Occasionally, Netflix has been very good to the cinematic brave new world, where TV has blurred the time-honored meanings of “screening” and “streaming.” Thanks to Netflix’s graces and budgetary generosity, we’ve gotten to savor important recent films such as Alfonso Cuarón’s masterpiece Roma, Scorsese’s The Irishman, and Spike Lee’s impressive new venture, Da 5 Bloods.
As seen in the Roma phenom, Netflix has selectively bestowed its patronage on the world, one prime time example being the recent film Nobody Knows I’m Here, a wonderful, small but moving Chilean film-worth-watching. Slated to premiere at this spring’s Tribeca Film Festival, plans changed quickly given the pandemic lockdown atmosphere, film festivals having been shuttered along with much of cultural life as we’ve known it. Instead, the film’s premiere went big, and it went global on Netflix.
Visually coded, emotionally intimate, and narratively inventive, director Gaspar Antillo’s film is a quiet wonder to behold. It seems an antithesis of brasher, button-pushing and binge-promising TV fare of the day, instead leaning toward the realm of festival/arthouse cinema.
Front and center, yet also enigmatic by character definition, is former child singing star Memo, played by gentle giant Jorge Garcia with special poignancy built on a combination of inner turmoil and fantasizing and outer reticence. (Garcia is actually U.S.-born, to Cuban and Chilean parents, whose prior claims to fame include a long stint on Lost, after which the band Weezer furthered his icon status in song).
Memo’s grim present life finds him working on his uncle’s humble farm/commune on an island in the remote Chilean of Llanquihue and avoiding both the outside world and speaking, which contrasts sharply with his vivid and haunting interior life. We learn from flashbacks and fantasy sequences about his past as a gifted singer whose hefty body and non-show biz-friendly “look” turn him into a frustrated ghost singer — the actual behind-the-scenes voice for a handsome (though talent-challenged) heart throb Angelo, 25 years earlier.
Memo’s detachment from society is interrupted by the arrival of the young woman Marta (Millaray Lobos), who takes personal and romantic interest in this mysterious hermit. Without dipping into plot spoilage, suffice to say that YouTube sensationalism and reality TV exploitations stoke the fires of a cathartic confrontation with Memo’s ghosts, while commenting on the potential ravages and personal invasions of contemporary mass culture. Beneath the uglier surfaces realities lies the music, and specifically the fetching, bittersweet “theme” song of the film, finally performed by Memo — in his glittery costume — as a kind of dreamtime finale.
Nobody knows, yet everybody thinks they know, about Memo, the virtually mute, misunderstood recluse with a glorious singing voice, yearning to be heard. In this story, about life’s ghosts and the struggle to be known — by the world and by one’s self — our quiet hero gets in the last word/note.
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