Credit: FIDMarseille
by Chris Cassingham Featured Film

Lost Chapters — Lorena Alvarado [FIDMarseille ’24 Review]

July 1, 2024

If not united by one distinct way of seeing the world, the works of L.A.-based collective Omnes Films do all encourage their viewers to at least pay attention to it. Ellipsis, divergence, and fantasy, sound and light in all the films — such as recent Cannes premieres (Christmas Eve in Miller’s Point and Eephus) as well as Topology of Sirens and Ham on Rye — invite audiences to look around themselves, investigate, and consider their relation to the world. A new film from the collective, directed for the first time by someone not from the founding quartet, premiered at the 2024 edition of FIDMarseille, and while the arms of this eccentric collective are reaching beyond themselves, the film, Lorena Alvarado’s Los Capítulos Perdidos, fittingly bears the same trademark curiosity and awareness.

An adventure film in minor key, Los Capítulos Perdidos (Lost Chapters in English) is steeped in Venezuelan literature, politics, and personal history, a stop-gap tour guided by an invisible hand. The opening credits of still photographs from an as-yet-unknown personal archive set an aspirant tone, thanks partly to the nimble trickling of Mischa Levitski’s “The Enchanted Nymph,” a mood leavener if ever there was one. Eventually, the film finds a place to rest in the contemplative hum of an urban apartment complex, set to the sound of birds and distant cars, that defines the rest of it — a mark of Alvarado’s astute sense of when and how to undercut levity without losing it.

Ena (Ena Alvarado) is visiting Caracas from abroad, staying at the home of her father, Ignacio (Ignacio Alvarado), and grandmother Mamama (Adela Alvarado). Ignacio collects books and used to own a bookstore (recently closed), while Mamama is a retiree slowly losing her memory. The loss of memory, of knowledge even, is crucial to Lost Chapters, whose core concern revolves around the gaps between what is known and unknown, remembered and forgotten, on the level of the individual and the nation. When Ena discovers a letter hidden inside a book in her father’s bookstore, it’s an allusion to a mysterious novel called Elvia written by an author — Daniel Rojas — who may or may not exist, and which may be one of the first novels to mention oil. This discovery sets her and her father off on a literary scavenger hunt where the treasures aren’t gold coins or jewels, but pieces of lost history, cultural knowledge, and childhood memories.

Ignacio has tasked himself with another challenge of greater political import: saving Venezuela’s literary heritage. Every nook and cranny of their house is filled with books, but somehow, he finds a way to bring home more, many of which are offloaded by acquaintances who have no need for vast collections and could probably use the money. At one point, Ignacio cryptically refers to a “situation” in the country responsible for the closure of his bookstore. The film never explicitly defines this, but, as with Ena and Ignacio’s search for Elvia, there are plenty of clues to follow. For example, the pandemic still looms on the periphery of daily life, as we see people walk around various book markets wearing masks while father and daughter pursue their lost book. More likely, however, the “situation” refers to the ongoing hyperinflation, mismanagement, and U.S. government sanctions that have produced Venezuela’s recent economic collapse.

Nowhere are these political realities made more manifest than in the cultural life of contemporary Venezuela. There is a prevailing sense of loss in Ignacio and Ena’s search, that something vital and rich is slipping through their fingers, no matter how real or imagined it may be. And it’s the same for the more tangible aspects of cultural exchange in the country’s capital of Caracas. The film takes pleasure in Ena and Ignacio’s divergences and setbacks in their quest to find the elusive book, but every visit to an independent bookseller, their stock arranged in disorganized shelves or precarious towers on darkened aisles, also reveals the stark gaps in the country’s cultural health, a rotted hole individuals must necessarily fill in themselves through informal networks of collectors and sellers.

This isn’t to say that Lost Chapters is a grim political statement. In fact, the film has an almost overwhelming warmth, which is most apparent in the scenes between Ena and her grandmother: they repeat the lines of a poem from Mamama’s childhood, she silently watches Ena play the piano, and they watch a soap opera on TV. But just as the entertaining search for Elvia is tempered by the reality of Venezuela’s disappearing cultural heritage, so too are these moments of levity countered by Mamama’s declining health and memory. At one point she forgets Ignacio is her son and that one of her brothers is still alive, while on a different night, she even wanders off into the neighborhood, with Ena and Ignacio searching for her without success. The uncertainty of the situation lingers like a specter until a few scenes later, when she’s seen lying on the couch listening to Ena play the piano again. Alvarado’s great strength as a filmmaker is in holding these contrasts aloft and finding grains of truth in their interconnectedness. Lost Chapters isn’t just a breezy document of contemporary Venezuela; it’s an informal archive whose acknowledgment and knowledge of its missing pieces inform its story as much as any present artifact could.

Published as part of FIDMarseille 2024 — Dispatch 1.