Screens at CIFF: 10/11 & 10/13 & 10/22
World premiere: 26 August, 2013, Santiago International Film Festival

It is good to respect bravery in filmmaking, for there is not enough of it; and not much is braver than trying to make something as thoroughly stagebound as a two-hander work onscreen. A two-hander, for those not versed in theater jargon, is a dramatic work entirely or almost entirely made up of two people having a conversation; more often than not, it takes place within a single room, though I do not think this is compulsory.

The Illiterate, the debut film of Chilean director Moisés Sepúlveda, is just such a project, and one adapted from an actual stage play, no less (Sepúlveda and the play's author, Pablo Paredes, handled scripting duties): the two hands are those of Ximena (Paulina García), a middle-aged woman who cannot read and has a rather prickly, intemperate attitude about that fact, and Jackeline (Valentina Muhr), an unemployed schoolteacher who is recommended by her mother to read the newspaper for Ximena. Enthusiastic and a little bit condescending, Jackeline concludes after learning that Ximena has a letter from her long-absent father that she's never heard read, that it's high time for the older woman to finally learn to read, and this is something that her new pupil receives with rather more scorn than appreciation. The meat of the film lies in the two of them debating each other over this subject, more or less, though their conversation begins to drift to cover bigger things: it's really two ways of living that are being angrily compared and contrasted, and then there's the whole other matter where Ximena's caustic haughtiness is just a transparent blind for keeping herself safe from having to engage with the world.

The one thing that nobody in the world can take away from the movie: García's performance is a mighty thing, coming right on the heels of her win for Best Actress in Gloria at the 2013 Berlin Film Festival. She overplays Ximena to just the right degree and in just the right ways that we can see how this is not mere grandiosity on the actor's part, trying to inflate a simple, spare concept, but an act of projection by the character herself. The protective cocoon that García builds for Ximena is not just about the things present in the script: the arrogance, the dismissiveness, the tendency to talk circles around people using stream-of-consciousness ranting, though her performance does a fine job of expressing all of this. What pushes García up to greatness is the expansive theatricality with which she does this, courting hammy overacting or camp in playing every gesture a little too big, every line reading a bit too bombastic, and it becomes clear after a little bit (to be sure, I spent the first good chunk of the movie thinking that I was seeing routine weak acting, a live-wire stage performance that hadn't been scaled to the size of a movie screen) that this is Ximena, not García, performing at that level. Part of her strategy for shutting people down is to present a weird, alienating artifice for them, and it's only as this disappears into little, subtle moments - a small, prideful grin as she reads the bus stop sign to confused passers-by is a gorgeous snippet of performance - that we can fully appreciate what the actor has been up to the whole time.

Great stuff, that; totally exciting and easy to be enthusiastic about. I am not sure that Illiterate has anything else that is easy to be enthusiastic, unfortunately, and even García's master class demonstration in character building seems like it's in service to nothing but itself. Bluntly, I don't know why the movie thinks that this material is so interesting: obviously, things happening to fascinating people is the very spine of all dramatic art, but Jackeline is such a collection of screenwriting gestures coalesced around an elliptically-presented personality, and Muhr's performance able to do very little besides marry that to a charming smile and friendly-bossy sense of authority, that she is not, herself, a fascinating person at all, and she is completely devoured by Ximena every single time she shows up. Outside of a phenomenal gut punch at the very end (the film's last scene, and even its last shot, is the best thing in it), none of this seems to have any stakes: a kind of mean older woman and an airily superior young woman square off, toss a couple of needless twists out there, and come to no real conclusions about anything. I suppose that a viewer well-versed in the social condition of Chile might have some kind of insight into what it means the Jackeline is an unemployed teacher, but I am not that viewer.

Meanwhile, the thing looks pretty dodgy, throughout: a clear-cut first feature if ever I saw one. Sepúlveda and his DP, Arnaldo Rodríguez, commit one crime against film composition, and the commit it every single time they are able: given a thoroughly spurious anamorphic widescreen aspect ratio (there is no conceivable way that this material doesn't work better in the more cramped 1.85:1 ratio of standard widescreen), the filmmakers rely extensively, and ruinously, on centered compositions, with Ximena's face frequently squatting right in the middle of the frame as nothing of visual interest happens on either side of her head. It is the most boring, eye-numbing way to possible use such a wide frame, and it sucks a great deal of energy out of the movie before anything else has happened; the handful of times that anything meaningfully complex is done with characters at different points on the Z-axis, it feels like a glass of water in the desert, but it's not enough to make the film feel any less like a recording of a radio show with headshots of the actors being waved around. I would also be remiss in failing to point out Cristóbal Carvajal's jazzy score, which starts out feeling like a weird mismatch for the material and never ends up being used in a way that isn't ultimately distracting.

Am I glad to have seen the film? Yes - García is really that good. But the film itself is mostly devoid of interesting content, and I'm pleased that it's a lightning-fast 73 minutes long; too much of this could easily be a straggling bore, instead of the oddly insubstantial attempt at grim seriousness that it ends up being.