Thirtysomething seismologist Beltrán Soler is en route from Santiago to Tokyo when geological and emotional tremors turn his LAX layover into a psychic archaeological dig. Back in movie-metropolis L.A., where he spent his first decade, he holes up in a Holiday Inn to compose an annotated inventory of the films that, so to speak, rocked his world—the ones he projected onto, slept through, or sought refuge in and has since come to idealize, live out, or simply forget. Title and Hornby-ish fanboy conceit notwithstanding, Chilean novelist Alberto Fuguet’s The Movies of My Life is less about cinemania than family betrayal. Each film on Beltrán’s list—viewed between age two and 16, in Nixon’s SoCal or Pinochet’s Chile—taps into a pungent nostalgia and a painful recovered memory; this associative exercise resolves into a faded snapshot of the Solers, a diasporic, quake-obsessed clan, itself riven with crevices.
Fuguet is best known as the polemicist behind the McOndo movement, a punning challenge to García Márquez’s Macondo. Movies doesn’t develop this supersized attitude beyond an oppositional pose—an eerie premonition is defensively described as “befitting a bad magical realism novel.” One wonders, too, if a writer who can so unblinkingly rope Yul Brynner into his protagonist’s extended family (for the King and I chapter, no less) has any business complaining about levitating grandmothers. The strain of freighting every movie with a real-life parallel takes its toll—did Beltrán really need to see The Sound of Music with a neighbor’s all-singing brood? Still, Movies straddles its most traumatic fault line with aplomb: 10-year-old Beltrán is uprooted from Encino, where kids re-create The Poseidon Adventure in the tub, and whisked to post-coup Chile, where the first movie he sees is Soylent Green, a vision of authoritarian atrocity that causes him to flee the theater in a panic.