This Spanish-Chilean co-production was among the most lauded of the Valdivia Film Festival last year. Though it failed to win any official festival prizes, The Magnetic Tree (El árbol magnético) was easily one of the most spoken-about movies. It managed to get a local release before even the winner of the Chilean Competition, Raíz (Root), managed to snag one (later this year). But what is it about the film that made possible so many personal connections, both with critics and audience members?
I'm guessing that it's an issue of familiarity. The wonderful Manuela Martelli (of Alicia Scherson's The Future) plays Marianela, a young woman who lives and works with her parents. She is now residing in her grandmother's country house, where they are preparing everything to leave it behind, as they pack and prepare the land for its selling, but they are also there to welcome a cousin who had been long gone out of Chile, and has now returned to visit his family. He has a thick Spanish accent and may or may not end up being the object of desire of Marianela.
The strongest element of the movie, written and directed by Isabel de Ayguavives, is how it manages to recreate that feeling of a family reunion, specially when it comes to Chile. The long-gone cousin comes back and everyone in the family comes back together in the old country house to give it one last farewell. They all put their differences aside -- as much as they always end up coming out in the most heated moments -- and try to live together for a day or two, fish together as if time hadn't gone by, eat some roasted meat, sing, and remember better times, as if nothing bad had happened.
While those moments flow by as if they were made naturally, as if it was a documentary of the moments that you or your family had -- if you lived in Chile, that is -- that realism (or you could call it naturalism) stays at that stage. It doesn't dare to go beyond the precise and calculated portrayal of the emotions of Marianela as she feels stranded, being pulled away from a place that she feels a special connection with, more than anyone else in her entire family. That is represented in the strange phenomena that gives the name to this movie.
The 'magnetic tree' is a phenomena explained in the movie where, if someone were to turn off the engine of their car in a specific position, the car then starts to move by itself, as if a lone tree in the plain was pulling it, hence the name of the effect. It works as a metaphor, as it was a place that was visited by the family as the kids stayed kids. It was a gimmick, a game, as the explanation behind these kind of phenomena has to do with pendants and the weight of cars (and not the fact that the lone tree is actually magnetic).
Marianela feels the pull of the family, feels the energy that attracts her to the house in which her grandmother lived, maybe the only family member that she doesn't have an unresolved issue with, though manages at the same time to be the most mysterious and the one who we want to know more about. She feels that, but at the same time it's a gimmick, it's a creation, it's just a house, and even now that the family is disbanded and she doesn't feel a particular connection to anyone (not even her parents), the tree is the only remote symbol of her childhood and what it represents as she moves away.
What might be the biggest problem of the movie is how it plays with the attraction between cousins. At this time, a movie about a family that comes together after not seeing each other in a long time, the most quaint and probably expected (or even cliched) element to happen is the sexual attraction between family members, especially when it comes to cousins. The problem is that there are many other more interesting elements and routes that this movie could have gone through -- there's a couple of unexplained, strange occurrences that can be linked to some sort of magnetism, yet are never addressed -- but it decides to go the safer route, and not even comply fully to it ... thus, in a way, avoiding the cliche but at the same time playing with embracing it.
The film itself is interesting for what it manages to achieve in terms of feelings, especially for those who have a thing for nostalgia for their families and the old family reunions. But The Magnetic Tree doesn't play beyond that, and that is a shame, as with a title that is as intriguing as it is, it could have been a major player for a top spot on my list of best Chilean films of the year.
The film opened on August 1 in Spain and will open in select theaters in Chile on August 7.