One of my favorite byproducts of seeing a film, and something Cinequest is particularly brilliant at, is the presentation of a situation or idea that you may not have ever explored with your mind before. I find I’m constantly traveling to new places and gaining new perspectives as a result of my trips to the cinema and it awakens my brain in infinitely exciting and significant ways. The Illiterate was yet another film absent from my initial A list. A friend whose opinion I greatly respect and am intrigued by, but whose taste has proven to be quite different from my own thus far, put it near the top when I asked for must sees . And so, I went.
This film from Chile deals with two strong, visceral, deep and compelling women, struggling in their own very personal ways. One has lived all her life unable to read, the other, the daughter of a neighbor, is a trained teacher. Their relationship is nuanced and challenged and is captivating in unexpected ways. They have a dynamic bond that fluctuates beautifully, displaying natural but broad arcs for both that both intrigue and move. But this film hurt to watch. I mean that. It pained me physically to watch it. It was ultimately a cathartic and good hurt, with a diffusing humor present as well, but as a girl who had her share of challenges reading and writing with dyslexia (and vision issues to boot) watching this intelligent, prideful woman try to function was sincerely difficult. You can feel the shame and alienation (with both characters) in every facet of this film.
There was so much going on, so many simultaneous layers, so much subtext it was both deceptively simple and strangely overwhelming. The phrase, still waters run deep kept coming to me as I watched. On the surface long, simple, deliberate cinematography, nothing fancy or over the top, but at the same time, exploding with symbolism, every visual and word choice just steeped in metaphors. In one scene an image of a giraffe reaching to eat leaves high on a tree was in the distant background of a shot. Subtle, not overbearing or pretentious, these were the types of details that allowed the audience to subconsciously view that intimate reflective space inside a woman fiercely independent and capable but simultaneously victim. Her suffering and her successes present in every detail of the set and each careful composition.
Even the pacing in places seems to mimic the struggle of learning to read. Sounding out each frame as you would each syllable, lingering just a fraction of a second longer than tolerable as if aching for a prompt, and then catching itself and propelling us forward to the next phrase. We actively seemed to be encouraged to take a minute to process what we were seeing or just saw. And, the uses of silences and interruptions, of volume too were intense. Stillness and motion are almost characters in and of themselves. There is suffering alongside survival and accomplishment, disappointment dancing with discovery and it hits you hard and sneaks up on you all at once. The gritty, smoky, dull and dingy look to this film further feeds the realism of the situation and the stakes.
And, as if there wasn’t enough fighting off of emotion, my own love for words and challenges with doing the things the way you are “supposed to,” fitting into a norm that simply stifles the light within, the additional irony that I struggled to read subtitles in order to fully understand this film was not lost on me. The act of viewing this film was itself a symbol and informed my experience even more.
This review may be premature. This one had us stopped on the street talking, exploring, venturing and more. This might be a film I need to watch again WITHOUT subtitles and focus in on even more of the imagery used. This one is going to stick with me I think and while I wanted more closure, more answers and a different ending than I got, in many ways, after looking at the options, it was the ONLY way it could have ended. While not satisfying in some ways, it made…sense and there was relief and release in that. 4 jewels out of 5 in the review tiara for heartbreaking, layered, poetic and delicate film that leads to a journey of thought well after the credits conclude. The Illiterate has one more scheduled showing, Saturday, March 15th at 2:30pm at the San Jose Rep.