Screens at CIFF: 10/16 & 10/18 & 10/19
World premiere: 16 August, 2013, Gramado Film Festival
Chasing Fireflies would be about its tender but not sentimental depiction of a reunion between father and daughter; there are critics whose first word on Chasing Fireflies would be to consider the film's depiction of isolation and human bonding; there are critics whose first word on Chasing Fireflies would be to comment on physical appearance of the adolescent actress playing the daughter, and that would be a good sign that you should stop reading those critics. But you are reading my review, and my first word on Chasing Fireflies is: rectangles.
Begad, this is a rectangular film if I've ever stumbled upon one. That is dominating sense of its visuals: the rectangular frame which is further subdivided into literal rectangles (the red shack where the main character lives is a rectangle of almost exactly the same proportions of the frame, and nearly always shown from directly head-on), or into more abstract ones, as in moments where there is a mostly rectangular empty space that catches the eye more than the business around it. Even in the absence of actual, graphic rectangles, the compositions and movements are almost always in straight lines that parallel the frame itself, and can certainly be described as planar, even when they are not rectangular in the strictest sense.
I do not raise this point because I just love rectangles so damn much, though of course I do, as do we all. It's because this very straight-lined aesthetic makes Chasing Fireflies one of the most interesting-looking films I have seen in an extremely long time, and because this same aesthetic pays off huge dividends in producing the film's very particular set of impressions and feelings. As I mentioned, one thing you could talk about if, for some odd reason, you didn't want to talk about rectangles the whole time, would be isolation. The film shows the life of Manrique (Marlon Moreno), who lives far a way from anybody at the site of an abandoned salt mine, making certain that nothing ever goes wrong (what, exactly, might go wrong is not something we are given much insight into), having no more contact on any given day than speaking to a voice on the far side of a radio who receives Manrique's reports and in exchange provides him with a daily joke that never fails to make Manrique sit patiently and stone-faced. Eventually, Manrique receives a human visitor, 12-year-old Valeria (Valentina Abril), identifying herself as the daughter he's never met before, and the rest of the movie consists of him re-learning how to engage with people and she having an opportunity to live out of what's implied to be a carefully circumscribed life; though it absolutely does not go through this stock scenario in anything like the way you're probably imagining, given the almost total rejection of pronounced emotional outbursts until the very end.
Let us return then to isolation. In the first part, Manrique is isolated with no contact other than a dog; in the remainder of the film, he and Valeria are isolated together. And let us then get back to rectangles, which are one of the absolutely key ways that director Roberto Flores Prieto depicts this isolation visually. For the very flat, side-view images that we get almost without exception serve to largely stress how little the characters are, privileging our awareness of the land, the sea, and the horizon, all of which consistently dominate shots regardless of whether not characters are in them. It's a style that makes it remarkably easy to play around with empty space, and that empty space is the best tool the director and cinematographer Eduardo Ramirez Gonzalez have to make the characters feel awfully cut off from everything altogether.
It's important to point out that absolutely nothing about this is terrifying or severe; in addition to be being uncommonly rigid in its compositions, Chasing Fireflies is always completely beautiful, in part because of a wonderful color palette that makes absolutely everything seem sun-faded, and in part because those same compositions are so fascinating to hold with your eye. It is a film that makes isolation seem attractive, in its way, and this even proves to be true of the script: for after all, it is the fact that Manrique and Valeria are alone together that they're able to reach the domestic happiness that comes upon them quite silently and without any pressure from the filmmakers or actors.
This is immensely low-key in a way that would be easy to dismiss as minor, except that the end of the film, where it finally indulges in melodrama, is far more effective than it feels like it has any right to be; it's only at this point that we can realize how carefully and subconsciously the film has been building the characters and pulling us into their lives; it's emotionally pulverising without having to be at all flashy, and all the richer for it. Which makes it, indeed, the very opposite of minor, and the fact that the film more or less ran the boards at the Gramado Film Festival awards, where I believe it premiered (information on the film is slow in coming, and without the grace of Google Translate, I wouldn't have figured out even that much) is not a sign of how much it's an easygoing crowd pleaser, but how devastatingly effective it is in the most intuitive ways possible. Subtleties of image and subtleties of acting make this a great film, not overt anything - for there is not much at all that is overt here - and it feels far more rewarding as a result