The world minimalism gets bandied about quite a bit on this site, usually by me, almost always in a positive light. I'll freely admit to being a fan of minimalist cinematic storytelling, the polar opposite of the "DO YOU GET IT?" approach of so many mainstream movies, films in which plot points, character information and even back stories are often suggested in just a few simple dialogue-free shots.
Of course with such an approach there's always the risk of the Emperor's New Clothes scenario, where eager reviewers read meanings into long silences when in fact there's simply bugger all happening, either on a narrative or subtextual level. It's sometimes a difficult call - is the director being incredibly subtle, or has he or she nothing to say? Are they telling their story through suggestion rather than overstatement, or just very, very slowly? It's a subjective call at the best of times, and I can't help feeling that Julián Hernández's Broken Sky (El Cielo dividido) sits somewhere between the two extremes.
Certainly there's nothing too complex about the story. University students Gerardo and Jonás meet on campus and immediately fall for each other. They're young, they're good looking and they're full of lust and passion. All seems fine until Sergio enters the picture and Jonás gives in to temptation, a fling that affects his feelings for Gerardo. Gerardo knows something is up, but Jonás is having trouble admitting the truth. Eventually a wedge is driven between the two lovers, but as Sergio realises what he has lost, it's Gerardo who finds comfort in Sergio's arms.
OK, love stories are not exactly renowned for their complex narratives, and often consist of the following steps: boy and girl meet, boy and girl fall in love, their relationship is tested by incident or infidelity, love triumphs and boy and girl live forever in a cloud of domestic bliss. Broken Sky may be a gay love story, but for the most part the pattern is the same. The difference, the REAL difference, is in the handling, and that's where the audience divisions appear to have set in. If you want a definition of minimalist storytelling then Broken Sky will certainly supply that for you, with the narrative simplicity intensified by director Hernández's decision to play the film largely without dialogue - I doubt the characters say more than forty words to each other in the entire film. This inevitably gives each scene a slightly artificial quality, with the actors required to convey through movement and expression what they would normally be expected to do with speech, shifting some sequences away from naturalism and towards the symbolic physical expression of a dance piece. It's a bold strategy that risks distancing the audience from the film's two young protagonists but after a while proves surprisingly involving, thanks largely to a pair of finely judged performances from Fernando Arroyo and especially Miguel Ángel Hoppe, who effectively communicate the passions and emotional turbulence their characters experience, caught in revealing close-ups and observational mid-shots by Alejandro Cantú's fluid, evocatively lit cinematography.
This non-verbal communication effectively trims the fat from a simple story, but this fat is then strapped back on through a process of dramatic repetition, with no opportunity missed in the first third to show the young couple expressing affection for each other, hammering home their feelings for each other in a way that a more tightly constructed film could communicate just as well in a fraction of screen time (having recently marvelled at the cinematic economy of It's Winter, I can't help thinking that Rafi Pitts could accomplish this in about three shots). There is almost a sense that director Hernández is so entranced by his leading men that he just kept on adding scenes that he didn't have the heart to trim later, and at two hours twenty minutes, the point will for many feel wearily laboured. The subtlety of the storytelling is also intermittently undermined by a rather clunky voice-over that points out the obvious to those not following the plot, and songs whose lyrics sometimes too closely echo on-screen events. And I can't be the only one who felt that as Sergio, Alejandro Rojo was partly cast and made up to look like a biblical incarnation of Temptation, a minor demon in human form sent to intervene in a relationship the Catholic church would frown on.
Broken Sky is an intriguing and in some ways admirable attempt at a different approach to a familiar story that is likely to mesmerise some but exhaust the patience of others. There is no doubt that the film communicates the jealousies and hurt that comes with almost any relationship worth fighting for - I'm just not convinced it needed 139 minutes to do it.
SOUND AND VISION
The anamorphic 1.73:1 transfer is pretty good on detail and appears to have naturalistic colours and a decent contrast range, but is clearly an NTSC to PAL conversion, betrayed by the judders on fast movement and the double-image freeze-frames. Black levels are fine throughout.
The soundtrack is Dolby 2.0 stereo only, which works fine for the film's use of silence and proves lively enough when need by, particularly in the night club scenes, where Decadia 2's nicely used El cielo dividido displays surprisingly strong bass. Separation is also distinct in places.
A short film devised as a prequel to Broken Sky using the same lead actor. Whether it really adds much to the back-story is another matter. The film was shot silent and set to a jazz piece - the music carries the moniker Identity, while the film's title appears to actually be I Will Sleep When I Am Dead. The picture is letterboxed, but anamorphic encoding stretches it out (just manually override this), and is not of the same quality as the feature.
There are also the usual Trailers for other Peccadillo film and DVD releases.
An intriguing experiment that may well find a small but appreciative audience, despite what some of the openly hostile comments on the IMDb might suggest. Peccadillo's DVD is very watchable, but loses a few points for the NTSC to PAL transfer.