This début film by film school graduate Valentina Reyes won the ‘National Film’ prize at the Santiago International Film Festival in 2020, an honour for the young writer-director and her classmates and tutors who helped her to get the film produced successfully. It tells the story of three generation of women in the same household – a story strongly influenced by Reyes’ autobiography. As the title implies, the house is almost a fourth character as the grandmother in the film, Emilia (Grimanesa Jiménez) has lived there for over 50 years. Mother Mónica (Trinidad González) and daughter Leonora (Bernardita Nassar) also have a strong attachment to the house, but in different ways. The house is situated in Ñuñoa, a city within the greater Santiago region now seen as a highly desirable residential area and subject to intense interest by developers.
The narrative explores some familiar themes. There is the strong relationship between Emelia (‘Leila’) and her granddaughter ‘Leo’, so that Mónica bears the heavy responsibility of attempting to hold things together and making difficult decisions. Leila is suffering from the onset of dementia. An artist since her youth, the house is full of her paintings and the possessions which remind her of her past. Leo has inherited both her interest in art and aesthetics and some of her radical and feminist values. The narrative swings between Leila and Leo while Mónica faces realities of their situation. I’m not really spoiling the plot by revealing that she realises the house has to be sold.
There are no male characters in the film as such. Reyes explains in an interview that there was initially a relationship for Leo but she decided to cut it out and focus solely on the women’s relationships with each other, partly because she thinks there aren’t enough films about women’s stories without men. This perhaps explains the 77 minute running time. Nearly all the action takes place in the house (and the garden). In many ways this is a classic female melodrama and therefore the terrific performances of the three leads are supported by the cinematography and the detailed mise en scène and music score. I enjoyed the music very much and each of these components is equally powerful. This is definitely a film to be seen on the big screen.
In her interview with a local Santiago arts website (Spanish only), Reyes explains the difficulties associated with ‘dressing’ the house chosen for the main location since it had to be dressed and ‘undressed’ for different scenes and further complicated by the availability of the three actors over the long period of production. All the effort was certainly worthwhile. In one wonderful scene Leila, unable to sleep (or is she dreaming?) wanders through rooms full of memories that are slowly revealed to be empty, having been stripped for the sale. Cinematographer Felipe Peña makes excellent use of light through windows, filters for a sense of mood and offers us a range of close-ups in a ‘Scope frame that bring us close to the characters and to Emilia in particular.
Dementia as a general condition refers to many distinct forms of illness and in this case Emilia is wrapped up in her past and her art practice – so much so that she is unwilling/unable to engage with the realities of the present. Leo finds herself intrigued and emotionally concerned with her grandmother’s memories. But as the two develop ever stronger bonds, Mónica is isolated in making difficult decisions about the future. If the film has a flaw it is in not fully representing Mónica’s anguish. In some ways, the pain of dementia falls upon the responsible carer as much as on the sufferer themselves.
Chilean cinema is on something of an upsurge over the last few years. This UK première of the film is perhaps the first cinema screening of the film outside Hispanic territories (it doesn’t appear to have been reviewed in the US or UK). Valentina Reyes, who co-edited the film as well as writing and directing it, has the potential to become a major talent. As well as other Chilean filmmakers, I was intrigued to see her name Naomi Kawase as an influence alongside Andrea Arnold, Chantal Ackerman and other familiar names. Reyes hopes to travel and study abroad and I look forward to whatever she produces in the future. Las mujeres de mi casa plays again at ¡Viva! on Wednesday 11th August at 16.00 and Saturday 21st August at 14.45. I recommend it highly. Here is a trailer (no English subs):