Review first published by Sight & Sound, May 2014
Synopsis: Santiago, Chile. Alicia has just arrived from California to visit her cousin Sara, and is introduced to Sara’s boyfriend Agustín, his sister Bárbara and American friend Brink. While Sara stays behind, pretending to resit an exam (but in fact having an abortion), Alicia heads south with the others to an island holiday home, picking up Melda, an indigenous Mapuche, on the way. Upset in turn by an abandoned puppy, a shot parrot, an amorous sheepdog, Brink’s creepy advances and her own insomnia, the isolated Alicia starts having a mental breakdown. Sara rejoins them. Alicia refuses to do a cliff dive, and goes into further mental decline. One evening, hypnotised by Agustín, Alicia burns her hand in the fire. In her attic room, she hallucinates, and then pushes her crotch into the sleeping Brink’s face. Confronted the next day, she breaks down further. Sneaking out at night, she dives from the cliff and, hysterical, is rushed to the nearest ‘doctor’ on the mainland, a Mapuche machi who performs a shamanistic ritual in which Alicia appears to die.
Review: There’s Alicia (Juno Temple), on the edge of a precipice, about to leap into the water (or perhaps fall onto the rocks) below. She is frozen, terrified, in suspense. Now we see her – and now we don’t.
Like so many key scenes in Magic Magic, this one is repeated – a doubling that can also be discerned in the film’s title, in the ubiquity of parrots (whose constant squawking forms an essential part of the film’s heady soundscape), as well as in the frequent duplication of Alicia’s image in mirrors which, by a common cinematic shorthand, figure a split in her identity. Alicia may hesitate to take the plunge, but in a sense she had already done so before the film’s narrative started, venturing for her very first time outside the United States to visit her student cousin Sara (Emily Browning) in Chile. Arriving exhausted in Santiago, Alicia is immediately swept off on a long car trip to an island holiday house in the south, where she is left with Sara’s local boyfriend Agustín (played by the writer/director’s brother Agustín Silva), his sister Bárbara (Catalina Sandino Moreno) and his gringo friend Brink (Michael Cera) while Sara attends to some business in the capital. Isolated not just geographically, but also culturally and linguistically, it is not long before this stranger in a strange land, this Alicia in Wonderland, just wants to go home.
If Sara dissembles the real reason why she has suddenly returned to Santiago, if Brink’s childish japes conceal a manipulative sadism (not to mention closeted feelings towards Agustín), this environment of illusion, alienation and increasing menace draws out Alicia’s own well-hidden secret – paranoid schizophrenia – which may or may not have been exacerbated by Agustín’s well-meaning attempts to hypnotise her. Alternatively Alicia may be ‘possessed’ by a malignant spirit, with local Mapuche shamanism providing the only proper medicine for her particular condition – or just making everything worse. One ambiguity is layered upon the next, while all are amplified through Alicia’s distorting, deluded perspective which renders this insular world strange, if not utterly, uncannily sinister. Motifs recur and shift in odd, asymptotic constellations, not unlike the maddeningly symmetrical patterns that Agustín uses in his mesmerism (and that appear, in animated form, over the film’s closing credits). Whether in Alicia’s disturbed mind or via some spirit plane, sounds (e.g. a dog’s whimpering, or a machi‘s percussion) bleed irrationally into scenes where they have no proper place – and if Alicia experiences linguistic exclusion and confusion amongst her hosts, soon they too will experience something similar in the company of the Mapuche. The sick puppy, the dead parrot, the aborted foetus, the sheep driven over the edge to a watery grave, are (mostly) realities, but they are also vivid metaphors for Alicia’s sense of abandonment and victimhood, as well as elements of correspondence in a ritual of sympathetic magic – for here, the concrete, the psychological and the animistic all blur into one spellbinding whole.
Written and directed by Sebastián Silva (The Maid, 2009), Magic Magic forms an odd diptych with his Crystal Fairy & the Magic Cactus – both made in the same year, both focussed on gringos in Chile, and both featuring Cera in unsympathetic roles. Yet Magic Magic has the literal edge, leaving its viewers poised dizzyingly between North and South (of both the Americas, and of Chile itself), between modernity and tradition, between medicine and magic, and even between life and death.