Gustavo (Esteban Bigliardi) is a 40-something-year-old yoga instructor from Argentina living in the Chilean capital for nearly two decades. He has a super healthy lifestyle, with a vegan diet devoid of onion and garlic (items banned from the Ayurveda regime). He teaches classes of up to 15 people Monday to Friday, and has encountered students of all sorts in the past 18 years. He barely remembers some of them, who eventually cross paths with the quiet and introspective middle-aged man. One student he will not forget is a young German woman called Steffi (Celine Wempe), who insists that there has been some sort of romantic connection between the two of them. Her memories are erased after a folding screen collapses on top of her (following a minor earth tremor), leaving her completely amnesiac. Some things are better left forgotten.
Gustavo’s wife Vanesa (also a yoga instructor) files for a divorce, despite his desperate pleas for yet another chance. He does not mind that she committed adultery, but the woman is determined to seek pastures green. Meanwhile, he develops a pain in his knee. His doctor tells him that he is suffering from a broken meniscus, and that the treatment requires multiple anti-inflammatory pills, bags of ice and possibly a surgery. Instead, Gustavo opts for online physiotherapy with an obscure Russian coach (he can’t even understand the instructions, which are delivered verbally in the Slavonic language). Perhaps unsurprisingly, his injury quickly deteriorates, and he soon ends up with a plaster cast on his leg. To top it all up, his nagging mom surprises him with a visit, constantly bombarding him with advice into his personal life and also begging him to return to his native Buenos Aires.
Gustavo and Vanesa become involved with a string of old students. Friendships blossom. So does romance. And extortion. New possibilities arise. Good and bad. A 30-something-year-old pharmacist called Laura (Camila Hirane) could change Gustavo’s life in more ways than one. Our two divorcing protagonists have the opportunity to reconnect with some long-forgotten features of their past, and open door once thought permanently shut. Gustavo’s ultimate attempt at healing and revitalising takes him to a very strange retreat in the woods, where he has to mingle with some characters of questionable sanity.
Despite the many physical elements, this is not a slapstick comedy. On the contrary, the characters are laconic and serious. They accept the consequences of their shortsighted actions with the most dispassionate stoicism. Maybe Buddha – a well-known practitioner of yoga – was also a deadpan comedian.
A psychiatrist tells Gustavo that he is experiencing dysthymia (mild depression), and immediately prescribes SSRI anti-depressants. A broken limb, a broken mind – not quite what you would expect from an experienced yoga instructor, right? Ultimately, The Practice is a hilarious mockery of discipline, relaxation and meditation practices. The shoemaker’s wife is always worst shod. And the yoga instructor has the messiest inner temple. Gustavo’s mind and body are both in a very vulnerable state, and the poor man could experience a major breakdown at any moment (a freak manhole accident serves to demonstrate that his collapse is both a figurative and a literal one).
This international co-production of four countries provides viewers with some hilarious moments of failed reflection, tragic contemplation and bungled personal discovery. It reveals that mindfulness is as elusive the Cheshire Cat. Just sit back and enjoy your dysfunctional life its all of its full splendour!
The Practice premiered in the Official Competition of the 71st San Sebastian International Film Festival, when this piece was originally written. Also showing at the Turin Film Festival. The UK premiere takes place in October, as part of the BFI London Film Festival.