Reviews Short Narrative

Luz (2020) – 3 stars

Director: Emilio Torres

Writer: Emilio Torres

Cast: Norma Ortiz, Lenny Chaverra, Cristián Celis

Running time: 20mins

In the superficial age in which we live, the technical aspects of filmmaking cannot be underestimated. If your production isn’t filmed on the finest of cameras, with exquisitely composed shots scattered consistently throughout its run-time, it can be hard to get an audience to give it the time of day.

At the same time, it is important to note that looks are no substitute for personality. Being able to gain the attention of an audience is meaningless if you cannot maintain that connection – and all the high-resolution technology, sumptuous cinematography and state funding in the world won’t help you there unless you have a compelling story, relatable characters, and something to say.

While Luz succeeds heartily on the first front then, it is left somewhat lacking on the second. While José Miguel Miño’s cinematography is arguably well worth a portion of the $40,000 spent making this film, director Emilio Torres’ script is badly shown up by contrast.

The action follows Luz (Norma Ortiz), a woman seemingly abandoned at the end of the Earth, seeing out her later years in a small fishing village in rural Chile. Photographs adorning her mirror suggest she has at some stage raised a daughter, and for whatever reason she is no-longer in the picture – a void in her life which is briefly filled by Renalda (Lenny Chaverra).

An immigrant from an undisclosed location, the two first meet as Renalda flees the house of Luz’ neighbour Oscar (Cristián Celis). Luz invites her inside, and over a cup of tea, we learn that Oscar lured Renalda to his house with the promise of work, offering her a room while allegedly expecting “nothing in return” (though his bigoted raving as she exits his house suggest he actually expected her to pay dearly for her stay). And that’s all we learn.

It’s one thing not to baby the audience, spelling out every single minute detail regarding your characters, but Luz is frustratingly light on character development. Aside from the brief photographic suggestion that Luz had a family, and her isolation at the start of the film, little is made of the new surrogate-daughter relationship she is apparently fostering. Conversationally there is no chemistry between our two protagonists, neither of them seems keen to share anything personal with the other – and when they do, they seem to have been dragged into it because it would make for poetic cinematography.

One scene exemplifying this is a brief exchange by the window, with Renalda staring out to the roaring ocean beneath. She explains she is staring to sea because it reminds her of her family, who she misses – and this prompts Luz to lead her to a nice spot she knows overlooking the waves. It is a nice human moment in principle, but it seems driven by style rather than substance, and doesn’t lead to either character opening up further about their past lives.

This approach maintains a kind of narrative distance which will serve as a barrier to many viewers. Without knowing more about their hopes, dreams, fears and failures, their present motivations become unclear – and the pair remain hard to relate to as a result. Such is the aimless nature of their meandering relationship; the actors also seem confused as to just what their character is supposed to want from each scene – particularly relating to the film’s closing sequence.

As the film approaches its third act, Renalda spies on Luz making a hushed phone-call, discussing music. It is later divulged that she is performing at a local folk music festival, before asking Renalda not to attend. It is left unexplained why, so we are left to wonder why Luz should be ashamed of her song. Given Oscar has already shown racist attitudes are prevalent in the village, could she be performing some material her relationship with the young Black immigrant has cast new light on for her?

No. In actual fact, it is pretty timid traditional fare – and reading the film’s description after the credits, I discovered Luz’s character was actually “a retired popular singer-songwriter.” This is surely something which should have been emphasised more in the build-up – and flagging it up would have helped emphasise Luz’s isolation (not only separated from her family, but now deprived of the fans she once had), as well as helped explain her motivation for keeping Renalda away – embarrassed by her music which no-longer has the popular sway it once had.

In any case, Renalda ignores this wish, and attends the gig. What should be a moment of connection between the two – as Luz finally shares something of herself – falls flat, however, as the scene turns on a sixpence to deliver an uncharacteristically melodramatic ending. Renalda is confronted by Oscar, who pursues her away from the venue.

This both denies the protagonists a chance to forge a human bond, or a chance for anyone at the gig to challenge his hideous attitudes on gender and race. If you are going to include ideas such as Oscars in a short, it is almost incumbent to treat them critically – and while it might have meant to, Luz botches this badly. After the brutal ending, we are left to wonder what all this was actually for?  

Pretty visually, but narratively threadbare, what appears to be a piece of realist cinema rapidly lapses into leaky melodrama, where the cast seem as confused by their motivations as the audience will be. The ambience of the crashing sea and the aching greys of the coastal sky can only paper over the cracks to a certain extent – this film sorely misses the human touch of relatable characters the audience can forge a deeper connection with.

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