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.