By: Mark Cutler
Director: Dominga Sotomayor
Runtime: 110 mins | Genre: Drama
A narrative film has to convey a lot of context very quickly. When we watch a well-made film, we usually gather within about a hundred seconds what the tone, pace and atmosphere is going to be. We might also glean something of the time, the politics. We don’t necessarily need to meet the main characters, or see the main location, in this time. Whether a film opens with desert- or streetscapes, an empty road, garbled speech, rapid-fire closeups, drone shots, or bright, shapeless bursts of colour…—what we as viewers seek is to place ourselves in a coherent milieu, within which the events to come will cohere.
Though we may not be conscious of it, class is very often one of the first things we comprehend in this time. We sense it in the character’s hair and clothes, yes; their possessions, their poise—but also in the painted walls, in paving stones, in the gaze of the camera, in the very light itself. A film cannot leave us guessing about the relative affluence of our protagonists, because nothing more thoroughly constrains what they can do and how they will do it. The sense of class is the very thread of even the most fantastical stories. To narrative continuity, it is more important than the laws of physics.
I say this to highlight Sotomayor’s mastery of the language of class in Too Late to Die Young. From the outset, she has given herself quite a set of narrative challenges. Her story is set in Chile, in the wake of the 1990 collapse of the Pinochet dictatorship. This is contextually vital but never explicitly addressed in the film, which exclusively follows a group of families in an unnamed and largely undeveloped patch of hilly country. We see familiar, even clichéd rural scenes: dusty roads; kids playing on a ramshackle fort; families assembling mismatched chairs and tables on uneven soil, preparing for a group feast. Yet we understand implicitly that this is not a portrait of provincial life. Indeed, these families are largely middle-class—an instrument maker, a painter, a travel agent. We quickly learn that they have, only recently, banded together to move here, enthralled by fantasies of those same provincial clichés.
The disconnect between fantasy and reality forms a persistent theme across the film’s many digressive strands. Sofia, a sullen 16 year old, spends the film waiting for her absent mother to make contact, to come lift her out of her situation and take her back to the city. Lucas, also 16, spends the film waiting for Sofia to show an interest in him, wilfully ignoring that she is more interested in practically everyone else. Meanwhile, we bounce from family to family as they variously confront (or withdraw from) the reality of their situation. The move—buying land, building houses, installing necessities—was a decision many families could afford to make, but cannot afford to unmake. Airy dreams of wholesome, rustic living yield to much more concrete concerns about safety (violence, fire) and livelihood (food, water). The sense of possibility sours into apprehension as an unspoken dread saturates the film.
Sotomayor largely succeeds in the difficult task she has set herself, capturing and communicating a very specific time, place, and group of people with a minimum of artifice. Her formal austerity necessitates that stories develop naturally rather than concisely, so that we are not always sure where we or the film are going from scene to scene. Yet it is a testament to Sotomayor’s command over both the camera and the performances that we are seldom lost for long. Though Too Late to Die Young perhaps becomes too hazy in its lengthy second act, it comes back into focus for an excellent sequence revolving around a new year’s party. As 1991 approaches, the community’s various anxieties—what some characters fear will happen, as much as what other characters fear won’t—largely come to pass. This is where the film leaves us: in a new, uncertain time, facing a new, ashen reality, and unable to go back.