Oct 9, 2010
NYFF: Old Cats
As Pedro Peirano and Sebastián Silva, the talented writer/directors of this charming but unsettling film explained yesterday after the screening, they are a combination of Michael Haneke and Mike Leigh. This is a pretty good way to describe this film, their second outing after the excellent The Maid. Old Cats is a story about a very toxic relationship between a cold and unloving mother (Bélgica Castro), who is starting to have serious symptoms of Alzheimer's, and her monumentally screwed up 40-something daughter, (a ferocious performance by Claudia Celedón, who was the lady of the house in The Maid). Just the fact that the movie concentrates in a bad mother-daughter relationship is cause for rejoicing. There are very few of those around. It is a total bonus that it is splendidly written, extraordinarily acted and very funny and powerful.
The mother lives with her second husband (Alejandro Sieveking, Castro's husband in real life) in an apartment crammed with tchotchkes and two obese old cats. The movie was actually shot in the couple's apartment.
The daughter, who has a butch girlfriend who insists that people call her Hugo (the great Catalina Saavedra), basically wants her mother to sign the apartment to her so she can sell it and make the money that has always eluded her.
As in Mike Leigh, there is plenty of laughter about their impossibility to connect. The first time we hear of the daughter, she is on the phone asking to come see her mother and her voice is overly chirpy and phony. The mother isn't buying it. When she finally shows up, her entrance is almost a showstopper. She makes a terrible fuss about her allergies to the cats, who have to be sequestered in one room for the duration of her visit. She can't stand that the animals receive more affection than she ever did.
I was blown away by Celedón's performance, which should be as star-making as that of Catalina Saavedra's in The Maid. She is the very picture of a royal fuck up: needy, manipulative, self-involved, scheming, whiny and a loser. She seems to be surrounded by a tornado of negative energy, but by the end of the film we pity her, for it is clear that we are witnessing the result of years of maternal rejection, and at least she has tried to do something with her life, even though it was never worked.
The mother turns out to be not as sweet and vulnerable as one thinks at the beginning, but by the end, she is not as heartless either. For a moment I thought that the movie was sliding into melodrama, but Old Cats retains its dramatic and comedic integrity. The characters may change their stubborn ways, but only just enough. Or maybe not enough.
Both The Maid and Old Cats are movies that feel like nature documentaries on the behavior of the human species, but without the soothing voiceover narration. Silva and Peirano are young filmmakers who seem to be wise beyond their years, and a creative team to follow.