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Sebastián Lelio shot his first evening-length film in only three days. Afterwards, of course, the director spent an entire year working in the editing room. The effort put into editing the film was worthwhile: Lelio won worldwide recognition with “The Holy Family” (2006).
Born in 1974, Sebastián Lelio grew up in Chile and currently lives in the country’s capital. He studied at the Chile Film School and initially produced short films (Four, Chamber Music, 12 Minutes, Vital Burden, City of Wonders, The Kulechov Effect) and a few documentaries (Mi mundo privado, Cero) before making his debut at the 2006 San Sebastian Film Festival with the feature film “La Sagrada Familia” (The Holy Family). Currently he is at work on his fourth evening-length film, tentatively entitled “Realismo maternal” (I’m Sorry, Mom).
Sebastián Lelio’s films are intimate theatre pieces distinctly characterized by intense feelings as opposed to extraneous action. The storyline is usually confined to a few characters whose private world, revealing a limited sense of time and place, is made unsteady: During the Easter holidays suppressed sexual urges break up an entire family (“The Holy Family”, 2006). Three young people celebrate their own festival of love (“Christmas”, 2009). Or a prisoner escapes and encounters a stranded tiger (“The Year of the Tiger”, 2011). Lelio’s microcosms are largely improvised, and he views his films as a cross between documentary and feature filmmaking.
Neither the dialogue nor actors’ movements are predetermined by the direction. Yet the imagery and soundtrack are conceived with great care. To a large degree, sounds decisively dictate the atmosphere in “The Year of the Tiger” (2011): the surge of the tides, the cries of the injured, and the singing from the church. What Lelio’s films have in common is their swift, shaky, handheld camera. In his films the actors take liberties with their movements, and so the camera follows them and never the reverse. The emphatic use of close-ups underscores the protagonists’ feelings, which are critical to the action.
Family conflicts and the lack of human contact play central roles in Sebastián Lelio’s films. In his debut film, “The Holy Family”, the façade of a family crumbles during the course of an Easter weekend. Marco, who studies architecture, goes to his family’s beach house, and meeting his girlfriend Sofia brings hidden urges to the surface. Ultimately, not only Marco’s parents, but a young female neighbour and two of Marco’s buddies as well end up becoming part of an erotic and emotional carrousel. Frequently compared to Pasolini’s “Theorema”, the film is stylistically more akin to works by John Cassavetes. Sebastián Lelio’s debut film was shown at more than a hundred film festivals and received numerous international prizes, which included the best film and film critics’ awards at the Toulouse Film Festival, first prize at the Era New Horizon’s Film Festival in Poland, and best feature film award at the Seoul Film Festival.
Sebastián Lelio considers Catholic holidays the ideal breeding ground for familial maturing processes. The three protagonists of “Christmas” (2009) become entangled in a sexual, social identity crisis on Christmas night. This time the film is about three adolescents – the young Ale, his girlfriend Aurora, and the runaway Alicia. After escaping from their parents’ damaged households, they meet up again in a deserted vacation house. Here Sebastián Lelio is primarily interested in their conflicts as an expression of the “New Chile” generation, which first came into existence during the democracy. The film was made possible through the support of a work grant of the Cannes Film Festival, where its 2009 premiere was celebrated. Among other prizes, “Christmas” won the Fipresci Prize at the Transilvania Film Festival in Romania, the Special Mention prize of the Chilean film critics, and was nominated for eight Pedro Sienna awards.
Social criticism is more apparent in “The Year of the Tiger” (2011) than in any of Lelio’s previous films. The backdrop for this film is a real-life natural catastrophe. In February of 2010, an earthquake and the resulting tsunami caused the death of more than five hundred people and left thousands more homeless. An unexpected side-effect of the destruction was the escape of several hundred prisoners, but also of animals from zoos and other holding areas. Even more remarkable was the voluntary return of many of the escaped convicts, who were unable to come to terms with the chaos outside the prison walls. Sebastián Lelio’s film follows a fictionalized escapee through a destroyed Chile. His solitary getaway culminates in encountering a stranded, caged tiger. Almost without dialogue, “The Year of the Tiger” makes use of the metaphor-charged settings of the prison and a destroyed country to convey a tale about the boundaries of freedom. The film’s premiere was celebrated in the international competition of the Locarno International Film Festival, where it won the Ecology and Quality of Life Award. In addition, it was awarded the Work In Progress prize at the Santiago de Chile Film Festival. “The Year of the Tiger” is touring festivals worldwide, and was so far shown outside of Europe in Toronto.
Lelio has conceived his fourth feature film as a character study likewise an examination of a shattered family. With the working title “I’m Sorry, Mom”, the action revolves around the optimistic Luisa, left by her husband after thirty years of married life, and whose only son stays with her for a few days when he returns for his father’s second wedding.
The intended setting for Sebastián Lelio’s following film is a small foresters’ colony in the south of Chile. With this film, whose working title is “The Industrial Revolution”, his dramatic cosmos is expanded to encompass a larger community now.

Text: Maike Wetzel / English translation: Karl Edward Johnson

2012 I’m Sorry, Mom (in production) 2011 The Year of the Tiger (35 mm, 82’) 2009 Christmas (35 mm, 104’) 2006 The Holy Family (35 mm, 135’)
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