By its very nature the musical film demands a suspension of disbelief. Whenever a character breaks into song the film is asking you to take a leap alongside it: to not roll your eyes at the ridiculousness of such a proposition but to smile alongside it, to warm up to it and see the world through its eyes. María Paz González’s Lina de Lima takes that plea all musicals make and ties it to its central character. Lina (Magaly Solier), as the title tells us, is from Lima. But that’s not where she lives. As a way to support her teenage son, she works in Chile for an affluent family. Spending as little money as possible in a shared boarding room, Lina is saving up to shower her family back home with Christmas presents that she hopes will make up for her absence. In her spare time, Lina Facebook stalks her son (and her ex, who’s starting a new family in Peru), goes out dancing with her cousin, and sneaks the teenage girl she takes care of into the new house her wealthy (and also divorced) father is building for her and hopes to surprise her with during the holidays.
Much like its protagonist, Lina from Lima is quite unassuming at first, which makes the moments when it unspools a full-blown musical number (set at a school Christmas pageant Lina is imagining) all the more jarring. Where a film like Roma aimed to offer its housekeeper protagonist an inner life we could access via its steady black and white cinematography, echoing Italian neorealism, Lina from Lima opts for something a tad different. It wants us to be in Lima’s head and to hear her thoughts. It just so happens that Lina, she of seductive dark eyes and long locks, has a rich inner world that has the sounds of the Andes and the vibe of a DIY discotheque. Where the mundanity of her everyday life is captured in unfussy shots that show us how invisible this dark-skinned woman is among the white elite she serves, the musical numbers show her in full bloom. In her real life she struggles with an overheated bedroom, a finished pool that’s been ruined on her watch, a parade of lovers she hosts in her boss’s in-process new house, and a looming trip she may not be able to afford any more. But in her solos, she’s adorned with heavy makeup and borderline garish dresses; she has shirtless backup dancers and glittering lights; she is the star.
There’s a provocation in marrying the musical genre with such a character. Paz González doesn’t hide how interested she is in Lina as an entry point into conversations about migrant labor, about wealth and privilege, about women’s lives of quiet desperation. Lina, after all, is stuck needing to work within a system that leaves her little to begin with: her rooming situation is dire, her relationship with her son is strained by distance, even her attempts at intimacy (however sultry and satisfying) are laced with sadness. But rather than let such themes dour and sour the mood of the film, the documentary filmmaker, here directing her first fiction film, goes for ebullience. Lina is fabulous when singing to José Manuel Gatica and Cali Flores’s score (including one song in Quechua performed by a number of Linas at a swimming pool, Busby Berkeley style) and Solier is incandescent throughout. There’s such a calm demeanor about her that when she appears dressed like Our Lady of Sorrows you sort of go with it, basking in her glow.
Lina, like the musical that introduces us to her, is inviting. But that invitation comes with a demand: a demand not to disparage her inner life or those fab musical sequences that look like budget music videos. We’re asked to inhabit them. Paz González doesn’t just want us to walk a mile in Lina’s shoes as she cleans and babysits and sends money back home. There’s a sense that she knows it’s a story that we may think we’ve seen before. It’s why she wants us to see the world Lina houses within herself. A world so glittering and so lively that it’s bewitching.
Lina from Lima screened as part of the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival.