Though writer-director Sebastiàn Silva’s Crystal Fairy chronicles a Chilean desert road trip punctuated by psychoactive drug use and discursive digression, the film is not Fear and Loathing in the Atacama. Instead, it’s a clear-eyed look at the fragility of tentative friendships and a clash of personalities, cultures, and desires. It’s also wincingly funny: Michael Cera’s Jamie, channeling a bit of Odelay-era Beck, sets the tone with deflecting braggadocio about reading The Doors of Perception and “really getting into phenomenology” while failing to cook late-night rice for bored transvestite prostitutes. His obsession to head north with his Chilean compatriots (played by Silva’s three brothers) and to ingest mescaline from San Pedro cacti, a prospect built up to mythic proportions in his head, drives the film. However, the plan gets complicated when he ends up inviting another American, the uninhibited “free spirit” Crystal Fairy (Gaby Hoffman), along for the trip.
Silva skillfully builds the film from long stretches of improvisation and flowing banter, though his perpetually restless delirium tremens camera is shakier than any film lacking gunshots ought to be. The organic qualities of handheld work best here in the quiet, intimate instances, when you can sense the camera operator in the room and palpably feel their heartbeat and their breathing at the edges of the frame, inching into the group and the conversation like they’re along for the ride. But the sustained deployment of the technique takes on aspects of a bad trip (in both senses of the word) as we see the paranoid whipping palpitations of a camera straining to find—or unable to hold onto—what’s worth observing.
That paranoia might hew close to Cera’s character and his mescaline fixation, but the film is strongest when it actively distances itself from him, such as a moment of hilarious dissonance between the ominous orchestral crash that announces Crystal Fairy’s hopping along the expedition and Jamie’s deader-than-deadpan reaction to it. Cera holds the film together, but the Silvas and their unforced, unharried performances—all their reactions, bullshitting and brotherly rapport—bounce off him well.
Hoffman swings to the other side of the spectrum in terms of portraying the titular character, but she deftly handles Crystal’s central conceit: the way that her seeming lack of self-awareness is a totally self-conscious display. She elevates the role from a simple hippie caricature by rendering legible the whiplash of her emotional arc. Both Americans are objects of ridicule here, but the film tempers its bite by suggesting that what the pair might find in their Chilean journey isn’t some life-changing, mind-blowing experience, but some measure of understanding and redemption.
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We find another transient slice of Chilean life in The Women and the Passenger. Following the maid staff of a “love hotel” where rooms are rented by the hour, the documentary unpacks the rhythm of the maids’ workday routines and gives voice to their philosophical musings on love and sex. Directors Valentina MacPherson and Patricia Correa don’t overstay their welcome with the material, which clocks in at less than an hour. But they find ample room to let tiny details breathe, like declarations of love etched in graffiti on the interstices of wall tiles, or the mundane exchanges between the hotel patrons (the “Passengers” of the title) and the maids as they settle room charges and order room service.
The film is attentive to the labor that maintains the artifice of these spaces. The archly manufactured themes of the rooms, like the “African mask” room and the “Red Riding Hood” room (one suspects that perhaps the “Utility Room” lies right around the corner) speak to the way that hotels like this one are constructed like sites of ritual and performance. The clientele that pass through those doors might be suffused with erotic longing and an overabundance of pathos, as in their depictions in Blue Valentine and Enter the Void; yet these rooms are like any other, with toilets that need scrubbing and sheets that need changing and stripper poles that need wiping down.
The film excels at viewing these spaces through a different set of eyes. The worm’s-eye hidden cameras in the halls catch glimpses of headless patrons and arms extending out of doorways, and such a perspective feels rather voyeuristic, but when we step into the empty rooms, their flatness and the way the maids tidy them up evoke the quality of resetting a stage set, as in a scene where one maid sanitizes an acrobatic-looking apparatus she describes as “the chair of love,” all the while narrating the process. This investigation of the hotel space is tied back to the maids and their own attentiveness to their surroundings. They carry themselves like they’ve seen and heard it all, and with the thin walls and echoing hallways producing a cacophony of moans and grunts, the maids probably have. They’re affable and at ease speaking at length in front of the camera. Of course, they have their opinions about the clientele, both the couples seeking thrills or privacy, and the others coming from what’s euphemistically referred to as “the environment.”
But more enthralling are the maids’ monologues about their own romantic histories, each with their own acutely crystallized moments of heartbreak and longing. It’s the kind of disclosure that requires a presence behind the camera with the thoughtfulness to sense those moments and the patience to let them unfold. One of the maids remarks that “Sex is like art”; this documentary makes visible the otherwise invisible labor that, at least in this tucked-away place, helps to facilitate that art.