This Is Cristina (Ella es Cristina)

Chile (2019) Dir. Gonzalo Maza

Friendship. It is something that is supposed to last forever but we know this isn’t true. People change, circumstances change and not every relationship is built to survive these upsets in life. Those that do should be cherished, those that don’t, any mistakes made should be learned from.

Cristina (Mariana Derderián) and Susana (Paloma Salas) have been best friends since childhood, and are now in their early 30s. An aspiring cartoonist, Cristina has separated from self-absorbed writer husband Rubén (Néstor Cantillana) but neither seems to want to actually divorce. Meanwhile, Susana splits up with her boyfriend, placid vet Marcelo (Bernardo Quesney) after telling him he is boring which she soon regrets.

With Susana’s mother Andrea (Claudia Celedón) gone for a six months whilst she travels the world with her younger lover, Susana gate crashes a dinner between Cristina and Rubén. Susana tells Rubén some home truths, thinking she is speaking up for Cristina, but an angry Rubén demands they divorce, and Cristina lashes out at Susana, ending their friendship. Will they ever be friends again?

I’m not sure why the title is This Is Cristina when half of the film is devoted to Susana’s story. Granted, Cristina goes on arguably the greater journey but that isn’t to dismiss the effect the loss had on Susana and the troubles she has to face. Perhaps screenwriter turned director Gonzalo Maza felt this title was enigmatic enough that people wouldn’t mind it being misleading.

Known for writing two great, insightful films in Gloria and the Oscar winning A Fantastic Woman, Maza takes the director’s chair for this outing, staying with the female-centric stories he is very capable of spinning. Shot in black and white and with a young blonde led in Cristina, there is an immediate echo of the US indie hit Frances Ha which remains unshakable throughout, which will be viewed as either a boon or a hindrance.

Opening with Susana helping Cristina move into a new flat, she notes how Cristina never throws anything away, a subtle preface regarding Cristina’s clinging to her moribund marriage to Rubén, as the next scene ends with them sleeping together. Rubén is an egomaniac, his work taking precedent over their marriage, and he also makes sure the conversation is always about him, changing it if Cristina tries to talk about something else, but she is too passive to object.

Fortunately, she has a straight talking friend like Susana and lets Rubén have it with both barrels which backfires, her unsolicited tongue lashing expediates Rubén’s decision to make the divorce final. Now alone, Cristina pursues her dream of being a comic book writer, taking writing classes run by another self-centred man Rómulo (Roberto Farías). We wander into Hong Sang-soo territory with Rómulo being a caricature with his goatee beard, and dyspeptic, pretentious rants about art.

During one class, Rómulo explodes in fury at the absence of political opinion in a script written by student Luciana (Daniela Castillo Toro), as to him everything is about politics. So of course, Rómulo and Cristina end up together and she falls pregnant to him, typical of her weakness against strong-minded people. Again, what Cristina wants becomes secondary to what others want, and her life is put on hold whilst everyone else continues to live theirs.

The audience is supposed to feel sympathetic towards Cristina, but for someone who walks into these situations with her eyes clearly open, it is hard to feel bad about the results of her lousy choices. Whilst not completely blameless, she doesn’t deserve the constant deluge of mistreatment she receives, but it all really plays into the narrative of the one person she could always rely on, she just kicked out of her life.

Meanwhile, Susana is also dealing with unreliable users in her life, this time her father Pablo (Alejandro Goic). With mum away, recently unemployed Pablo drops by to ask Susana to take out a bank loan for him as his name is mud regarding credit. You can see where this is going already, but it serves to remind us how loyal Susana is to a fault, and despite being a forthright person, she too is vulnerable when it comes to others.

Amidst this angsty drama, there appears to be an underlying commentary about modern day Chile that isn’t so obvious to us outsiders. I might be wrong as the central themes are universal and easy to understand, yet the feeling Maza is saying something else here – little touches like how young people ride everywhere on their bikes or how the older people are the unreliable ones are pervasive hints of this.

But it does show that Maza is probably better at writing older characters as I didn’t find the cast as interesting or unique as those in his aforementioned other works. Like with Frances Ha this might be me not being in the target age group to relate to Cristina and Susana. They may be 30-somethings but they never grew up, spending most of the film acting like this was a US teen comedy. Again, this may be Maza reflecting on Chilean society or he is trying to appeal to a younger audience.  

Subsequently, attachment to the main characters will vary. Mariana Derderián brings a destructive pathos to Cristina, someone we should be shouting at but also don’t want to see trodden on with such regularity. Considerably more charismatic, the role of Susana reveals why Paloma Salas is better known for comedy but she is more than the light relief sidekick. It’s a shame her plot threads are left unresolved unlike Cristina’s.

Not wishing to sound discouraging, This Is Cristina shows some promise as a director for Maza but he may be a better screenwriter for others. I might have enjoyed it more had he not tried to emulate other films but it has something engaging about it. Others will get more from this emotionally but I didn’t hate it, and appreciated its message.   

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