Review: NATURAL DISASTERS (Desastres Naturales), A Funny Political Film About Students And Teachers

Contributing Writer; Chile, Santiago de Chile (@jaimegrijalba)
Review: NATURAL DISASTERS (Desastres Naturales), A Funny Political Film About Students And Teachers

It's not usual to find a director under the age of 25 who actually promises not only a style but also an attitude towards the filmmaking space that he inhabits. 

That is the case of Chilean director Bernardo Quesney, who with three features has been for quite some time the most promising director to have emerged from his native land. In 2011 I had the chance to see his second film, called Efectos Especiales (Special Effects), and in a year that had films like The Turin Horse, Hugo, Margaret, Melancholia, Moneyball and A Separation, I had to call this little film that few people saw the best film of the year.

So, I was obviously excited to see his new movie. Can one compare it to his last filmmaking effort? Yes, in some ways. Does it achieve the same amount of awe and inspiration that the original had? Not quite. Is it a good movie? I'd say it's a great movie that keeps a great pace and then suddenly makes a shift and it slows down and ends on such a downer that it seems as if the film ended up being directed by someone else. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Natural Disasters is a comedy about a group of students during their last year of school, prepping for the tests that would lead them to a possible university education, and how they are confronted by a former (really old) teacher. She suddenly appears with her pink uniform and with the intention to make the class her own, even though she was fired from the school some time before. Things turn serious when she closes and blocks the door of the classroom with the students inside, promising to come out only if they explain to her why she was fired or if they offer her a new contract.

The film suddenly becomes tense and funny, mainly due to the impressive acting of the actresses that play the sacked teacher, the teacher of the children, the daughter of the sacked teacher, the principal of the school, and one of the principal's aides played, respectively, by Anita Reeves, Fernanda Toledo, Amparo Noguera, Catalina Saavedra (known internationally for her role in The Maid, the 2009 film that won Sundance) and Paola Lattus. They all bring together an adult vision and perspective to an issue that seems to be in control of the students, who don't seem to understand that much of what's going on.

The playfulness of the visual language -- stopping the action and showing hand-drawn animation over the characters to illustrate how much time is left before the parents arrive at a theater presentation some kids in the school are preparing, and thus, realize that a former teacher has taken some kids ransom -- is quite fitting and not distracting, as one would think the first time it's shown. There's also the rhythm that the film has, a constant moving forward, with dialogue that is always fast paced.

But that doesn't mean that the film is a constant movement that would tire you. There are a couple of sequences in the middle that make the whole film stop for a while, allowing for reflection: we see the surroundings of the school, students of other years playing and talking, and then someone goes to another building of the school, destroyed and corrupted. They talk about an 'incident' that is never clear, but the way that it's shown is telling in its political interpretations, and its shooting style as well as the revelation of this 'zone' reminds you of Stalker.

This is when the title kinda makes sense. The entire situation with the teachers and the students that fight among them -- in order to see if they support their former teacher or not -- is quite supportive of the theory that the situation will end up in a disaster that could be called natural due the circumstances in which it occurs. It's as if Bernardo was trying to make a statement: due to the way in which education is handled in Chile, a disaster is bound to happen, and here, at least, when it happens, it's glorious, beautiful, infuriating, and at times profound.

The film fails to go all the way with its metaphor of a complete disaster of the Chilean education system. It ends up trying to get some jabs at the revolutionary kind of people that only see the answer to the failure in the system in constant protest and violence. One can see that there's a personal experience here, but in a sense, I see that there's a reason to revolt when it's fitting, when it's actually OK to do it, without violence, and here it is taken as if everyone who tries to protest is someone who always looks for chaos before change, which is a lie in my eyes.

Nevertheless, the film still manages to be funny in its dialogue and deep in its repercussions, as well as a visual testament of the talent of Bernardo Quesney and his future as a major filmmaker from Chile.

The film played at the Cine B Film Festival in Chile and at the Havana Film Festival in Cuba this year. It will play in Chilean theaters in the first semester of 2015.

Natural Disasters

  • Zach Horton
  • Zach Horton
  • Beth Grant
  • John Diehl
  • Charles Robinson
  • Corbett Tuck
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Bernardo QuesneyChileZach HortonBeth GrantJohn DiehlCharles RobinsonCorbett TuckDrama

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