Tediously hysterical, Old Cats presents one very bad day in the life of a family in meltdown. Mother Isadora (Bélgica Castro) is having increasingly lengthy dementia spells, daughter Rosario (Claudia Celedón) is a coke-sniffing mess angry her mom won't accept her lesbian partner Hugo (Catalina Saavadra), and it's all stepfather Enrique (Alejandro Sieveking) can do to keep the shouting spells to a minimum. That's more than can be said for writers/directors Pedro Peirano and Sebastián Silva, whose work is stagebound both in the outsize performances and claustrophobic staging. Those who like their family drama overtly actorly and confrontational may be intrigued, and fans of Silva's previous film The Maid will show up. Otherwise, box office return should be deservedly minimal.
Old Cats begins with close-ups of the decrepit titular kitties, roaming around an apartment so dusty you hope no one living there has a respiratory condition. Predictably, the title also refers to the burden of taking care of these finicky felines, but that weight isn't as bad as dealing with the monstrous Rosario. Having bounced from one failed get-rich-quick scheme to another, she and Hugo now plan to make a living selling healing Peruvian soaps picked up on vacation. But before that, Rosario wants Isadora and Enrique's apartment—a move Enrique is trying to prevent, but Isadora could permit in one of her increasing moments of incomprehension.
Dropping in uninvited and unwelcome, Rosario proceeds to make everyone's life a shouty hell. Before that, though, Isadora's senile spells manifest themselves in multiple ways. It's bad enough that the elevator in her apartment building is broken yet again, effectively confining her fragile body (she has serious hip problems) to the apartment. A water motif is soon introduced when Isadora forgets she left the tap on, almost flooding the apartment.
The hissing sound of water and the spray of mist—introduced and developed repeatedly—is the film's real through-line, a motif that's associational rather than metaphorical. It's a rare sign of subtlety for a film about a screaming family with overtly diagnosable problems: Isadora was never cut out to be a mother, and she got the daughter she deserved. But that doesn't make the proceedings any more watchable. While the mostly hapless Enrique and Hugo look on—alternately trying to break things up and/or leave mother and daughter alone to hammer out catharsis—drama is relentless, proceeding at appropriately coked-up speed.
Things culminate with the only sequence in the film that's genuinely excruciating (rather than merely unpleasant): in a senile moment, Isadora forgets she can't take the stairs and descends step by step. At this point, Old Cats plunges into quasi-horror, with every step threatening mortal peril. The unremarkable building suddenly acquires a genuine menace built into the walls and staircase, like a cut-rate Repulsion; it's the film's sole good set-piece. By the time it's over, you realize the only reason this isn't a play: it'd be impossible to get those cats to hit their marks onstage.
Distributor: Elephant Eye Films
Cast: Bélgica Castro, Claudia Celedón, Catalina Saavedra and Alejandro Sieveking
Directors/Screenwriters: Pedro Peirano and Sebastián Silva
Producers: Kimberly Jose, David Robinson and Sebastián Silva
Genre: Drama; Spanish-language, subtitled
Running time: 88 min
Release date: March 4 NY