January 29, 2013



MAGIC MAGIC never really makes clear what it intends to be, but it’s awfully fascinating to watch.

Written and directed by the prolific Sebastian Silva, who had two films at Sundance this year (the other was the well-received Crystal Fairy), and who is best known for his art-house success The Maid, Magic is set in Silva’s native Chile.  It concerns a small group of college friends:  locals Agustin (Agustin Silva, brother of the filmmaker) and his sister Barbara (Catalina Sandino Moreno), and American exchange students Sarah (Emily Browning), who is Agustin’s girlfriend, and Brink (Michael Cera).  Their school is on semester break, and the quartet is heading for Agustin and Barbara’s lake house, located far from Santiago.  Before they leave, they’re joined by Sarah’s cousin Alicia (Juno Temple).  Like many aspects of Magic‘s plot, the reason Alicia has come to Chile is foggy, although she appears to have been sent from home because of unspecified problems she’s been having.  Alicia is jumpy and uncomfortable with new things and people, she arrives without having slept since leaving the US, and she’s not happy that she has to join her cousin on this isolated trip.

Things get much worse on the road, when Sarah abruptly announces that she has to go back to Santiago–supposedly to take an exam again, although things Alicia overhears (unless they’re hallucinations) suggest a much more personal reason for the detour.  Sarah insists that Alicia remain with the group, and she’ll rejoin them later.  Alicia becomes progressively more dissociated and paranoid, unable to sleep and tormented by the noise of birds (they sound like bats) flapping outside her window.  She’s right to think that Barbara has little use for her, and while Agustin is kind, Brink has lots of issues of his own.  He’s the kind of guy who tries to mask his insecurity with arrogance and bursts of supposedly funny minor-league sadism, and his erratic behavior is the last thing Alicia needs.

Just how unbalanced is Alicia?  That’s the question that hovers over Magic Magic, as she starts to hear and see things that aren’t there and responds badly both to alcohol and a half-serious attempt at hypnosis.  It seems at any moment as though she could harm herself or anyone else in the house, and Silva establishes a nervous, sometimes blackly comic tension.  (The photography, by the great Christopher Doyle, a veteran of Wong Kar Wai’s films, and editing by Jacob Craycroft and Alex Rodriguez, help greatly.)

The screws tighten very effectively, but then in the last act, Magic Magic suddenly turns to peasant supernatural rituals, as it heads toward an inconclusive ending that explains nothing.  One can make a theoretical argument for what’s going on–the fear and disconnection Alicia feels toward reality and toward the group, which often speaks Spanish to each other, accidentally or deliberately excluding her, is what the rest of the group feels toward these villagers (who speak in Indian dialects) and their belief in magic–but dramatically, the movie dies on its feet, its intensity adding up to neither a horror movie nor a psychological thriller, nor for that matter anything else comprehensible.

For a long while until that, though, Silva keeps pulling rabbits out of his hat.  Temple’s characteristic vagueness as an actress pays off well as Alicia seems as likely to be revealed as a maniac as she is a victim.  (The very busy Temple had 3 movies at Sundance, with roles as well in Afternoon Delight and Lovelace.)  Cera, also a star of Silva’s Crystal Fairy, is remarkably effective as someone who’s turned his terrors and resentments (mostly about sex) into weapons against everyone else, calculatingly using his words and actions like so much ground glass.

It’s hard to recommend Magic Magic in the end, because the film has to be declared unsatisfying and even annoying as a complete viewing experience.  It is, however, exactly the kind of movie film festivals are meant to feature, a display of striking talent that almost, if not quite, comes together as something special.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."