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Proust at the beach: Bonsái is a Latin American gem

Proust at the beach: Bonsái is a Latin American gem

Bonsái
In Bonsai, Julio tans around the outline of the book, so that he’s left with a big white rectangle on his red chest, and a one-word joke that I won’t give away here.

Of the three Latin Wave films I was able to preview, Christián Jiménez’s Bonsái was by far my favorite. Based on a novella by Alejandro Zambra, the film, which will be shown Saturday night and Sunday afternoon at the Latin Wave film festival, is very visual and cinematic, but also infused with a refined literary sensibility.

The film makes numerous references to Proust, including one that is really funny, and goes on an “in search of lost time” quest that is more typical of literature than of film. If that sounds a little precious, don’t worry. Jiménez wears his literary sensibility lightly. 

The film tells the story of Julio (Diego Noguera), a lackadaisical young student and would-be writer who, in order to impress a beautiful classmate, Emilia (Nathalia Galgani), pretends that he’s a Proust aficionado. Hoping to get it read before being found out (maybe he isn’t aware that In Search of Lost Time runs seven volumes), he checks out Book One from the school library and repairs to the beach to read.

 Based on a novella by Alejandro Zambra, Bonsái  is very visual and cinematic, but also infused with a refined literary sensibility. 

 This is already pretty funny, Proust as summer reading, but Jiménez compounds the joke by having Julio fall asleep when the book open on his chest; he tans around the outline of the book, so that he’s left with a big white rectangle on his red chest, and a one-word joke that I won’t give away here.

The film then leaps forward eight years, where the formerly fresh faced Julio is now a bearded and disheveled would-be writer trying to make ends meet. He’s conducting a somewhat philosophical affair with his neighbor Blanca (Trinidad Gonzalez), whom at first I took to still be Emilia, looking a little different eight years on. I don’t know if I was being obtuse, or if tricking viewers to make that mistake is part of Jiménez’ scheme. 

Julio meets with a successful author, Gazmuri (Hugo Medina) who is looking for someone to type his handwritten manuscript. When Gazmuri gives the job to someone else, Julio pretends he’s doing it anyway, so he can tell Blanca that he’s working. In the pretense of writing Gazmuri’s novel, he instead writes his own, the one that presumably he hasn’t yet been able to write.   In it he tells the sad story of his relationship with Emilia. The story cuts back and forth in time, with him reading “Gazmuri’s” novel to Blanca by night, and her commenting on his lost love, without realizing she’s doing so.

The sight of Julio sinking into the past as he recreates it in fiction becomes very moving, but never mawkish. Jiménez and Noguera hit all the right notes, and maintain a touch of whimsy to the end.  I’d like to see this one again.

 Bonsái will be shown Saturday at 7 p.m. and Sunday at 1 p.m. at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Director Cristián Jiménez will be in attendance. For details, click here.

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