A play on words in the original
title of On the Air (En el aire) captures the themes of this film
very well: "En el aire" means both "on the air," as in broadcast over
the airwaves, and "in the air," as in the radical ideas that were in the
air in the decades of the 1960s and 70s. On the Air centers on the
character of Alberto (Daniel Giménez Cacho), a disc jockey for a Mexican
psychedelic-themed radio station, struggling with keeping his dream for "Purple
Radio" alive at the same time that his personal life is falling apart. As
Alberto spins disc after disc of moody "hippie" music, he also offers his
thoughts over the air to his listeners, letting the music of years past prompt
a mediation on the past and its influences on the present.
Alternating between the
"present day" story and extended flashbacks to Alberto's past, On the Air offers
a tantalizing theme of love and loss, growing up, taking risks, and coming to
terms with the past in order to move on into the future. In particular, the
story returns again and again to the character of Laura (Dolores Heredia),
Antonio's first love, whom he's reaching out to over the airwaves on Purple
Radio. What will come of it? What do these people really mean to each other?
The conclusion of the film brings together these themes and offers a complex
resolution that's open-ended enough to be thought-provoking, yet also offers
enough closure to make the film feel complete. It's a sincere compliment to an
intelligent viewer: how we interpret the ending will depend on how the film has
affected us personally.
While the story is
fundamentally character-centered, it also offers a fascinating look at life in
Mexico during several turbulent decades. In the 1960s and 1970s, the same
"psychedelic" influences that touched the U.S. were at work in Mexico,
producing a generation of "hippies" who passionately desired change, a new
life, a different way of relating to each other and to the world. But On the
Air reminds us that each person relates individually to his or her
circumstances; Alberto has been shaped by what was "in the air" as he was
growing up, but in the end his choices are his own. In this respect, the film's
narrative is very well structured; we aren't shown every major event of
Alberto's life, but only those that were particular turning points in some way.
On the Air is
imaginatively filmed, with camera work that is consistently interesting without
ever feeling contrived. Dramatic close-ups provide a visual insight into the
characters' perceptions or call our attention to key details, while broader
shots are well-framed as well. I was particularly struck by the loose, lively
cinematography that captures the experience of a psychedelic concert in one
scene, and by the fascinating dream-sequences in which a young Alberto is kidnapped
by Roman soldiers. Visuals, music, and story are tightly interwoven to create a
memorable and satisfying film.
On the Air is presented
in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio which appears to be the film's original aspect ratio,
although I was unable to confirm this fact. The framing of shots makes it very
clear in my mind that the film was intended for this aspect ratio and that it
has not been pan and scanned.
There is a moderate degree of
edge enhancement, and the occasional appearance of odd colored halo effects in
the image, but on the whole it's a respectable-looking picture. The print is
quite clean, with very little noise in the image. Unfortunately for Spanish
speakers, the English subtitles are burned in; for non-Spanish speakers, at
least they're reasonably clear and easy to read (although there are a number of
misspellings and a handful of "what were they thinking?" nonsense words thrown
into the mix).
The Dolby 2.0 Spanish track is
acceptable. There's a low-level buzz in the background of the soundtrack that
keeps it from getting higher marks than average, but no other problems crop up.
The dialogue is clear and easily understandable, and the music, which is a
crucial element in the story, is correctly balanced with the rest of the track.
There are no special features
on this disc. The film has English subtitles that are not optional. Menus are
straightforward and navigable.
On the Air offers a
satisfying exploration of the emotional territory of love, loss, and memory.
With excellent performances from its cast, a polished visual feel, and a
captivating narrative, this is a film that merits attention not just from
devotees of foreign movies, but from any viewer who's looking for a
well-crafted, intelligent drama.