Review: Old Cats
Deceptively simple—one family, one Santiago flat, one long afternoon—Old Cats takes merciless aim at the illusions of an aging rebel daughter. Filmmakers Pedro Peirano and Sebastián Silva, working from their own script, use domestic claustrophobia and ambivalent parenthood to mordant effect. As in The Maid, they tap into the complexities of female power, traditionally less a matter of what’s expressed than what’s kept in check. Uncluttered by music or expository dialogue, and shot in a real-world apartment, Old Cats feels like a home-made surveillance film.
In their early eighties, Isadora (Bélgica Castro) and her second husband, Enrique (Alejandro Sieveking) share a modest eighth-floor flat with two aging, portly cats and a lifetime’s worth of art and knickknacks. (It is both dwelling and context, not least because the actors are a couple in real-life and this is their real-life home.) The more feeble of the two, Isadora has begun to drift mentally, in thrall particularly to flowing water. Trapped in the apartment when the elevator breaks down, Isadora begins to recognize the severity of her limitations.
Unfortunately, her daughter Rosario (Claudia Celedón) does not. Inviting herself to tea, she bursts in, screaming about cat allergies, clipping Isadora’s shoulder on her way to the balcony. Blowzy and pushing 50, Rosario dresses and carries herself like a resentful teenager. She’s all appetite, stuffing, gulping, chattering, then ducking into the bathroom for a toot of cocaine. In between, she works on Isadora, hoping her mother will float her latest money-making scheme by signing over the apartment. Soon, Rosario’s lover and business partner Hugo (Catalina Saavedra) shows up. With every new arrival, the flat seems to shrink further. By the time Rosario’s smarmy brother (Alejandro Goic, in a pitch-perfect cameo) pops in, it’s hard to believe there’s any air left to breathe.
Reluctantly, Enrique agrees to accompany Hugo on a pastry run, leaving the two women alone. When Rosario pleads with her mother to recall just one fond memory of “us together,” Isadora draws a blank. Finally, she offers the excuse that, by the time Rosario was born, she was “tired,” unprepared for another bout of motherhood. Things go from bad to worse and Rosario storms down the stairs, Isadora painfully attempting to follow. When her daughter bounds out of reach, Isadora continues out of the building and on to a nearby fountain. Furious, Enrique tells Rosario, “Your mother is sick, she’s old. And you’re old, too—when will you accept that?” Perhaps never—fully—though by the end Rosario has, for a moment, seen her mother as a person rather than a role.
Castro underplays Isadora’s disorientation, retreating into herself. Her slack-featured face almost expressionless, she conveys Isadora’s bewilderment and fascination, her incipient senility less malady than head-trip. Sieveking and Saavedra fashion an awkward camaraderie between Enrique and Hugo, an ideal balance to the heavyweights they’re meant to protect. And by resisting histrionics, Celedón modulates Rosario’s resentment and greed to reveal the underlying pain.
Old Cats is a film about refusal. Rosario needs Isadora to remain implacable so that she can rebel. Isadora’s first words—“I don’t want to!”—doubtless apply as much to motherhood as they do to mortality. She objects to Enrique’s use of Hugo (“her name is Beatrice”) and the happy memory she finally summons up for Rosario proves to be not about her daughter, only herself. Though they finally come to a truce of sorts, daughter and mother are locked in a perpetual bind. Peirano and Silva refuse the cliché of imminent death as healing. Influenced by both Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee, they bring to life a pair as difficult (and nearly as indelible) as Big Edie and Little Edie in Grey Gardens.