Chilean director Fernando Guzzoni’s Jesus opens with 18-year-old high school student Jesus (Nicolás Durán) taking part in a K-pop dance competition that his group ends up losing. In those fleeting moments on stage, as he moves in sync with the music and bodies around him, there’s an order and purpose to his life. This sense of harmony all but dissipates once he and his closest friend and sometimes lover, Pizarro (Sebastián Ayala), leave the Santiago club to hang out at a park where they drink and huff from aerosol cans. The remainder of the film’s first act plays out in a series of loosely connected vignettes where Jesus dances, drinks, fucks, and watches drug-cartel executions—and all with an equal sense of disengagement. The film’s elliptical editing amplifies the sense of chaos and aimlessness that defines Jesus’s life as he drifts through the world with an ever-present Cheshire-cat grin on his face that suggest a willful attempt to keep his interiority at bay.
Like Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, Jesus flattens its drama to portray its teenage characters’ mundane and shocking acts with equal dispassion, refusing to ascribe causality, meaning, or judgment to their actions. Aesthetically, though, Guzzoni’s film is closer in spirit to the Dardenne brothers’ observational style, leaning on tight close-ups and handheld over-the-shoulder shots in which Jesus often occupies most of the frame. The intimacy of the compositions captures a swirling array of confusion, frustration, boredom, and anger tightly contained beneath a perpetual veil of indifference.
Jesus’s lack of direction and purpose is only further exacerbated by his father, Hector (Alejandro Goic), who travels for work and spends most of his time at home criticizing his son’s friends and lifestyle choices. While their relationship is strained, it’s clear that for all his frustration, Hector genuinely cares for Jesus but lacks the ability to connect with him on any meaningful level. At the film’s halfway point, Jesus is involved in a beating that leaves another boy in a coma, forcing his distant father into an emotionally tumultuous struggle between either saving or giving up on his wayward son.
The violent act that serves as the film’s centerpiece kicks off when Jesus and his friends, all on the brink of being completely wasted, discover a drunk, defenseless boy at a cemetery. What at first begins as harmless teasing gradually escalates to something more sinister when Beto (Gastón Salgado), a troublesome new addition to Jesus’s friend circle, shoves the boy to the ground. Jesus, who at first seemed uncomfortable with Beto’s turn to violence, eventually joins Pizarro in beating the boy until he passes out. Playing out over the course of an excruciatingly raw 10-minute stretch, this sequence is unsettling for revealing how an act of bullying can begin almost playfully before so quickly turning lethal. Through the scene’s deliberate sense of pacing and muted, naturalistic performances, Jesus’s vulnerability and inevitable self-destructiveness are fully revealed.
When Jesus finally opens up to his father in tearful regret over his role in the beating, Guzzoni resists providing reasons for the teen’s behavior and instead abruptly shifts focus to Hector in a last-ditch attempt to grapple with the moral quandaries that define other aspects of the film. This detour from the central narrative is too brief to offer much insight into Hector’s internal conflict, and though it leads the way to a powerful finale, the moral certitude behind his decision of how to deal with Jesus’s transgression feels too bluntly drawn for a film that, until then, operated primarily in shades of gray. Jesus is at its best when it steers clear of pat moralizing and simply yokes its moody sense of atmosphere to the aimlessness of the story’s young characters.