Friday 3 April 2020

Burn notice: "Nona: If They Soak Me, I'll Burn Them"

New waves were few and far between over the past decade, as the aftershocks of the 2008 financial crash were felt and funding was slashed across the board. The closest we got to one - a sustained, localised eruption of creative energy - was in Chile, which pushed forward one major filmmaker in Pablo Larraín (Post Mortem, NO, Neruda), promising discoveries in Dominga Sotomayor (Thursday Till Sunday, Too Late to Die Young), Sebastián Silva (The Maid, Crystal Fairy) and Sebastián Lelio (GloriaA Fantastic Woman), and work of a renewed vigour from veteran chronicler Patricio Guzmán (Nostalgia for the Light, The Pearl Button). This month, MUBI UK is showcasing Camila José Donoso's Nona: If They Soak Me, I'll Burn Them, the kind of wispy gamble a national film industry can only attempt when it has confidence in spades and money in the collective pot. The gamble hinges on what the film is, and what the viewer will take it for. IMDb files the film under "fantasy", which seems a stretch; it struck me as rather closer to those drama-doc hybrids the experimental sector has sent into the mainstream to confuse 21st century earthlings even more than they were already. (Thanks, hipsters.) There's some casual pyromania, as there was in Oliver Laxe's newly streaming Fire Will Come, but the arson theme is pushed even further into abstraction here, in ways that prove frankly trying. Long story short: I sat through every last one of the film's 86 minutes, and I still cannot tell you quite what I was watching. Feel free to take that as either recommendation or warning.

A literal summary may help tip the balance. On some level, the film is a study of a woman on the run: this is Nona, played/embodied/represented by the director's grandmother Josefina Ramirez, a fastidious, privileged-seeming sixtysomething introduced lobbing a Molotov cocktail in the direction of the home of her ex-lover, and thereafter observed in humdrum seclusion (which makes the film's rush digital release timely, at least) chatting with the filmmaker - or an actress playing the filmmaker - while she recovers from eye surgery. (Like much else here, it's unclear whether there's any link between this surgery and Nona's firestarting.) This back-and-forth, however, comes to be interrupted by sudden bouts of flickering, distressed home-movie footage that inspires some of the formal fascination of Bill Morrison's Decasia, while making a kind of sense within the film's sketchy narrative: these are the sort of offcuts that might well be retrieved in the wake of a major house fire, and their inclusion gestures, albeit tentatively and in the most speculative of manners, to a wider sense that Nona has torched her past, present and future simultaneously. They are also, alas, the only point where this otherwise inert intellectual exercise catches cinematic fire.

Everything else here is purely theoretical. Those filmed interviews would only serve a purpose if it were clear who exactly was asking the questions, and who exactly she was asking them of: a character called Nona, an actress reflecting her own experiences while playing this role, or an ordinary Chilean woman the filmmaker has some ties to. You wind up so busy puzzling out the precise nature of what you're watching - is this documentary? Is this a dramatised sequence in the middle of a documentary? - that the small talk of what's being said becomes secondary indeed. I'll say this in the film's favour: if it is performed, rather than vérité in the traditional sense, it's performed to a high level, such that whole stretches convince as those humdrum nothings wrongheaded folk often commit to videotape. But they are humdrum, and at no point does the film look like anything other than glitchy, artless videotape, its subjects descending into murky pools of darkness that speak not to considered lighting choices but a more general lack of illumination. In a couple of weeks' time, MUBI is scheduled to put Larraín's latest Ema before cinephiles, and advance word would suggest it's worth waiting for. In the meantime, even with the desperation for stimulation born of living under lockdown, Nona struck me as barely worth the bandwidth.

Nona: If They Soak Me, I Will Burn Them is now streaming via MUBI UK.

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