Sebastián Silva and Pedro Peirano, Old Cats, 2010, HD video, color, sound, 89 minutes.


THIS SUMMER HAS BEEN, unofficially and achronologically, a celebration of writer-director Sebastián Silva, a gifted dissector of bad behavior. Last month saw the release of his fourth film, Crystal Fairy, a nimble road movie about American entitlement; this week MoMA mounts a weeklong run of his third, Old Cats, nearly three years after its world premiere at the New York Film Festival in 2010.

In some respects, Old Cats, which Silva coscripted and codirected with Pedro Peirano, recalls Silva’s sophomore project from 2009, The Maid (also cowritten with Peirano). Both films are confined almost exclusively to a single dwelling and center on a fractious nuclear family; two performers from The Maid reappear in Old Cats. Each movie reveals Silva’s mastery of tone shifts, from domestic horror to mordant hilarity—which is more pronounced in Old Cats—to well-earned, never maudlin reconciliation.

The felines of the title, two tubby tabbies deemed “the kings of the house,” share a bibelot-filled, eighth-floor apartment in Santiago, Chile, with an elderly couple, Isadora (Bélgica Castro) and Enrique (Alejandro Sieveking). As he reads Ernst Gombrich’s The Story of Art in bed, she awakens and shouts, “I don’t want to!” Though Isadora’s cry is the first hint of her senility, it also suggests a repressed truth: This is how she would like to respond to any proposal by her obnoxious daughter, Rosario (Claudia Celedón), who’s just invited herself over for tea.

Rosario’s arrival and the ensuing tumult—supposedly allergic to cats, she hollers, “Fuck! Put those pigs away!” before even entering her mother and stepfather’s apartment—unfold as one of the spikiest, funniest portrayals I have ever seen of an adult child who has cast herself as an eternal victim. In between trips to the bathroom for a bump of coke, this disheveled middle-aged woman erupts into tears and recriminations after Isadora shows little interest in underwriting yet another of her daughter’s pathetic business schemes—this time marketing “healing” soaps—and refuses to sign a power-of-attorney form that would transfer the apartment to Rosario.

When Rosario’s girlfriend, Hugo (Catalina Saavedra), née Beatriz, shows up, those who have seen The Maid will be delighted by this ingenious casting: In the earlier film, Celedón and Saavedra played, respectively, the mistress of the house and the titular servant. Bedecked in Yankees cap and cargo capris, Hugo, just as much a swindler as her lover though nowhere near as enraged and indignant, tries the soft sell with the soap scheme, constantly deferring to Enrique and Isadora as señor and señora. Perilously close to caricature, Rosario and Hugo are saved from one-dimensionality by their strangely touching loyalty and affection for each other. Even Isadora, when not in a befogged state, recognizes their devotion, telling Hugo, “Thank you for loving my daughter.”

As in The Maid and Crystal Fairy, the causticity in Old Cats is eventually tempered by a genuine belief in the decency—or potential decency—of the characters, no matter how flawed (or boorish or boisterous). And no one is absolved of responsibility: to oneself, to others, to the chubby kitty purring loudly on a lap.

Melissa Anderson

Old Cats plays August 20 through 26 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.