Award-Winning Film Explores Race, Class and Gender Issues

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Alfred Hitchcock once said that “silent pictures were the purest form of cinema,” and films like Rara prove him right.

Though it isn’t a silent film, Rara manages to transcend language in the same ways films like Battleship Potemkin and Safety Last! were able to in the 1920s: through the power of images. The performances emphasize subtle and naturalistic physicality, the camera creates intimate moments in which the viewer feels like a member of the family and the dialogue manages to avoid translating subtext into regular text.

The award-winning film was screened by the Languages, Literatures and Cultures department on March 28 as part of the Film Intersections series, which screens films that “talk about race, class and gender,” according to assistant professor Cesar Barros, who hosted the event.

“This film talks about issues of gender in particular, but also has to do with age and coming-of-age tales,” Barros said. “I thought this was an important film.” 

Rara tells the story of a same-sex couple in Chile, Paula and Lia, who lost custody of Paula’s children to her ex-husband simply because the courts believed two women could not adequately raise them. The film, which is loosely based on real events, depicts a clear double standard, as typical adolescent rebellion in their eldest daughter Sara (portrayed with impressive subtlety by Julia Lübbert) is played off as a product of same-sex parenting; when Sara sneaks out of Paula’s home at night to smoke a cigarette, viewers get the sneaking suspicion that her behavior will be attributed to Paula’s love life rather than her own typical teenage deviance. 

The entire story is viewed from Sara’s perspective, a decision director and co-writer Pepa San Martín described in a post-screening Q&A as an attempt to address more social topics. Because Sara is the focus of the film, Rara manages to not only shed light on the stigma towards same-sex parenting, but make the case that children see and hear a lot more arguing than their parents think. In refusing to lionize Paula (Mariana Loyola) and Lia (Agustina Muñoz), San Martín and co-writer Alicia Scherson inject a powerful sense of realism into the film’s message that same-sex couples can be just as effective at raising children as heterosexual couples, but they can also make just as many mistakes.

San Martín and Scherson wrote the script over the course of a five-year span, initially with Paula as the main character. Within this span, they spent five months searching for young actresses to play Sara and her younger sister Catalina (Emilia Ossandon). Once four suitable candidates were found to play the two sisters, San Martín spent four months in a workshop with them before deciding on the final actresses. Upon casting the role of Sara, San Martín and Scherson further tweaked the script. Once the script was finished and funding was obtained (at least partially through a Chilean endowment), the film was shot over the course of five weeks. A single scene was left on the cutting room floor, trimming down Rara to a lean but powerful 88 minutes. 

If Rara sounds incredibly well-thought out, that’s because it is, in just about every way.

It’s fitting that Rara never actually shows the trial in question. It never depicts Paula rattling off platitudes about love and motherhood in a courtroom the way a trite Hollywood drama might. San Martín and Scherson refuse to emphasize the spectacle of the situation, instead opting for a far more human and empathetic approach. San Martín said that she personally knew the family on which Rara is based, but chose to keep her distance so as to avoid simply creating a biography. Rara may not be a biography, but it is as nuanced as real life.