In “The Summer of Flying Fish,” Chilean documentarian Marcela Said tells a story of environmental despoliation and racial oppression, but with such obliqueness that it takes on the mystery of a dream or fairy tale. The outrage and politics lurk at the edges of the frame, but gain in urgency as the episodic narrative progresses. Though at times its elliptical impressionism trails into non sequiturs, the film’s suggestiveness and eerie beauty combine poetry with the politics, adding to the impact of each.
It begins with archetypal images: a man standing on a tiny pier that projects into a fog-covered, man-made lagoon; a teenage girl, Manena (Francisca Walker), wandering into a primeval forest. The property belongs to Manena’s father, the callous and haughty Pancho (Gregory Cohen); it’s his summer home in the wilder southern regions of Chile. But the land had once been the hunting grounds of the Mapuche Indians, who now serve as peons for Pancho. Their unrest looms just off screen, in reported instances of poaching and arson, and rumors of gangs of militant youths in the Mapuche settlement beyond Pancho’s barbed wire fences.
Manena still possesses the innocence and curiosity that allow indignation. She hears the offhand racist comments of her father’s churlish friends as they lounge and drink wine, tended to by Pancho’s servants, and catches glimpses of police brutality and other instances of oppression whenever she and her father, and sometimes her passive, alcoholic mother, drive along the narrow road through the woods beyond their estate. Mostly, though, and perhaps too symbolically, she recognizes the evils of the system in Pancho’s obsession with exterminating the carp infesting his lagoon. When catching the fish proves ineffectual, he has Pedro (Carlos Cayuqueo), a teenage Mapuche hired hand, row out and toss in a stick of dynamite. The blast doesn’t kill any fish, but it blows out one of Pedro’s eardrums. “It will heal,” one of Pancho’s louche companions sniffs dismissively.
Manena has been hanging out with a young artist, who adds edginess to his post-impressionistic paintings of sleeping children by adding splashes of blood red. He represents a spoiled, if charming, decadence. A romance between Manena and Pedro seems inevitable, but like much else in the movie, it lurks teasingly below the surface.
Though not as radical a
storyteller as Mexican director Carlos Reygadas in his surreal, similarly themed “Post Tenebras Lux,” Said makes the viewer work. Scenes begin in the middle and are cut off before they end, jumping ahead to another scene that sometimes clarifies the meaning and sometimes doesn’t, until much later in the film. Employing actual locations and amateur actors, Said applies the methods of cinema vérité to fiction to reach a deeper understanding of the truth.