If nothing else, Old Cats, the latest drama from Chilean directors Pedro Peirano and Sebastián Silva (previously they collaborated on The Maid), is distinguished by one scene near its climax that manages to wring a surprising amount of heart-stopping suspense out of the simple act of an elderly woman trying to go down the stairs. As we see her struggling mightily whenever she moves her feet down a notch, each step becomes a life-or-death proposition, as thunderous in impact as the most overt act of physical violence.
The sequence works not necessarily because of any special cinematic innovation on the part of its directors, but because of how well Peirano and Silva have been able to involve us in the drama of its characters up to that point. We hold our breaths with each step that elderly woman takes because we care about what happens to her.
Her name is Isadora (Bélgica Castro) and she lives with her husband, Enrique (Alejandro Sievking), in a less-than-well-kept apartment building in Santiago. Both are eightysomethings, but, in the film’s first 20 minutes, we see how badly old age is taking its toll on Isadora: she hears foreboding noises of destruction in her head (and we hear them on the soundtrack); she talks to people who aren’t actually there; and every once in a while, she simply spaces out until Enrique snaps her back to reality. At one point, she volunteers to go outside to shop for groceries, but when she discovers that the apartment elevators aren’t working, she’s so frightened by the prospect of going down the stairs that she rushes back into the apartment and leaves her husband to do the shopping.
This reasonably vivid evocation of the depredations of old age—arguably the film’s most cinematically impressive stretch—sets the stage for its second act, in which a visit from Isadora’s wild-child daughter Rosario (Claudia Celedón) and her female partner, Hugo (The Maid’s Catalina Saavedra), revives a slew of resentments and tensions between mother and daughter. Despite the directors’ attempts to try to create a style out of cavernous close-ups and roving camerawork, this section of the film plays more like theater than cinema. Nevertheless, the incredibly complicated emotions underlying the behavior of the characters come through. Rosario has come to her mother’s apartment for the express purpose of getting Isadora to sign her and Enrique’s apartment over to her—but is Rosario merely acting selfishly, or is she sincerely thinking about her mother’s well-being? And is Isadora being understandably protective or merely stubborn by treating her daughter’s action with a vocal distrust of her motives (she’s convinced Rosario just wants to get money out of her)? Thankfully, Peirano and Silva don’t allow us to come to any easy judgments about these two characters; we are simply put in the position of spectators watching these fraught family dynamics unfold.
So when Isadora finds herself emotionally shaken by Rosario’s visible frustrations after she cruelly dashes her apartment-owning hopes, it is then that she finally makes an effort to go down her apartment stairs, in a bid to possibly offer comfort or even apologize. And because Peirano and Silva have trained such a compassionate eye on these characters, and because the actors play these roles without a trace of condescension, this sequence—the third act as a whole, really—becomes not only genuinely suspenseful, but also surprisingly moving as well.
Old Cats may not be much as cinema, but its clear-eyed, empathetic understanding of the agonies of aging and the frustrations of familial relations is nevertheless worth noting and celebrating.
The 48th New York Film festival runs from September 24 to October 10. For a complete schedule, including ticketing information, click here.