TIFF 2023 Review: A Young Woman Looks Towards the Bigger Picture in Lone Scherfig’s Enchanting “The Movie Teller”

“Every day was exactly the same except Sundays,” María Margarita (Sara Becker) says of her life in Chile’s Atacama Desert in “The Movie Teller,” where she and her three brothers have to make their own fun when their father Medardo (Antonio de la Torre) works at a potassium nitrate mine that provides him with a living wage and a home for the family. Maria can get so bored that when dust devils touch down in the sparsely populated compound that has been erected near the mines, she runs towards it rather than away for just a little bit of excitement, though there are safer forms of entertainment, at least on the weekend when much of the town shuffles into the local theater to watch movies from abroad. Not only does Maria Margarita’s family, including her mother who she takes her name after (Berenice Bejo), put on their Sunday best for the occasion, but it becomes a full-day event when they can’t stop talking about the film they’ve just seen once they arrive home for dinner, essentially reenacting films such as “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” around the table with the kids doing their best John Wayne impressions.

Although the Danish director Lone Scherfig might seem like a curious choice to make the South American-set drama, ultimately unfolding across one of Chile’s most consequential eras as María Margarita comes of age during the rise of Pinochet during the 1960s, “The Movie Teller” couldn’t have found someone more well-suited to the specific story it wants to tell after she previously channeled her own love of movies into the endearing “Their Finest” and the film is driven by a revelatory lead turn similar to “An Education,” her most acclaimed film which made a star out of Carey Mulligan. If there’s any justice, Becker will get a similar boost from playing the headstrong María Margarita, who unexpectedly becomes the breadwinner of the family when her father is grievously injured on the job and her mother can’t bear to stay, leaving her and her brothers to find a way to keep a roof over their head. Surprisingly, they have help from Mr. Hauser (Daniel Brühl), the mining company exec who keeps the family housed even after Medardo can no longer work, but María Margarita has a special talent for remembering and recounting the films she’s seen and when people can’t make it to the cinema on Sunday or simply want another go at a movie that won’t be playing again in the region in this pre-television era, she’ll go to their house for a small fee and act out them out.

There’s a familiarity about “The Movie Teller,” which could face resistance from those who groan upon hearing the descriptor “a love letter to cinema,” but it is more likely to enchant when as much as Scherfig leans into nostalgia, she also knows when to take off any rose-tinted lenses when María Margarita’s ingenuity is borne out of the hardship she’s had to endure, standing strong for a family that would fall apart without her poise but absorbing responsibilities and pain well beyond her years. Rooted in author Hernán Rivera Letelier’s experience of growing up in such a remote place, the adaptation of his 2009 novella is a bit more sprawling as political headwinds inevitably stir up tornados that María Margarita may actually want to run from and in a packed third act, the film occasionally feels as if it’s taken on more than it can pay off. However, when the prevailing sensation is being swept up in a movie, it can’t be said that “The Movie Teller” doesn’t stay true to its central character and even more than demonstrating a passion for the medium she works in, Scherfig once again shows an infectious appreciation for those who are underestimated and in unsentimental times, the film may be described as such, leading with its heart, but staying in your mind.

“The Movie Teller” does not yet have U.S. distribution.

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