By Emma Bernstein | The Playlist June 20, 2012 at 7:01PM
Whether you are separating from your spouse or a child of parents who decide to split, divorce is a complex, sorrowful, bewildering event. It may leave questions unanswered, hearts broken, and individuals unfulfilled and without closure. Relationships are so layered that when it comes time to dissolve them, the process is anything but easy. And yet, it is at these most difficult times when the simplest words serve best. In her film, “Thursday till Sunday,” Chilean writer and director Dominga Sotomayor uses unfussy dialogue and a straightforward shooting style to translate the confusion and pain inherent in a couple’s withering marriage through the eyes of their quiet, precocious daughter.
In a last-ditch effort to save their flailing marriage, Ana and Papá (Paola Giannini and Francisco Pérez-Bannen, who isn't given a proper name) decide to take a road trip with their children, Lucía (Santi Ahumada) and Manuel (Emiliano Freifeld). Papá wishes to show the kids his father’s land in northern Chile, so they leave their home in Santiago at daybreak one Thursday. As they travel north, however, the claustrophobia of the family station wagon sets in, and tensions begin to worsen between the couple. From the back seat, Lucía observes her parents’ frequent arguments, which are, at best, poorly disguised with Spanglish. With each mile they drive, her perception improves, until she finally bursts out, “Come on! I know what you’re talking about.” Yet with her understanding comes a certain loss of innocence, and by Sunday, when the trip comes to a close, Lucía has reached a turning point in her maturity, a moment of decision that mirrors the state of her parents.
The film’s strongest element is, far and away, its cinematography, which augments the story’s subjectivity by forcing the audience into a child’s point of view. Lucía and Manuel are identified to the audience in the first few minutes, but both Papá and Ana have late introductions, their faces remaining in shadow or in profile until a brief shot through the car’s windshield captures the entire family straight-on. The camera rarely strays from Lucía’s eye level, often cutting off the heads, necks, and shoulders of adults standing around her. In the shots she’s in (which is nearly all of them), she almost always appears in extreme close-up or walks in front of the camera, leading it down her path. When absent from the frame, she’s literally replaced by the camera, which looks out the car windows at the passing countryside, or around the front seat headrests to stare at the backs of her parents’ heads.
One of the most successfully shot sequences is the film’s opening, which is done as a steady one-shot. The noises come in first over an almost black screen – a clock ticking and a hose running – before a light is turned on to reveal a bedroom with a window looking out to a garden, and Papá lifting Manuel from his bed. The camera stays put as the parent and child exit, then reenter the frame outside the window, where Ana waits next to a car half packed with coolers, chairs, and sleeping bags. The parents finish loading the car and drive away. In the entire scene, there is only one spoken line of dialogue: “Are you sure you want me to come?” Ana asks, but receives no reply. The goings-on here are clear enough, but since we don’t yet have faces or names to put to the voice, her words are eerily disembodied, particularly in the dim, early morning light. And still, the camera watches from the bedroom, removed and uninformed, establishing the decentralized perspective this film will take.
However, when enthusiasm for the camerawork dies down, we are left with a story that ambles along at a turtle’s pace. While the occasionally painfully slow pacing effectively conveys the interminable, frustrating, deathly boredom that road trips sometimes are, the conceit is well worn by the film’s two-thirds mark. The episodic structure has the potential to work very well, as road trips often become defined by the big blocks of time spent at one activity or another (usually driving or sleeping), and has its periods of success. But there are just a few too many sequences that don’t seem to move the story along at all, serving more to highlight Sotomayor’s exceptional visual skills. Great filmmaking is a wonderful thing, and this director’s talents are many, but I do wish there were one or two fewer handheld tracking shots of Lucía making her way through the Chilean wilderness. Or that they were clipped to 30 seconds, at least.
This is not to say that there aren’t some truly wonderful moments in the story. Not too far from Santiago, Papá picks up two hitchhikers, teenage girls whom the younger Lucía is clearly enamored with. As the three girls bond in the back seat we can see how Lucía is outgrowing her childhood, as well as what she will soon become. The moment is neither overwrought nor hammered down too hard, and becomes all the more poignant for it.
Although “Thursday Till Sunday” deals with a large and complicated subject, it’s a very quiet and simple film. The dialogue and score are both relatively sparse, and natural lighting provides the only illumination on screen. This bare bones approach allows the film to get into the meat of its story, but it doesn’t take advantage of this until too late in the game. Without a doubt, there are many positive elements: the footage of Chile is beautiful, the characters well fleshed out and relatable, the conclusion powerful. However, watching this film is, at times, as monotonous as driving down the Interstate. [B]