 2005, and el tiempo que se queda [the time that rests] in 2007) are clear examples of his astute observations. When in the latter he sets up his camera in a psychiatric hospital, it is not to depict the challenges of a mental institution and those living or working in it. It is to seize the passing of time in a place that lives and breathes at its own rhythm, with its own logic. The former captures the daily beat of a popular, poor area of Valparaíso, punctuated by the creation of a musical score.
From one film to the next, he also balances between silence and sound. The absence of speech characterizes his recent films, whereas his earlier work was often based on words spoken by a voice, off or onscreen, but always central. And, whether it accompanies or replaces words, music also plays a main role in some titles, like the ‘snapshots’ that form trance 1-10 (2009) or, in yet another style, the hypnotic ilusión de movimiento (illusion of movement, also 2009), which explores Marey’s photography through Steven R. Smith’s compositions.
His narrative fiction, such as the acclaimed short obreras saliendo de la fábrica (women workers leaving the factory, screened in Rotterdam 2006), his only feature fiction to date, el cielo, la tierra y la lluvia (the sky, the earth and the rain, 2008 Tiger candidate and winner of the Fipresci award) or this year’s entry, primer día de invierno, all maintain that same distance, that same spatial tension that eventually turns the landscape into another character.

Generous gaze
In el cielo, la tierra y la lluvia, wonderfully shot on 35mm by Inti Briones in the South of Chile, the overwhelming beauty of the surrounding nature not only contains or explains the melancholy, but in a way it interacts and converses with the characters. The virtuosity of the film’s photography does not, however, turn it into a formal exercise. It adds to the visual beauty, but also to that ineffable feeling of being face to face with the human condition.
José Luis Torres Leiva’s cinema is assumedly melancholic — perhaps even depressive. It is beautiful and emotive.
But the generosity of his gaze does not mean he is in love with his characters (whether it is in his fictions or documentaries). Not necessarily. They are often barely outlined, not presented with pity or admiration. The love that each of his films expresses is for humanity. There is something desperate, like in the poignant confesiones de un caballo suicida (confessions of a suicidal horse, 2002), based on still photographs and a text inspired by mostly suicidal artists, from Argentinean poet Alejandra Pizarnik to French filmmaker Jean Eustache. But there is also something deeply real, utterly alive.
It is no surprise when the young man (somewhat Louis Garrelesque, though not as in Honoré but as in Philippe Garrel) in primer día de invierno reluctantly tells his sister that the baby’s mother left home, and admits that it’s probably due to his depression. But when his sister hugs him and tells him to go lie down for a while, that they’ll sort it out, for a fleeting moment we can have faith in humankind.

Pamela Biénzobas

Pamela Biénzobas is a Paris-based Chilean film critic, co-founder of Revista de Cine Mabuse, and outgoing vice-president of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics.

NB: Although the quality is of course not ideal, most of José Luis Torres Leiva’s work (shorts and fragments of his features) can be seen on You Tube.