Sebastián Silva and Pedro Peirano’s Old Cats—like Silva’s last directorial effort, The Maid, which Peirano co-wrote—walks a fine line between empathetic treatment of its characters and voyeuristic freakshow gazing. If it’s the latter that ultimately wins out, particularly in regard to the elderly Isadora (Bélgica Castro), battling both oncoming dementia and her daughter’s demands to sign over her apartment, then it’s at least partially balanced by a tendency to view this principal character with a measure of non-condescending understanding.
First seen awakening in bed and immediately yelling “I don’t want to” in response to nothing in particular, Isadora goes about the day struggling with moments of absentmindedness that, taken as a whole, suggest the onset of a serious condition. When her husband, Enrique (Alejandro Sieveking), goes out for cat food and she remains stranded in the apartment due to an out-of-order elevator and a hip that won’t allow her to navigate stairs, she suffers a particular acute bout of forgetfulness as she leaves the sink running with laundry inside and ends up flooding the bathroom. In this sequence, the directors place us squarely within the scary realm of Isadora’s confused headspace, adding a subtle ambient whirr to the soundtrack and alternating between shots of the woman’s bewildered visage and her fixated points of view, both given a heightened sense of disorientation by the bob of the handheld camera.
But whatever empathy the movie builds by asking us to share Isadora’s dislocation and sense of entrapment in both her head and her apartment, they quickly squander by focusing on details that force us to view the woman as a pitiable old thing who isn’t so much a person as a fragile object we fear for. It’s a small step from sympathetic generosity to morbid bathos, but it’s one that Silva and Peirano are unafraid to take by showing us close-ups of their heroine’s feet as she first takes a few tentative steps down the staircase before returning, then as she stands ankle deep in the bathroom puddle. In a later sequence, she returns to the staircase, this time giving the descent an earnest effort as the directors force us to watch her move down step by agonizing step, isolating her groaning face, her hand desperately gripping the banister, and, once again, her feet. By the time she makes her escape and runs out like a crazy woman into a park fountain, the transition from dignified human being to helpless nutcase is complete, a transition that an unconvincing last-minute attitude change (mirroring a similarly questionable transformation in The Maid) does little to alter.
The film’s other principle character and Isadora’s chief antagonist is treated with a similar mix of condescension and compassion, though in her case the transition works in the opposite direction, moving toward a measure of sympathy. Introduced as a manic coke-sniffing opportunist who jumps from complaining about her mother’s cats to raving about a recent trip to Peru without the slightest pause, and who wastes little time waving the power of attorney papers in front of Isadora, Rosario’s (Claudia Celedón) characterization is, at least initially, confined to the twin polls of raving lunatic and unfeeling villain. Held somewhat in check by her slightly more stable girlfriend Hugo (Catalina Saavedra), this woman nevertheless repeatedly sneaks off to the bathroom for a snort of blow, engages her stepfather in a vicious exchange of words and declares in no uncertain terms “this apartment is mine!,” thus confirming the filmmakers’ penchant—apparent in their previous collaboration—for seeking out the worst aspects of human behavior only to later force a measure of redemption into their narrative’s conclusion.
Still, at least for one moment, Silva and Peirano strike the right balance, shifting their sympathy slightly from mother to daughter while treating neither like objects of amusement. As the two sit down for their long-awaited face-to-face, Rosario reaches out for Isadora’s hand which the latter quickly withdraws. “Does my touch disgust you?” Rosario asks before charging her mother with having long withheld affection and challenging her to come up with one positive memory the two have shared. Unable to dig up a single reminiscence, Isadora can only lamely reply, “I’m just not the affectionate type,” to her daughter’s charges and in these moments we realize that for all her current helplessness, Isadora may well have been a hard, unloving mother, that Rosario’s resentment might have a legitimate cause, and that her current unhappiness is more than likely at least partially her mother’s fault. But then Rosario once again waves the contract in Isadora’s face, the two have a vicious spat resulting in both women running off, and the film returns to its comfort zone of a minimally sympathetic voyeurism.