Take a cinematic trip to Chile with the exceptionally romantic new film The Strong Ones
Released digitally this week, the gay love story won big on last year's LGBTQ film festival circuit
Queeries is a weekly column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens.
As we all struggle to figure out what's left for us to watch (or what we feel emotionally capable of watching) during this our 10th month of pandemic existence, may I make a romantic suggestion: Omar Zúñiga Hidalgo's feature directorial debut The Strong Ones, which was just released digitally this week. One of the highlights of last year's mostly virtual LGBTQ film festival circuit, the film won the top prize at L.A.'s Outfest, Montreal's Image+Nation and Miami's OUTShine Festival (among many others). If you missed it at one of those festivals, now is definitely a good time to warm up a winter night with this Chilean import.
The film follows Lucas (Samuel González), a man who travels to a remote town in southern Chile to visit his sister before he heads to Montreal for grad school. But things quickly get complicated when he falls hard for dreamy local boatswain Antonio (Antonio Altamirano). Essentially a Chilean spin on Andrew Haigh's Weekend, The Strong Ones also impressively shares that film's naturalism, intimacy and sexiness. An added bonus is that it thoughtfully transports you to a culture 9,000km south of Canada, effectively working as an alternative to our non-existent winter travel schedules.
Zúñiga started writing the film more than six years ago when he was living in New York, and he felt a strong need to set it somewhere that felt close to his "own life experiences, culture, language, to the things I had seen around me, and lived through."
"I wanted it to feel honest, raw, and genuine," he tells me. "I wanted to explore the falling in love of two young men who know who they are, who are very different, and who don't deny at any point who they are or who they love. I wanted them to be able to stand up for themselves, against any waves that might crash them, and to celebrate their love and their strength. To me this is personal, political and necessary."
He also wanted it to feel plausible within the reality of today's Chile.
"We are caught halfway between an idea of progress and a certain conservatism from the past [in Chile right now]. In the film, there is a whole range of reactions to their relationship: I wanted to take into account this complexity, this unpredictability when it comes to people around queer relationships. You see support, anonymous hostility, and halfhearted reactions around them, and in a way, I feel like that is how it would be for most Chilean queer people today."
The specifics of the geography were also important to Zúñiga.
"Since I first started writing the film, I knew that I wanted it to have that atmosphere: near the immensity of the ocean, with the fog, the forests, the rain, the fire burning inside," he says. "That geography made me feel at home, something I knew from an early age. There is also a specific culture — a certain stoicism and warmth that I feel are a big a part of the people from the south. I was very drawn to this, and I wanted to create a love letter to it, in a way."
As he continued to develop the film, a specific area came to mind for Zúñiga: the Los Rios region in southern Chile, which really ultimately becomes a character in the movie.
"In the coastal area near Valdivia, there are a few forts that were built by the Spanish a few centuries ago that were later a key part of the Chilean fight for independence," he says. "These forts are very unique in the country — we have very few constructions that can be dated that far back. They are imposing and built in stone, and they have remained, after all these years, resisting the waves that come crushing at them."
"To me, these buildings had an aura of resilience, which in many ways echoed the main relationship between Lucas and Antonio. They also remitted to the idea of independence, and that was also connected to the fiction: how you fight for it, what it means for each one of them, how they define it for themselves. These relationships between that physical environment and their romance kept evolving, making it a very important part of the film."
Zúñiga is very glad to see The Strong Ones coming out in North America, where he has a "special connection" with the independent film scene. And while the film is strongly anchored in Chilean culture, Hidalgo feels (and I very much agree) that it speaks to "our resilience, and our bravery, wherever we might be."
"The film shows us that we deserve to live the life that we want, to inhabit the communities and spaces that we are in," he says. "It also celebrates love, that connection that is hard to find, that has its own beauty in its elusive nature. I hope that people can connect with Lucas and Antonio, that they live this story as if it was their own."
What more could you ask for in a movie right now (other than maybe it also doubling as the vaccine)?
The Strong Ones is now available to rent from your cable provider or through iTunes, Amazon, YouTube, Fanadgo or Vudu.