Dir. Sebastián Lelio. Chile-France. 2009. 104 mins.

Three young people share a moody, and eventually steamy, brief encounter in Sebastián Lelio’s introspective, low-budget Navidad. For much of its running time, this unapologetically low-key second film from Chilean director Lelio – following his debut La Sagrada Familia - feels claustrophobically miserable, but as its emotional encounters unfurl, it warms up considerably. The film will surely consolidate Lelio’s reputation at fests, and be a particular draw for events angled at teen/youth audiences. Even so, the intense yet decorous sexual shenanigans of its final stretch are unlikely to boost modest sales prospects.

The film is set on Christmas Eve and begins with two teenagers, Aurora (Martelli) and Ale (Ruiz), breaking into a deserted, rundown dilapidated house in the countryside. The place once belonged to Aurora’s family, and she has come in search of the record collection that belonged to her late father.

Ale, meanwhile, has been booted out of school by his stern father, who also happens to be the principal. Deciding to stay overnight, the couple mooch around, canoodle and gently bicker, until tensions between them come to a head over a letter that Ale finds addressed to Aurora. She confesses it is from another girl that she has slept with, provoking Ale’s jealousy and decision to leave.

On the way out, however, Ale finds somebody passed out in the greenhouse: 15-year-old diabetic Alicia (Rodriguez), who has run away from her mother, and hopes to meet up with the father she has never met. The older couple rescue Alicia, and the three share some food and a joint and sit around talking about life, love and other contemplative matters.

The generally claustrophobic mood of the film lifts when the trio – plus a puppy found en route – head into town for the rendezvous that Alicia has supposedly set up with her dad. As expected, the rendezvous doesn’t work out, and Aurora and Ale have to take the distraught Alicia in hand once again. The three head back to the house, where they soon find more agreeable ways to amuse themselves than opening Christmas presents. The coda, following the three in their separate directions, is sweetly philosophical and hopeful.

A character-led piece par excellence, Navidad is intelligently written, but its restricted dramatic scope means that it is just on the right side of feeling like filmed theatre. Nevertheless, the film draws energy from the charm and acting skills of its minimal three-person cast, of whom Manuela Martelli stands out as Aurora, the most experienced and confident of the trio. Diego Ruiz captures the prickliness of the confused and moody rich boy rebel, while Alicia Rodriguez’s Alicia is touchingly waifish. The sexual chemistry is palpable between the three, who throw themselves whole-heartedly into their eventual extended clinch - which proves warmly erotic despite no clothes being shed, other than Ale’s shirt.

Visually, however, the film leaves much to be admired. Benjamin Echazarreta shoots elegantly in HD, with plenty of close-ups enhancing the intimacy, but the dominant dark autumnal brown of exteriors and interiors alike becomes a drag on the eye very early on. A distinctive score sourced from Aurora’s father’s records – legendary singer Victor Jara plus assorted hippie-era Latin American pop – sporadically livens matters up.

Production companies
Divine Productions

International sales
MC Films Chile
(56) 2 33 55 467

Ursula Budnik

Sebastián Lelio
Gonzalo Maza

Benjamin Echazarreta

Sebastián Lelio
Soledad Salfate

Production design
Rodrigo Bazaes

Manuela Martelli
Alicia Rodriguez
Diego Ruiz