Director Cristián Jiménez’s Voice Over sketches a portrait of an upper-middle-class family in Chile, flitting from one highly charged plot point to the next (a birth, a funeral, an illicit affair, the dissolution of a marriage) without probing too deeply into any of the characters or feelings involved. That can make it feel a bit like an upscale soap opera, as beautiful sisters Sofia (Ingrid Isensee) and Ana (María José Siebald), their flawless skin generally lit to a caramel glow, speculate in upscale settings about other members of their family, with an occasional break to have sex (Sofia with an inappropropriate boyfriend; Ana with a blandly supportive husband) or take care of their children.
Sofia is an actress who does voiceovers so she doesn’t have to move to Santiago for work. Ana is a new mother who moves back to Valdivia to help take care of their mother, Matilde (Gloria’s excellent Paulina García, underutilized here), after Matilde’s separation from the girls’ father. Their father is the sisters’ favorite topic of conversation because Sofia is obsessed with a secret she’s just learned about him that will, if true, force her to rethink her impression of him and of her family’s past. Ana, the older and more pragmatic sister, periodically insists they’re too old to be obsessed with what their father did or didn’t do, but she usually seems just as eager as Sofia to talk about it.
The film has a tamped-down tastefulness that makes it feel a bit sedated. Sofia, whose New Age-ish beliefs would fit right in in Hollywood, initiates a “meditation” that involves renouncing all use of cellphones and the Internet “to purify myself,” yet she keeps right on texting and Skyping, justifying her behavior as long as someone else does the typing for her, the tech equivalent of a Shabbas goy. Jiménez plays the absurd situation straight, making the repeated examples of her workarounds just feel repetitious when they might have lightened the mood by becoming a recurring joke. Potentially emotional moments are often skirted around too, like when the parents’ separation shifts from something the sisters are nervously anticipating to something that happened several months ago, the messy act itself smoothly elided.
In contrast, Jiménez and co-writer Daniel Castro sometimes hammer home their message about the messiness and mysteries of human behavior a little too hard, as when a silky voiceover pops up for the first time at the end of the film, informing us that Sofia longs for a voiceover to break in and narrate her own life, telling her how to resolve her complicated feelings about her father. The filmmakers are far more successful in capturing the mechanism many families use to try to decipher the mysteries that divide them from their loved ones—and therefore, to some degree, from themselves. The people in Voice Over, like countless other members of loving but more or less dysfunctional families, keep dissecting what they’ve heard about other members of the family, working hard to figure out what really happened and how they feel about it before—or instead of—confronting the person involved. In the process, the sisters’ gossipy talk, which seems so lightweight at first, gradually adds up to something substantial.
Film Comment Selects runs from February 20—March 5.