Based on Alejandro Zambra’s masterful novella, the film Bonsái is a story of love, plants, death and the literature that seamlessly links them all. Bonsái premiered at Cannes to favorable reviews and took the top prize at the Miami Film Festival earlier this year. Directed by the Chilean Cristián Jiménez (Illusiones Opticas), it is an exercise in minimalism and nuance. At the outset we are told how things will unfold: “In the end Emilia dies and Julio does not die.”
Julio, played by Diego Noguera, is a lit major and tortured writer, a drifter who ambles through the streets of Santiago in a flannel. When he meets his classmate Emilia (Natalia Galgani) at a “study” group, the connection is almost immediate. And although their relationship begins with a lie, both claiming they have read Proust, what quickly forms is a bond like neither of them has ever experienced. They share sad glances and half laughs, which, considering their nature, seem like meaningful exchanges. As their relationship continues, they spend their evenings drinking and reading, going to rock concerts and follando. Their lives, aimless as they are, intersect in some strange, poetic way that makes their existences purposeful and necessary — if only for one another.
Fast forward eight years: Emilia has moved on, is living elsewhere, and Julio is in a relationship with his neighbor Blanca (Trinidad González), a translator several years his senior (in the novella she has white hair). After the bearded Julio gets turned down for a typist job by a well-known author, Gazmuri (Hugo Medina), he begins transcribing an imaginary novel, a tale of his own. He tells Blanca he has gotten the job working with the difficult and anxious Gazmuri. Day and night he works on his novel in longhand, which Blanca thinks is Gazmuri’s. As Julio’s novel progresses, we are taken back to his days at college and the love he let slip away. The humor is dark throughout and carries with it a healthy dose of the awkward. Our lanky protagonist, almost never smiling, moves effortlessly from scene to scene, one time period to the next: Julio follando with Emilia, Julio riding the bus, Julio writing frantically in his notebook, Julio follando with Blanca, Julio and Emilia sharing their poems on the grass.
At one point, perhaps as an effort to pay homage to Emilia, whom he finds out has died, bearded Julio begins taking care of a bonsai. He studies it intensely, learns its inner workings and how to delicately preserve it. Caring for the bonsai becomes a sort of therapy, something he likens to the art of writing. He writes, sleeps with Blanca and tends to his plant, occasionally making money selling his books to a vendor.
When Blanca decides to go away and disappear from the story completely, Julio is left alone, left to his finished novel and his regrets. Before going, however, Blanca tells him that the novel is Gazmuri’s best yet. One of the final scenes, and one of the most poignant, shows Julio in a taxi. He tells the driver to drive, explaining how much money he has and asking him to simply go in any direction he chooses until his time is up on the meter.
With his signature quirk à la Wes Anderson, Jiménez weaves together the story with endearing precision, constructing each moment in a way that gives meaning to the whole. Bonsái, loveable primarily for its subtlety, is a poetic musing on what it means to lose someone you care for. It is hushed and melancholy but not sad, a work of restraint that, like the plant it is named after, deserves our attention.
Cristián Jiménez Bonsái is playing in select theaters across the country and around the world. It is also available on Netflix.