Last year, as movies conceived and shot during the COVID-19 pandemic began to be released, we saw a sudden influx of films rejoicing in the act of moviemaking and movie-watching. From Steven Spielberg’s “The Fabelmans” to Damien Chazelle’s “Babylon,” from Sam Mendes’ “Empire of Light” to the Indian Oscar entry “Last Film Show,” a surprising number of films bred during pandemic isolation were movies about movies.
And a year later, during the final days of the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival, another movie that belongs in that company had its world premiere. “The Movie Teller,” a Spanish-language film set in Chile and made by a Danish director with a cast whose biggest names are known for French and German movies, puts an international spin on the love of movies and embraces the art of storytelling in a way that is at times profoundly moving.
The film is a mixture of genres, celebrating cinema in one scene and delving into the politics of Chile in the 1960s and ’70s in the next. It’s a portrait of hardscrabble lives in the Atacama Desert, “the driest place on earth,” but also a rapturous celebration of “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” “The 10 Commandments,” “Pierrot Le Fou,” “Spartacus,” “The Apartment,” “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” “From Here to Eternity,” “Paths of Glory” and dozens of other movies. And it’s a “Last Picture Show”-style lament for the vanishing days in which strangers came together to sit in the dark and watch images on a big screen.
It takes place 50 years ago, but feels appropriate for today — at least for anybody who still loves movies.
Lone Scherfig, best known for her Oscar nominated 2009 drama “An Education,” ended up directing the project that Brazilian director Walter Salles (“The Motorcycle Diaries,” “On the Road”) had been nurturing for years. Based on the bestselling novel by Hernán Rivera Letelier, it was written by Salles, Rafa Russo and Isabel Coixet and filmed in a small mining town in the Atacama Desert, now deserted and empty, where the action is set.
Bérénice Bejo (“The Artist”) and Daniel Brühl (“Inglorious Basterds,” “All Quiet on the Western Front”) get top billing, but the actors who really own the movie are Alondra Valenzuela and Sara Becker. Together, they play María Margarita, a young girl who lives for her family’s trips to the local movie theater every Sunday.
The father, Medardo (Antonio de la Torre), works in the local saltpeter mine, as do almost all the men in the town. The mother, María Magnolia (Bejo), cares for her four children, but still yearns for a life on stage or on screen.
Sunday at the movies is a grand ritual for the family, but that changes when an explosion puts Medardo in a wheelchair and takes away his livelihood. No longer able to afford movie tickets for the entire family, the family sends one child and has them describe the movie to everyone else – and after a couple of her brothers flub the assignment, María Margarita turns out to have a knack for remembering what she saw and capturing it in words.
“That crazy girl narrates black-and-white films like they were in Technicolor and CinemaScope,” says an amazed villager who urges Medardo to charge for his daughter’s weekly appearances as “Rita Valentina, the Movie Teller.”
This part of the story is rendered with delicacy and lyricism, aided by graceful music from Fernando Velazquez. At one point, María Margarita quotes the Shakespeare line, “We are such stuff as dreams are made on,” then adds, “I think we’re made of the same stuff as movies.” In these scenes, “The Movie Teller” finds the rhythms of those dreams and puts them on screen.
But there’s lots more going on than just the movie-telling. María Magnolia leaves her family without notice, forcing María Margarita to turn for help to a boss, Hauser (Brühl), who has always seemed unduly attracted to her mother. The workers try to unionize, hoping to ride the wave of progressivism they see sweeping the country. A local loan shark hires María Margarita to tell him a movie, but has darker plans for her. Plus, the rise of the Pinochet regime threatens to return the country to authoritarianism.
That’s a lot to juggle alongside the story of a young woman’s coming of age, but the haunting performances by Valenzuela as the young María Margarita and especially Becker as the older one keep the focus on her story. And even when the narrative veers into politics and despair, the movie never loses its faith in the power of cinema and of storytelling itself.
In its happiest moments, “The Movie Teller” is glorious and, yes, a little corny; in its darkest ones, it’s still lovely and sad. And with narration by María Margarita guiding us through the film, we eventually realize that we’re one more audience for Rita Valentina, listening to one more movie.
“The Movie Teller” is a sales title at TIFF.