Rara, the first feature from Chilean director Pepa San Martín, is a naturalistic family drama that has charm and sentiment in spades, but doesn’t hold back with its tearing social cynicism.
Loosely inspired by a real life case in Chile back in 2004 – when a judge ruled to strip custody of the children from their biological mother on the de facto basis of her sexual orientation – Rara shows the pressures and joys of a two-child family headed by their mother and her female partner. More specifically, the focus seems to lean towards Sara, the elder sister, who is on the brink of becoming a teenager. As Sara tries to navigate conventional adolescent difficulties, her father becomes increasingly dogged in his pursuit of the kids’ custody, and the stability of the family makes a gradual slide into jeopardy.
The character work is wonderful. Not only are the two children beyond criticism – Julia Lübbert is nuanced and pitch-perfect as Sara, while Emeila Ossandon is funny and unerringly delightful as her younger sister – but Rara also boasts strong performances from the adults, particularly those playing the kids’ parents and Lía, their mother’s lover. Every action has a totally convincing motivation, and although the film doesn’t shy away from the suggestions of homophobia, or the manipulation of children, every reprehensible act is humanised and ambiguous.
“Engrossing and poignant… a work of subtle greatness”
To supplement these strengths, the film is shot with magnificent poise. Starting with a long, distinctively unhurried tracking shot, the look of the film is constantly impressive. The lighting is understated but beautiful, bringing to the surface the spectacle of the everyday. The soundtrack too is a boon, silenced for most of the film, but so powerfully present during the film’s tear-jerking climax.
Part of Rara’s brilliance is in the subjectivity of experience. By fixing the audience’s attentions (and, usually, the camera) not on the parents but on Sara, the film’s narrative is shown not through actions but through consequences. Actual plot developments are shown in facial expressions, in off-screen whispers, never made focal. By glomming our perspective to that of Sara, the film is able to cleverly, and very cinematically, explore the way in which parental disputes manifest themselves in the day-to-day psychology of a child. More than that, Rara takes excellent advantage of the age and experience gap between the audience and the protagonist. Lacking the maturity to ever fully understand what is transpiring, Sara has to suffer unexplained, unarticulated injustices, and suffers them with a child’s innocent resilience. Meanwhile we, the wiser but equally impotent audience, are left fuming at the maddening wrongness of a divorce gone toxic.
For a director’s first feature to be a great film is always a promising sign, and to be a piece as mature and insightful as Rara, doubly so. San Martín will no doubt be a hotly-tipped name on the international film circuit after this, and rightly so. Engrossing and poignant, Rara is a work of subtle greatness.
Image: Pepa San Martín