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6th April 2011

Viva! Review: The Life of Fish

This film wants to be as deep as each and every character we encounter

2 Stars

‘La vida de los peces’ is the latest offering from Chile’s golden boy director Matias Bize. At just 31 he has directed 4 features to widespread critical acclaim, and many more shorts. The Life of Fish itself has been lauded with prizes – it won the prestigious Goya Award for Hispano-American film. But once it had started I kept waiting for the penny to drop, the action to start. Even now, I am thinking to myself: clearly I am too thick-skinned, too Hollywood-numb to get the subtlety of this film. And yet – lack of plot, introspection, subtitles – I should have loved it. But I was left listening to the popcorn-rustlers. What went wrong, Matías?
Any film which sidelines plot in favour of ‘subterranean’ exploration will generally struggle with a mainstream audience. This film wants to be as deep as each and every character we encounter. It is ambitiously set in one location – an intimate house party. We view the party through the eyes of our protagonist, the prodigal Andres, who returns to Chile after a decade abroad. Slowly we uncover the central tragedy that both binds and alienates our characters from one another. It is a slow-paced dialogue-deliberate linger on the effect of loss, but lacks the usual vibrancy of Spanish cinema. Santiago Cabrera, (our too good-looking Andres), just doesn’t have the cinematic magnetism to pull it off. The real problem lies in the central relationship of Andres and Beatriz – the estranged childhood sweethearts. You don’t believe that the intelligent Bea would really go for this guy, and lacks the required emotional intensity.

This is the sort of film that eschews traditional titles in favour of insightful and obscure ones. It’s become a sub-genre in itself, and indeed a genre-signifier – films like the Squid and the Whale, or Fish Tank for that matter (what is it with aquatic life this kind of thing?). Once the meaning behind the title became clear in The Life of Fish it was slightly wince-inducing. Andres and Bea behold one another through a fish tank, all very Baz Luhrmann, and talk about the internet, and social networking. The point became laboured. Ah, of course, we are all just fish in the metaphorical sea (both world and worldwideweb), plenty more out there – or are there?


It sort of works, and it’s sort of interesting – the house is their momentary tank, neither seem able to leave despite many attempted goodbyes. However, the moment the characters need to talk about, draw attention to a device it no longer functions as a device. The magic is gone.

Pheobe Chambre

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