Indie Focus: ‘Bonsái’ makes a romantic notch in Chilean cinema

Many films are adapted from popular books, but few actually capture the tactile, emotional activities of writing and reading. In “Bonsái,” the second feature from Chilean writer-director Cristián Jiménez, love, literature, memory and a bit of botany intertwine to form a tender, bittersweet romance based on the novel by Alejandro Zambra.

“Bonsái,” which recently opened in limited release in Los Angeles, begins as a young literature student named Julio (Diego Noguera) embarks on a romance with Emilia (Natalia Galgani). They often read to each other in bed, an act as intimate as their lovemaking. Eight years later, Julio is frustrated and alone, and after lying to his neighbor and occasional lover Blanca (Trinidad González) about a job as an assistant for a famous novelist, he starts showing her what is supposedly the author’s next work. To stand in for this nonexistent book, Julio writes the story of his lost romance with Emilia.

The film shifts back and forth in time, as melancholy Julio eventually tries to fill the emotional void in his life by caring for a miniature tree.

Originally from Valdivia in southern Chile (as is the character of Julio), Jiménez began writing as a teenager, getting published and making inroads in Chilean literary circles. He earned a master’s degree in sociology and was beginning to pursue a PhD before he decided to leave academia for filmmaking.

“I know that I was a bit disappointed in what I was doing as a sociologist that had to do with a certain solipsism and doing stuff that nobody really cared about,” Jiménez, 36, said in Los Angeles last fall when “Bonsái” screened at AFI Fest. “The idea of making films felt like something that could tackle similar questions and do something that was more in touch with the world.”

A former literary critic, Zambra’s debut novel was warmly embraced by readers of Jiménez’s generation, and the writer received multiple offers for the film rights. After seeing Jiménez’s first feature, the 2009 health-care dramedy “Optical Illusions,” Zambra gave the filmmaker permission to adapt the story.

“You don’t want to put yourself in the position where people are going to say the novel was better,” Jiménez said. “I really had to think, what’s at the core of the novel that I can tackle from a film point of view that is not just translating the story, having characters say the same words and do the same things.”

Jiménez added much incident to the slim story, using the spirit of the novel as his guide. In one key invented scene, Julio falls asleep on the beach reading Proust. A subsequent sunburn on his chest marks the outline of the book and becomes a playful calling card in his initial wooing of Emilia.

“To me that’s really a moment where Alejandro’s work and my work cross paths,” he said. “That scene, I don’t know if it could be in the book because it’s a bit more offbeat or quirky, but I feel it’s connected to other stuff I’ve done, and it really worked with the themes of the book. It really is a film moment, where something happens that condenses something bigger into a single moment.”

Jiménez is one of a number of filmmakers emerging from Chile, a group that includes Pablo Larrain (“No”), Marialy Rivas (“Young and Wild”), Dominga Sotomayor (“Thursday Till Sunday”) and Alicia Scherson (“Tourists”). However, as AFI Fest programmer Dilcia Barrera noted, “Cristián’s literary influence does seem unique compared to other contemporary Chilean filmmakers.”

Barrera added, “This outburst of contemporary Chilean cinema is so new it is still very hard to put these filmmakers in true perspective to one another. What is clear is that Cristián is part of a group of filmmakers that were born into the Pinochet regime, the first generation to become adults in a post-dictatorship Chile — a new country in which they were left to deal with a very sudden sense of individualism.”

Jiménez acknowledged that the ongoing influence of the dictatorship can manifest itself in unexpected ways.

“When I was really, really young during the dictatorship, there was only one TV station and they played two movies every afternoon,” he said. “We’ve discussed among people of my generation how that has influenced us. We watched so many films, and we didn’t even know what we watched. Later, we discovered it could be Werner Herzog or Hal Ashby, in the middle of all this junk there would be good stuff. And that remained with us.”

Though not perhaps overtly political, “Bonsái” does explore how the past can weigh on the present and how breaking free of its bonds can be a struggle.

“I would say it’s about connection, the connection between art, fiction, literature and cinema and being alive,” said Jiménez of the broader themes of his film. “It’s the difference between living one’s life and telling one’s life.”