Movies about movies often evoke strong emotions, whether it be through sentimental storytelling or biting commentary. Lone Scherfig strikes the perfect balance between adoration for the cinema and the harsh realities of the world in her film, “The Movie Teller.” This beautifully crafted coming-of-age story transports viewers to the late 1960s and early 1970s in a small mining town located in the Chilean desert. While Scherfig’s direction and visual style draw on her previous period films, such as “An Education” (2009) and “Their Finest” (2016), the film struggles to overcome its flawed screenplay.
“The Movie Teller” is an adaptation of Hernan Rivera Letelier’s 2009 novel. The screenplay has undergone multiple revisions over the years, with Brazilian director Walter Salles initially taking on the project and Spanish writer-directors Isabel Coixet and Rafa Russo providing recent reworks. This cobbled-together nature of the screenplay is evident in the film’s uneven pacing and structure.
The story follows Maria Margarita, a young girl who acts out Hollywood movies she has seen at the local cinema in her mining town. As Maria Margarita grows into a young woman, played respectively by Alondra Valenzuela and Sara Becker, the film captures her journey of self-discovery. Bérénice Bejo delivers a powerful performance as Maria Margarita’s mother, Maria Magnolia, who finds herself grappling with the limitations of her life as a wife and mother in a small mining community. Antonio de la Torre portrays Maria Magnolia’s husband, Medardo, a solid character who brings depth to the role. Daniel Bruhl’s portrayal of Hauser, the German manager of the mining company, mainly entails giving knowing, sympathetic looks. Despite the international mix of talent involved in the film’s production, the Spanish-language film seamlessly brings its diverse elements together.
Scherfig’s no-frills style finds its strength in focusing on the characters’ facial expressions, conveying unspoken emotions and tensions. The camera lingers on faces, capturing Maria Magnolia’s desperation and Medardo’s weariness. These subtle moments allow viewers to glimpse the world through Maria Margarita’s eyes, offering a deeper understanding of her surroundings. Maria Margarita’s family finds solace in the local cinema, dressing in their Sunday best to watch films like “Paths of Glory,” “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence,” and “Some Like It Hot.” The film tactfully balances showcasing snippets of these classic movies without overwhelming the audience with excessive audience reactions.
When Medardo loses the use of his legs in a mining accident, the family can no longer afford multiple movie tickets. Instead, each of the children takes turns watching the film and reenacting it for the others. These humorous episodes add a light-hearted touch to the narrative, showcasing the children’s attempts to retell movies like “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” with amusing twists. However, it is Maria Margarita who possesses a natural talent for acting out films with dramatic flair, embodying characters like Jack Lemmon in “The Apartment” and Spartacus.
The film’s cinematography by Daniel Aranyo captures the desolate beauty of the Atacama Desert, juxtaposing its dusty landscape with Maria Magnolia’s vibrant wardrobe. These visual elements highlight her yearning for a life beyond the constraints of the mining town, eventually leading her to run away.
As the story leaps forward in time, Sara Becker takes over the role of Maria Margarita as an adult. She becomes a theater cleaner who supplements her income by reenacting films for both townspeople and individuals. Unfortunately, as the film rushes through significant events, it fails to fully explore the weight of these developments. Tragic turns, including a traumatic incident symbolized by Maria Margarita’s enactment of “Johnny Belinda,” are hastily glossed over.
Set against the backdrop of Chile’s political turbulence, the film subtly hints at the underlying political unrest during the time period. Workers are shown attempting to organize against the capitalist mine owners, but these scenes amount to little in terms of narrative impact. It is not until towards the end of the film, with news reports of Salvador Allende’s election as president followed by Augusto Pinochet’s military coup, that the outside world abruptly intrudes upon the hermetic town. While this choice may accurately reflect the characters’ blindsiding experience, it feels jarring amidst the film’s other dramatic plot turns.
In the end, “The Movie Teller” is a graceful yet slight addition to the movies-about-movies genre. It ambitiously attempts to tackle multiple themes but falls short in fully exploring and delivering on its big ambitions. Nonetheless, Scherfig’s direction and the performances by the cast, particularly Bérénice Bejo, resonate with viewers, making “The Movie Teller” a worthwhile watch for its intimate portrayal of a girl’s escapism through the magical world of cinema.