By Eric Kohn | Indiewire August 10, 2011 at 2:19AM
The destructive earthquake that rocked Chile in 2010 provides the starting point for Sebastián Lelio's "The Year of the Tiger" (“El año del tigre”) but as a meditation on insurmountable catastrophe its intentions are highly abstract. Shot in the Chilean countryside two months after the quake struck, the movie uses the remnants of damaged homes and scattered detritus as its sets, and follows only a single character wandering through them. As his journey grows increasingly dreamlike and distant from the instigating event, "The Year of the Tiger" approaches the apotheosis of its poetic intentions before eventually--and perhaps appropriately--losing its way.
The basic premise finds middle-aged prisoner Manuel (Luís Dubo) escaping from prison along with dozens of other inmates on the night of the quake. Breaking from the crowd, he returns to the empty shell that used to be his household, now torn to shreds by a tsunami that most likely took his wife and child with it. Despondent, he continues to his mother's home and promptly discovers her corpse. From there, the narrative becomes increasingly abstract: Manuel encounters a caged tiger washed up on the rocks and sympathizes with its captivity, inspired by the existence of another life and relating to its displacement. Continuing to sift through one heap of rubble after another, Manuel technically heads north to find his wife's relatives, but really heads nowhere in particular.
With only two scenes of prolonged dialogue, "The Year of the Tiger" is virtually a silent film in which the images supersede the vague hints of a plot. Although Lelio (whose last feature was the 2009 Cannes Director's Fortnight entry "Navidad") uses a production method that calls to mind the bomb-addled World War II setting of "Germany Year Zero," his emphasis on otherworldly lyricism places the project on a surreal plane. In visual terms, Manuel's journey across a post-apocalyptic landscape is no less harrowing than "The Road," and even more hopeless because Manuel has virtually no one with whom to share his grief.
Manuel's encounter with a gun-crazy farmer who gives him accommodations for the night only furthers his perception of the world's arbitrary cruelty. Emphasizing that mounting despair, their prolonged discussion about whether or not they deserve their fates culminates with an act of violence, expanding the perception of the environment as a kind of endless purgatory.
After its mesmerizing first half, "The Year of the Tiger" begins to repeat the same images and lose some of its raw emotional strength. The ironic recurring use of a gospel song on the soundtrack ("I'm on my way to Canaan's land") provides an on-the-nose shortcut to externalize Manuel's unspoken desire to find his Shangri-la. But the movie works best when it shows more than it tells.
"The Year of the Tiger" is hardly the first speedy cinematic reaction to a natural disaster. The 2010 Chinese epic "Aftershock" incorporates the 2008 Sichuan quake into its multi-generational tale, while "Vinyan" explores the effects of the 2004 Indian tsunami as a visceral horror film. However, Lelio gets closer to the event in question than either earlier project by mostly avoiding the need to impose a detailed story on events that speak for themselves. While not a documentary per-se, "The Year of the Tiger" is unquestionably a valid document of existential frustration falling on deaf ears.
criticWIRE grade: B+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? With its unique production story and connection to recent events, "The Year of the Tiger" should generate media curiosity as it continues along the festival circuit and gains larger exposure at the Toronto International Film Festival next month. Its distribution prospects are limited, but Latin American audiences will likely embrace it.