Isabel de Ayguavives’ 2013 drama El Árbol Magnético (The Magnetic Tree) is short, simple and sweet. It is an 85-minute retelling of a 24-hour reunion of a Chilean family.
The return of Bruno (Andrés Gertrúdix) to Chile, having lived in Spain and in Germany for many years, is instrumental for the get-together. The movie starts with the preparation of Marianela/Nela’s (Manuela Martelli) family for her cousin’s arrival. Her parents Carla (Catalina Saavedra) and Diego (Gonzalo Robles) want to please Bruno and prepare things he liked as they talk about him as a young adult. Later, they have a bet whether or not Bruno has gained weight with the loser washing the dishes. 🙂 Bruno arrives, and the first thing they notice is his weight. It is followed by his lack of Chilean accent. Bruno seems like a good-natured guy who smiles at every teasing and plays along to prank his aunt and cousin.
After a hearty breakfast, they leave for the farmhouse to meet up with the rest of the family. On the way there, upon the request of Bruno, they take a detour to the location of the magnetic tree (el árbol magnético). The magnetic tree (or the land that encompasses it) is strong enough to attract cars to move towards it.
Bruno and Nela climb the tree for a photo opportunity and have their first real conversation. The magnetic tree presents an interesting clash between magic realism and science, but for Bruno and Nela, it is a mute witness of their countless adventures as children. It is a tree that is the same and different at the same time, a tree that represents themselves, their outlooks in life and the persons they have become. For Bruno, it is smaller than he thought, for he has seen the world outside Chile. Nela playfully retorts that the tree also remembers the little version of him. For Nela, it is the same, with the same crevices that hold profound memories, for unlike his globe-trotting cousin, she has not moved out of her parents’ house.
When they reach the farmhouse, the rest of the family join them. There is a flurry of hugs and kisses, most of them reserved for Bruno. Then, there is endless banter, mostly about weight and diet. From the men. 🙂 Sincere happiness pervades the air as they make fun of each other (the in-law who tries so hard to appear smart by explaining everything, including the magnetic tree phenomenon), discover new things (the cousin they used to make fun of is all grown up, with a girlfriend in tow) and rediscover old habits (the guy who is in charge of the grill is still the same). Grandmother (Ruth Omemeke), the most important person in the family arrives, and everybody fusses over her. She is a woman of few words, but those words are precious stones in weight.
The farmhouse is not grand by any stretch of imagination, but the land (and water) that surrounds it is everything a child would like to have as a playground. It has thick foliage perfect for hide and seek or hunting and river with clean and clear water, whose fish are too full to bite the bait, suitable for swimming or horsing around. Based on their long and almost-too-real conversations and anecdotes, the farmhouse is key to their formative years, especially Nela’s. The farmhouse is synonymous with their childhood memory and of their grandmother.
As the day wears on, intermittent serious talks surface – grandmother’s health, Bruno’s life in Europe, life in Chile of those who are left behind, and the imminent sale of the farmhouse. Just before they sleep for the night Nela, Bruno and another cousin, Alberto (Daniel Alcaíno), have a meaningful exchange about their childhood memories. Brunos’s arrival leads to nostalgia, but Alberto finds reminiscing useless. For Alberto, the past is dead. They have to make new memories together to keep the family members close. It must be the bitterness in Alberto talking because Bruno gets to live in other countries while he spends his days, weekends included, working at a mall. They talk about buying the farmhouse and converting it into a hotel for gringos complete with orchard and horses. Nela perks up at the idea, but their lack of financial resources dashes their hopes as soon as they take form.
There are 15 characters in the movie, but each one is easily identifiable, maybe not with names, but with their own traits. Diego is the boisterous uncle who talks about his genetic tendency to be fat and has an unlimited list of “brilliant” business ideas. He must have mentioned lúcuma puree more than I could care for, but he is a fun character. Carla is the mother hen who makes sure everything is in order and everyone is in the family photo. 🙂 Nela is the wallflower. There is an aunt who is impeccably dress, with understated yet elegant jewel to boot. There is that in-law, the symbol for outsiders, who tries too hard to fit in, but is not just cool enough to do so. There is that younger cousin who is too stubborn to get out of the car, and the other younger cousin whose eyes are glued to her phone. And of course, who could forget that “cool musician” cousin with long and dirty hair toting a guitar which he could not play properly even if life depended on it. He lives up to his rockstar image by swapping saliva with his babe. Their family is so abnormally normal that they could be my family or yours.
El Árbol Magnético is about family and the attractive forces that bind its members together. It has borderline interesting characters, but its plot is a flatline as it has no peaks and troughs. I waited in vain for something, not necessarily grand, just something, to happen. But the film ended without a twist, without any drama (maybe not having a twist is the twist!!! Twistception!!!) When the film ended, I said, “huh? that was it?” Yes, that was it. It was just a family reunion, albeit an enjoyable one, and I was an intruder who eavesdropped on their unfiltered conversation.