Writer-director Rodrigo García has a character state rather too baldly to his motel mistress in the course of Nine Lives that “we are linked to everyone and everything on this little planet.” It is the moon that draws from him this pronouncement. Despite this silliness (for the remark isn’t meant in terms of responsibility, the philosophical connective tissue explored in Michelangelo Antonioni’s great The Passenger, 1975), Nine Lives is a fine film. It consists of nine episodes, each about ten or twelve minutes long, and each of which consists of a single flexible shot. (Real time is violated just once, when the panning camera leaves a character and returns to her, in the process catching up with her in the same setting at a different time.) The protagonist of each episode is a woman or, in one case, a teenaged girl who gives the episode its title: “Sandra,” “Diana,” “Holly,” “Sonia,” “Samantha,” “Lorna,” “Ruth,” “Camille,” “Maggie.” There are connections among the episodes; a character in the background of one episode may turn up in the foreground of another. Something we learn about a character in one episode may weigh in about her or him more pointedly in another episode.
This is a “Los Angeles film”—and one way better than Paul Haggis’s Crash the same year. It opens in the L.A. County Jail, where prisoner Sandra, despite being taunted by a deputy sheriff, eagerly anticipates a monthly visit from her young daughter; but the visit is spoiled for her when the line of communication between them, a telephone, doesn’t work and she isn’t given an alternative booth for the five-minute visit, provoking an outburst of rage and grief. We are all prisoners of our deepest bonds and feelings, and two episodes later there is a confrontation between the officer and his own grown estranged daughter, Holly, who also dissolves into hysteria, having earlier remarked to her college-age sister, “If every memory were a bad one, how good that would be”—because this would resolve Holly’s gnawing ambivalence toward her father. (Holly’s sister has a wholly different relationship with their father.) In the penultimate episode, this family “hysteric” is a calm, efficient nurse at hospital; and in the episode preceding it, which includes Sandra’s arrest, we finally learn what crime Sandra committed. There is good reason she is incarcerated.
The film, which intriguingly includes some male characters who are, however differently, physically impaired, contains a damaging weakness—incompetent actors: Kathy Baker, Amy Brenneman, Robin Wright Penn, Aidan Quinn, Sissy Spacek. But at least two actors are vivid and complex: Elpidia Carrillo, who plays Sandra, and Holly Hunter, whose claustrophobic Sonia is among her greatest roles. Sonia’s marriage defines love-hate. Some of us tote prisons we feel there’s no getting out of.
Rodrigo García comes by his storytelling gifts naturally. He is the son of Nobel Prize-winning author Gabriel García Márquez.
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