Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín made a name for himself a few years ago with the outré mission statement that was Tony Manero (2008), a vicious black comedy detailing life on the lowest level of Chilean society under the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet. Larraín followed it up with the similarly dark Post Mortem (2010), and now concludes what could be called a loose trilogy of films about the most infamous chapter in his country’s existence with a study of the military dictator’s unexpected, purely politically enforced downfall. Larraín has changed tack from the punkish provocations of his debut (No is actually an adaptation by Pedro Peirano of a play by Antonio Skármeta), but his method and viewpoint in tackling Pinochet’s unseating retains a fascination for the unpredictable power of media imaging to fuel the fantasies of “ordinary” people and the perverse influence of those fantasies on reality. Whereas in Tony Manero Larraín investigated the culturally deadening nature of fascism through a degraded psychopath obsessed with disco glam, here his hero is a real person, albeit one who corrals fascinating contradictions: René Saavedra (Gael García Bernal) has his cred in his name, as the son of exiled personage of the Allende years. René himself spent years in exile, too, schooled in the contemporary, first-world arts of advertising and media messaging, and has returned to his native country to work for the advertising agency run by Lucho Guzmán (Alfredo Castro), engaged in what is commonly dismissed as the shallowest and most brain-deadening, thought-clogging of arts.
René carries with him the sensibility of a different country’s youth culture, riding around on a skateboard, as if Michael J. Fox’s Back to the Future (1985) hero has been dumped in the middle of a Costa-Gavras film, and conversing easily in an argot of branding, image-consciousness, and rapid-edit razzle-dazzle. Yet he also possesses the faintly battered, haunted spirit, the melancholy eyes and taciturn frustration that infuse almost everyone about him, the awareness of an oppressive reality enforced by everyday detail and intransigent memory. René is introduced giving a spiel to executives for the soft drink Free Cola that makes it sound like the commercial they’re about to see is some great seismic shift in the zeitgeist, when it’s actually a compendium of meaningless pop images built around that most essential embodiment of western licence and enthusiasm, the rock band, including, most irritatingly to one of the execs, a mime. But René is right, to a certain extent: his ad does portend the arrival of consumer culture in Chile, something the regime claims to have fostered with its economic competence and political stability, but which will turn on its master by demanding choice and brighter colours. As international pressure mounts on Pinochet, his regime announces a referendum for the public to decide whether or not it wants the General to continue his personal rule for several more years. Most opponents assume the election will be rigged or least made impossible to win, and indeed, the regime tries to ensure the No campaigners have as much difficulty getting their message out as humanly possible in spite of the legalisation of political advertising.
René is approached by José Tomás Urrutia (Luis Gnecco), a leading activist and opposition spokesman who knew René’s father, to give the first ads and strategies of the No campaign. These prove to be ads formed around that mantra of activism, “raising awareness,” trying to draw attention to the appalling number of dead, missing, and tortured under Pinochet’s regime, complete with tactics like ominous music and mournful mothers clutching photos of their dead or vanished sons. René initially turns down Urrutia’s request to supervise the campaign because of the lack of pay, tight deadline, irritation with the resigned attitude of the campaigners and their negative messaging that is likely to be suppressed quickly, and his own general ignorance of political specifics. But the niggling truth of his past and his percolating social conscience are soon given new solidity by his boss Guzmán’s pro-regime browbeating and veiled threats, and the sight of his ex, Verónica Carvajal (Antonia Zegers), being arrested along with coworkers in a raid by government goons. He works up what is at first a mere variation on his standard cola ads, and shows a rough cut assembled from other ads to give an idea of what he intends. Screening it to a collective of No campaign honchos, one stands up and upbraids René for belittling and hiding his and others’ pain and the horror that the regime has committed, barking epithets before stomping out. But others see what René is getting at, or at least sense that he knows what he’s talking about, and they commission him to make the all-important ads that will be squeezed into the allotted 15 minutes for the No program. René puts together a team from the agency who hold meetings and plan strategy under Guzmán’s nose, and shoot an ad to kick off the three-week campaign.
Larraín’s major stylistic choice, and coup, was to shoot No on a vintage ’80s video camera recovered from a rubbish dump, to keep the film’s mise-en-scène consistent with the news and television footage, including the real advertisements that doubtlessly burned themselves into the memories of Chileans who saw them. René skateboards through streets, or he and his No fellows discuss strategy on the beach, bathed in the blazing light and colour bleed familiar to anyone who worked with such cameras, this world reenvisioned as an artefact of its own technology. Such an approach, retrofitting the dramatic recreations of the movie to the period footage, is a reverse to more usual practice, though it does harken back to older films like The Longest Day (1962), which deliberately eschewed shooting in colour to interpolate documentary war footage. Larraín’s insistence on building his film around the original ads confirms his demand for specificity, not only because of the familiarity as mentioned above, but also because Larraín’s subject is not just the creation of iconic media moment, but that moment itself, its specific textures that encode their messages beyond the overt and immediate.
René forges ahead with his plan despite the uncertainty of other No campaigners, including his own aide, Fernando Arancibia (Néstor Cantillana), who wants to promote agitation. The process of shooting his centrepiece ad is depicted as a collage of seemingly random bits of business, which coalesce into a whole that’s equally random, except in its suggestion of an upcoming, entirely joyous event. René’s team even supplies the compulsory campaign anthem, except it’s not really an anthem, as René insists, but a jingle: plain and simple, catchy and easy to remember. The Yes campaign’s showpiece ads are, by contrast, terrifying in their staid, fatuous displays: glossy-faced blue-bloods singing operatic, patriotic songs and attempts to sell Pinochet as a hard-working manager in suits, not a uniform.
The nightly 15-minute slot for the No side has been chosen in the hope that “everyone will be sleeping,” as a bemusedly hopeful government minister, Fernández (Jaime Vadell), says to Guzmán. As an emblem for the campaign, René chooses from his designers’ options a rainbow, to suggest the accord between many political factions, which bemuses Fernández entirely: “Isn’t that for faggots?” The assumption that the opposition is a collective of communists and homosexuals is so endemic for the regime that its members literally can’t conceive of any other alternatives, a symptom of a sclerotic and self-involved administration. Larraín offers scenes of the regime’s senior bureaucrats and military overlords discussing their own strategies, believing they have all the aces by pushing their economic achievements. But René and team identify two groups with apparently completely divergent interests likely to abstain from voting: the nation’s youth, who despise the regime, and its elderly, who are frightened of change but even more frightened of the endemic poverty in the country. The team targets them specifically with different campaign strategies.
Larraín and Bernal adroitly chart the divide between René’s yuppie success story, working for a firm that’s almost a jewel in the regime’s crown for creating and sustaining the trappings of a modern economy, and his identity as a child of his time and place. The son of exiles, René is also the divorced single father of Simón (Pascal Montero), with an activist ex-wife who has a strong remnant affection for him, but holds him in not so subtle contempt for his affluent, apolitical security and shallow, disengaged occupation. “It’s a copy of a copy of a copy,” she drones amusedly as she considers his showpiece ad, a line he later repeats in a rant when Guzmán tries to imitate it. An air of exhausted fatalism has long since drowned Veronica’s romanticism of being young, bright, and full of zeal. René still has his zest, but he shares her weighted melancholy. René wants to reconnect with Veronica, but is stymied by her cynical, bleary distance, accentuated when she’s abused in custody and released with black eyes; later, René disappointedly finds she’s shacking up with a new guy. Meanwhile, his home’s security is violated as Fernández, lobbied by Guzmán to take action against his wayward employees, sends out his goons: they enter René’s house in the night and paint vicious slogans on his windows.
There’s a certain Spielbergian flavour to the way the narrative boils down to a father’s desire to protect his son and reunite his family, but also win something on their behalf in the context of a broad social drama, both participant and prisoner of upheaval and grand drama. However, in method and tone, Larraín aims closer to the likes of Haskell Wexler’s seminal docudrama Medium Cool (1969), especially in the film’s later stages, as news footage and staged scenes combine to recreate the violence unleashed on the No campaigners on the day of the plebiscite. Larraín doesn’t entirely succeed in meshing his various tones: the deadpan earnestness of René’s private life doesn’t feel as vital or urgent, and certainly not as gripping in its withering humour, as the rest of the film, nor does Larraín have the emotional fulsomeness of Spielberg or the livewire tone of Wexler or Godard. It would be easy to describe No as a sort of sarcastic triumphalist tale where retro commercial kitsch helps bring down a powerful evil, much like the cheap exploitation of that theme in Ben Affleck’s smooth and smarmy Argo (2012), where Hollywood bluster helps leaven a small good in the midst of geopolitical crisis.
Larraín is much slyer in his wit, more exacting in his sense of milieu, and more cogently ironic in his investigation of the uneasy discourse between popular media imagery and politics than Affleck would be if he lived to be a million. Larraín is hip to the faint ring of sarcasm in the original campaign, its playful, yet passive-aggressive refusal to treat the toppling of murderous dictators as a grim business, or buy into the Yes side’s game of political name-calling and fear-mongering. René and Guzmán argue incessantly and bitchily as they’re drawn into direct opposition, although Guzmán tries to keep the regime’s decision to make René their guru quiet, but still keep up their pretences in their daily labours, shooting ads for kitchenware and overseeing a marketing campaign for a popular soap opera, “Hair Salon Love.” René orchestrates a publicity stunt designed to infiltrate the evening news in which the soap’s male star lands by helicopter on a skyscraper roof, greeted by the show’s bevy of female beauties. This aside seems at first like a device to highlight the silliness of René and Guzmán’s profession at its lowest, but as the film circles back to this vignette in the stinging coda, the soap’s panoply of femmes being romanced by a debonair suitor mockingly reflects the new political paradigm of nascent democracy, a series of artfully constructed seductions, where the soap star’s silver-haired Latin charm turns the paternalist patronage of Pinochet’s regime into a pop culture canard, a grinning, aged lothario trying to chat up an assortment of affluent and picky, yet superficially flirtatious doñas.
Larraín builds anticipation and tension in leading up to the No campaign’s kick-off, in the desire to see how René’s seemingly silly and incoherent assemblage of ideas come together. The particular genius of Larraín’s employment of the original ads comes out in the way they’re linked in essayistic clarity, the war of messages allowed to play out so the movie audience can absorb them as artefacts that, as Marshall McLuhan asserted, prove how much their encapsulation of the medium is itself the message. René’s ads are occasionally corny and provoke howls of recognition for the dated branding style, and yet the technical competence, the slickness and professional intelligence behind them shine through, as well as the genuineness of their enthusiasm and the openness of their messaging. Just as Larraín used the siren call and fetishization of American pop-culture imagery in Tony Manero to reflect the cultural debasement of life in a dictatorship, here he directly counterpoints the flashiness of René’s product with the increasing desperation, derivativeness, and sloppiness of the regime’s ripostes. In René’s showpiece ad, the signature rainbow flag is passed on by horse riders like an Olympic torch, picnicking families celebrate peace and freedom by consuming culturally specious baguettes because they’re more photogenic, randomly excited dancers appear like they’ve dropped in from Footloose (1984), and those bloody mimes sneak in for another go around, presumably because René saw them in a David Bowie video or something. But all accumulate into a memorable panoply of images that spell “liberation” as insistently as the name of Free Cola flashes on the screen in the earlier ad without needing the literal words.
René’s plan, no matter his motives and lacks in conceiving it, works brilliantly: by removing content from his ads and replacing it with ephemeral promise and good humour, he leaves the regime’s advertising looking, ironically, all the more hollow for trying to infer villainy behind the No side’s deliberately fostered party atmosphere, which takes its cues from René’s approach but soon infuses their street rallies. Guzmán looks increasingly like an asshole—and the regime with him—as he tries to break the spell of René’s ads, but only seems to make them all the more alluring in their class and pep. In an ad that makes the infamous “Daisy” spot for Lyndon Johnson look subtle, the regime offers an ad with a steamroller threatening a toddler, inferring disaster, whilst another ad tries incompetently to satirise the upbeat tone of the No ads by depicting terrorists behind the scenes preparing anarchy and terror. But perhaps the most telling comparison comes through one of René’s joke-based ads, depicting a man and woman in bed, the woman resisting the man’s implorations with murmured “nos” until the man finally gives in and cries, “Alright then, No!” It’s a little gem of advertiser’s art, combining an exceedingly simple joke with an impudent, Yippielike tone, the basic advertising truism that sex sells, perfect and succinct on-brand messaging, and also deeper echoes to the Lysistrata myth, a play on the anxiety of discord in the nation played as bedroom agony. Guzman tries to counter it with a version where it’s the woman who finally says “Yes,” and a voiceover prods the audience as to which ending they like better. The lack of imagination, humour, originality, the crass appeal to machismo, the lack of inner sense or autonomy in the regime’s sensibility, all are laid bare cruelly. “This will be remembered as the campaign where the bosses worked for the regime and the workers for the opposition!” René warns Guzmán, and the results become all too amusingly obvious.
But the harsh reality momentarily held in check by the war of gags and memes isn’t elided, as the No rally on voting day is attacked by police and dispersed with flagrant violence. Even the carnival atmosphere René and others have strived to create is not sufficient to ward off the vindictive brutality of a self-righteous, threatened junta. Veronica is beaten again and arrested by police, and Guzmán proves his essential loyalty to René in spite of all – and perhaps tries to protect his ass from reprisals if and when Pinochet falls – by using his regime friends to get her released. René now switches from orchestrator to bewildered bystander, a man who’s helped unleash forces, truths, and passions beyond what he’s allowed himself to countenance, as even his defanged version of opposition is ripe for pummelling. But the winds of change slowly make themselves apparent as the No campaign scores a crushing victory, at first denied by the state-run announcements but finally admitted as it becomes clear Pinochet’s military cabal won’t resist the tide of opinion, one that’s overcome all obstacles.
René drifts in mute confusion as the moment of victory comes, suddenly not one of the animators but one of the paradoxically liberated and lost beneficiaries. Where Guzmán and other regime allies had promised punishment once the vote was stitched up, instead Guzmán introduces René with smug confidence to clients as the successful designer of the No campaign, before unveiling the company’s latest achievement, the soap opera’s news spot. Larraín closes on René’s uncomfortable expression after he offers a repeat of his opening folderol, a sharp and mordant punchline that reminds us that all great causes, once concluded, leave us stranded in the banality of the everyday and the mercenary. For René, that’s even truer, facing a return to life pretending that selling cola is as important an endeavour as changing regimes.
The extraordinarily prolific experimental filmmaker Raul Rúiz did not know he would die only four months after completing Night Across the Street in 2011, but he had faced death only the year before, when the outcome of a life-saving liver transplant was still in doubt. Perhaps curiosity about his own final journey sent him from his adopted home in France back to Chile, his country of birth, to film Chilean writer Hernán del Solar’s most popular collection of children’s stories, Across the Night, which Rúiz certainly must have read in his youth. Night Across the Street, another of Rúiz’s many literary adaptations, happily intermingles Del Solar’s stories in a beautiful and bewildering free float through the end of the career and life of its main protagonist, Don Celso Barra (Sergio Hernández), who is vaguely a surrogate for Rúiz himself.
The credits roll over a panoramic shot of the ocean where it meets the sandstone cliffs that edge the coast of Chile. The action commences some time in the late 1940s or early 1950s on a character who is meant to be the real-life French writer Jean Giono (Christian Vadim) as he is instructing a class of boys and, incongruously, Don Celso, in French-to-Spanish translation, using Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past as a text; significantly, Rúiz met Giono, as well as adapted the Proust novel for his 1999 film Time Regained, signaling that we may be headed off into a reverie on Rúiz’s own life. During the class, an alarm clock rings, causing Don Celso to fumble to turn it off, shake a pill out of large bottle, and open a hip flask to wash the pill down with whatever liquid the flask contains. The bell signaling the end of class rings, and Don Celso and Giono walk together along the dock in Antofagasta, where we learn later in the film Giono moved because he liked the town’s name (supposedly, this also occurred in real life). Don Celso mentions a new translated novel he just read, and Giono neither confirms nor denies that he was the person who did the translation.
Don Celso goes to his office at the ship-building business where he is employed. His boss complains that Don Celso is not doing his best work, to which the elderly man says he has no more ideas; the assembled members of the office staff mention that his retirement is imminent that week. Don Celso and the staff recite strange poetry, and throughout the film, we will see a wide variety of wordplay among them, from pompous speeches to loose word association that introduces an adolescent sense of play to Don Celso’s latter years that helps us segue into his memories of his own boyhood.
When we meet Don Celso’s younger self (Santiago Figueroa), he is showing off his encyclopedic knowledge of many subjects, but particularly of classical music. His favorite composer, Beethoven (Sergio Schmeid), appears and accompanies the young Celso on his wanderings—to the movies, to an athletic field, and to a fireman’s funeral, with Celso explaining the scientific advances of the 20th century they come across. Young Celso also meets up with Long John Silver (Pedro Villagra), a reference not only to Rúiz’s film Treasure Island (1985) but also to Del Solar’s story “Pegleg.”
One of the stories, “Rhododendron,” is manifest as a magical name/word young Celso uses for himself and, later, the name the elderly Don Celso gives to a garishly painted plaque of a fish he has hanging on the wall of his room at Nigilda’s (Valentina Vargas) boarding house. Don Celso’s room is filled with toys, taxidermy animals, and posters more appropriate to a child’s room, reminding me of the anteroom of death in Rúiz’s biopic Klimt (1995). He also has a collection of ships in bottles he built, a fairly clear reference to Rúiz’s film output.
The most dramatic story to be told is of Don Celso’s premonition of death, which Rúiz shoots as a thriller/melodrama involving Nigilda and a young man named Rolo she says is her nephew, but treats far too familiarly for that. Don Celso calls him Rhododendron, certain that the man has come to kill him. Rolo and a young woman on a bicycle who appears to be his actual lover are, in fact, plotting to kill Don Celso and take a fortune he has hidden somewhere in the boarding house. Death becomes an overriding theme from this point onward, as the boarding house becomes a haunted house where seances are conducted. Don Celso walks down the barrel of a gun, which poetically has people inside it from its own memories, and into the light as the white cliffs of the Chilean coast bring us full circle.
The look of this film is lush and intriguing, and Rúiz’s slow horizontal pans constantly change the perspective and views, framing characters in doorways and moving them out of view again like a half-grasped memory. I have read complaints about the use of DCP video for this film, but I was enraptured by the slightly softer edges and almost 3D foreground of characters on detailed backgrounds. The period details are meticulously placed, and the environments, from the boarding house to the barrel of the gun, exert both a nostalgic and specific pull as we share in Don Celso’s memories and fantasies. However, Rúiz never forgets his source material, offering the solution of a radio show on which Don Celso reads stories to his audience to get us into some of the more outlandish situations he films.
There are moments of wonderful humor, particularly with regard to Don Celso’s retirement party. The company president makes an almost incomprehensible speech of appreciation, losing his train of thought in the middle, and Don Celso answers with a fairly incomprehensible thank-you speech that the office secretary Rosina (Chamila Rodríguez) transcribes in short, staccato bursts of the typewriter. He is presented with his retirement gift, an enormous plaster head that looks a bit like Tweedle Dee, and shows his pleasure by tipping his wine glass to its lips to get it to drink. He has to use a wheelbarrow to get it into his room at Nigilda’s. A slight political edge also creeps in as one Chilean asserts that the Yanks need to go, that Hitler was only trying to do right by his country and that Chile could do with a Hitler in charge. This short speech is shocking, but gives some clue as to how Pinochet’s military junta could eventually overwhelm the country, forcing Rúiz to emigrate to Paris.
Rúiz’s frequent musical collaborator Jorge Arriagada provides a haunting score, interspersed with romantic pop tunes of the 40s and 50s that forward the story and provide exceedingly pleasant pillows on which to rest from the confusion of the narrative. There is no question that Night Across the Street is a challenging film, but as its director’s final complete effort, it bids farewell to his career, his life, and his unique gifts in an extremely satisfying way.
Night Across the Street screens Monday, October 22, at 8:30 p.m. All screenings take place at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St., Chicago.
Tey: Telling the story of one day—the last day—in the life of a young man, a fact known, celebrated, and mourned throughout his community, this film confronts our peculiarly human tragedy of knowing we will die, and gives us a few answers about coping with that frightening inevitability. (Senegal)
Mr. Sophistication: A familiar story of a comedian trying to make a comeback is made compelling by great performances, an intelligent script, and deft direction and camerawork. (USA)
The Three Disappearances of Soad Hosni: The life of Egyptian movie star Soad Hosni, a cultural icon and touchpoint for unity in the Middle East, is interpreted in a biopic using nothing but footage from her 82 films. (Lebanon)
Shun Li and the Poet:A tone poem of a film depicting the longings of a Chinese emigrant to Italy and the loving friendship she forms with an elderly Yugoslavian man in a small fishing village near Venice. (Italy)
The Last Sentence: A gorgeously photographed biopic of Swedish newspaper editor Torgny Segerstedt that focuses attention on his romantic intrigues as he wages a relentless campaign against Hitler and Swedish neutrality. (Sweden)
The Exam: In a taut thriller set in 1957 Hungary, a member of the secret police unknowingly undergoes a harrowing loyalty test under the watchful eye of his own mentor. (Hungary)
Raúl Ruiz’s recent death came as a shock to the system for cinema aficionados who admired that restless, protean stylist and dramatist, a filmmaker who never quite broke out of the box of niche affection in the English-speaking world. One comforting thing, however, was that he left us with one of the best films of the year. Mysteries of Lisbon was produced for television, but released this year worldwide in a cinema edit, and like Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander (1983) and Steven Spielberg’s Duel (1971) it makes medium distinctions entirely disappear. Mysteries of Lisbon is as visually rich and pervasively controlled as the best of movie-making, even as a work based essentially in people speaking and relating events which unfold in the nerveless gaze of Ruiz’s camera.
Mysteries is based on a work by 19th century Portuguese writer Camilo Castelo Branco, a writer heavily influenced by Victor Hugo, and it’s a grand, sprawling tale full of classic Victorian narrative twists and lush, period romantic drama. And yet Ruiz articulates Branco’s tale with a poetically incisive vision, creating a psychological and imaginative epic depicting in a subtle, but steady fashion the depths of influence that go into creating an adult psyche, penetrating the haunted mind of its main protagonist, and the collapse from moral rot and hypocrisy of old world Portugal and the physical and interior processes creating a new one. In its immersive sensations, Mysteries calls to mind the best of Luchino Visconti, Max Ophüls, and the Kubrick of Barry Lyndon (1975) in the sustained intensity of mood, whilst the teeming layers of narrative gears working to elucidate the complex forces that create individuals blended with a layer of effervescent fantasy evokes, if more subtly, the wild storytelling riffs of Wojciech Has’ The Saragossa Manuscript (1964).
Describing Branco’s novel as “homonymous,” a title declares, “This story is not my child, or my godchild. It is not a work of fiction. It is a diary of suffering.” Mysteries of Lisbon initially centres around João (João Arrais), first glimpsed as a sad-eyed, black-haired young orphan in a school run by the strangely intense, but benevolent Father Dinis (Adriano Luz). The story commences in the 1820s, during the “Revolução Liberal” that ended much of Portugal’s colonial activity and British domination after the Napoleonic Wars. That theme of revolt and collapse flows through Mysteries of Lisbon like an underground river.
João is first seen through the eyes of an English lady who sketches his remarkable, melancholic face. João’s melancholy has definite causes: he is made sport of by other students for being parentless, with one accusing him of being a criminal’s child. When João becomes violently ill, he awakens in a delirium to find a number of people, including a mysterious and lovely woman, standing over his bed. When João recovers, Dinis takes him to see the woman, who appears at the window of a great house, before the belligerent lord of the manor chases them away. The truth, which João suspected, soon emerges: the woman was João’s mother, Countess Ângela de Lima (Maria João Bastos), who has been kept a virtual prisoner by her husband, the Count of Santa Bárbara (Albano Jerónimo) for all the years João spent growing up. Ângela is regarded as a victimised saint by most who know her, including Dinis, who soon begins revealing facets of his background and personality that seem completely at odds with his role as religious educator and taskmaster.
Mysteries of Lisbon begins to unfold with a roundelay of revelations and narrative layering familiar to anyone who has read Hugo or Dickens, and yet the manner in which Ruiz treats them sees them begin to blur into each other, stretching into the past across several generations in distinct yet curiously repetitious incidents, full of shape-shifting characters and dramas. A recurrent motif is having incidents enacted via the puppet theatre that young João retrieves from within the orphanage, as if he’s conjuring a vision of things to be, or just romancing an identity for himself. What Marilyn described in her review of Klimt as Ruiz’s way of telling a story through almost subliminal detail is apparent throughout Mysteries of Lisbon, though that can entrap the wary viewer. Branco’s novel was sourced in his own troubled childhood as an orphan and peripatetic, indecisive adult life before he finally found recourse in writing. João, the youthful hero, is initially virtually anonymous—just look at the cast members of the film to see how common the name is in Portugal—but eventually learns his real name and family background. But his identity is like a suit of borrowed clothes with a naggingly unpayable price tag.
In a more literal fashion, other characters in the tale change identities with their apparel. Dinis, revealed eventually to be a former Napoleonic soldier and revolutionary hiding out in the guise of a Catholic priest, has himself a similarly deep hole in his past to João’s, and has been a cunning master of self-reinvention. His intense empathy for João and Ângela seems, at first, to hint that he himself is João’s father; the real reason is because of his own familiarity with being alone in the world, and personal reasons for detesting cruelty to women and the lot of orphans.
The first mystery of the title is João’s parentage, which is slowly explained once Dinis is able to help Ângela flee from her husband’s house when he’s away trying to fight the revolutionaries. João is the lovechild of Ângela and a young suitor, Pedro da Silva (João Baptista), a man of noble birth but, sadly, no fortune, causing her father, the breezily contemptuous Marquês de Montezelos (Rui Morrison), to reject his marriage offer. Their aboveboard courting then turned clandestine and physical, until Da Silva was shot by the Marquês’ gypsy minion Come-Facas (“knife-eater”; played by Ricardo Pereira): Da Silva managed to find refuge with Dinis and tell his story before dying. When Ângela was spirited away to a remote country house to give birth, along with Come-Facas, who was instructed to kill the infant, Dinis followed her there in the guise of a gypsy. He bought Come-Facas off, allowing him to spirit João away and see to his upbringing. Ângela was then married off by her father, with supple smiling threats and pressure, to the uptight Count.
Upon hearing that his wife has finally fled him, the Count spreads rumours that she is Dinis’ lover, and Dinis promptly tracks him down to get him to recant, but finds the Count is dying, tended by his long-time lover and serving maid Eugénia (Joana de Verona). The Count, consumed by guilt and bemused by his own mad behaviour, which he finally puts down to realising that the Marques suckered him, begs Ângela for forgiveness from his deathbed. Meanwhile, Dinis encounters a face from the past in the form of Alberto de Magalhães, a strapping gentleman about town who publically mocks the Count’s version of his wife’s affairs: de Magalhães is actually Come-Facas, who used Dinis’ money to go to Brazil and started bankrolling piratical ventures, allowing him to return to Portugal rich, if not exactly a gentleman.
Ruiz’s approach to filmmaking here is almost like ambient music, so unobtrusive, and yet so fluidly mobile and attentive to shifting tones: I doubt if I’ll see a better-made movie this year. Ruiz’s camera slides about like the servants who are constantly glimpsed hovering, listening, undermining the affectations of privacy and discretion the mostly upper-class protagonists maintain, and virtuoso tracking and deep-focus shots that constantly keep his characters alive within painterly, yet realistic environs. There’s a quietly bravura scene early in the film describing the abuse and peculiarities in the Count’s house, the camera passing back and forth through walls and rooms as the action unfolds, and casually revealing the Countess’s loyal servant hiding in an alcove and listening. Later, there’s a scene that’s all the more strange and funny for the peculiar way Ruiz shoots it: Dinis, riding along a boulevard in his carriage, is stopped as, on the street, a society fop challenges de Magalhães to a duel for offending some female guests at a soiree. Dinis, seated in his conveyance, does not quite understand, as the audience does, what is going on, and yet Ruiz holds the camera fixed to “his” perspective as the fop tries to shoot de Magalhães after he refuses to duel: de Magalhães picks up and hurls him bodily against the side of the carriage, and is glimpsed in partly obscured fashion that renders the action all the more bewildering, and funny.
An often hilarious vein of dry humour and tragicomic farce peppers Mysteries of Lisbon, as when de Magalhães causes two society dames to literally faint with shock when he challenges their careless gossip about Ângela, a scene that has a Buñuel-esque flavour, and later when he abuses scurrying staff in his mansion whilst talking with Dinis, part of a play-act to maintain the appearance of consuming preoccupation. Later, Ângela, having become a nun, playfully teases Dinis about another nun whom he seems to be on fascinatingly intimate terms with, aware that their reasons for taking up lives of sedulous devotion are contradicted by remnant links to the emotional and sensual world; Dinis is using it as a hideout, even if he’s certainly still a spiritually yearning man. The erotic plays underneath all of the seemingly uptight, yet constantly semi-hysterical actions of the characters in spite of the period polish: everybody seems to be having sex, or, more precisely, to have once had sex, with everybody else in this world, and indeed it’s the only real fun that anybody belonging to the upper classes could have once marriage, a vessel for the exchange and continuity of property, is a done deal. Frei Baltazar da Encarnação (José Manuel Mendes) gently chastises Dinis for failing to indulge in the Lord’s blessing of good food and drink, but as Encarnação’s later narrative reveals, such indulgence is a stand-in for other appetites, one which is burnt out of Dinis. Vast emotional pain is the result, and yet nobody is all that repentant for grasping at their moments of pleasure and happiness.
There’s no moral absolutism in Mysteries of Lisbon, and it’s Ruiz’s understanding of how that can make drama more gripping, rather than less as so many lesser artists think, that really makes the film compelling. His feather-light narrative shifts nonetheless completely change the emotional meaning of what’s occurring. Such moments come in the Count’s repentant attitude, Ângela’s surprised reconsidering of Eugénia’s part in her family melodrama, and the final glimpse of the Marquês, who, in his old age, is left poverty-stricken and blind, completely alone in the world, and yet still possessing an undimmed pride and a complete contrition for all of his acts. It is this absence of bogeyman figures to react against that seems part of first Ângela’s and then, much later, João’s tragic aura, victims of and testifiers for human weakness. As such, Mysteries of Lisbon is a classic example of a grace-note film from an aging director, simultaneously subtly scathing and unsentimental, and yet also big-hearted and, in spite of a lack of large gestures, sublimely emotional.
Despite the drollery and sexcapades, the keynote is one of irreducible emotional longing tuned to the key of young João’s desire for a home and identity. But the moment he gains his “family”—mother Ângela, proxy patriarch Dinis, and a real name (Pedro da Silva after his father) — he promptly loses it again. He recognises that something in his mother shifted inalterably after the Count’s deathbed plea: her still-youthful quality was extinguished by the spectacle of her husband’s contrition and the moral weight of it. She subsequently retreated into a nunnery by the conclusion of the film’s first half, unable to support herself after having rejected the Count’s inheritance. Dinis, in the first movement of the second half, learns something about himself that also explains his intense interest in João’s and Ângela’s welfare and his general attentiveness to the unfairly exiled and abused. He himself was the son of an illicit aristocratic passion, as he finds that the priest, Frei Baltazar da Encarnação (José Manuel Mendes) who was giving the Count of Santa Bárbara his last rites is, in fact, his own father. Himself a former roué, Álvaro de Albuquerque (Carloto Cotta) seduced and fell deeply in love with the Countess de Vizo (Maria João Pinho), the wife of an acquaintance. They had run off to Italy together, but she died in childbirth: Álvaro handed young Dinis over to a friend, who then had to pass him on, and so on until Dinis finished up being raised by a French nobleman. That’s how he came to be fighting for the Napoleonic cause in Spain under the name of Sebastiao de Melo—the name under which he once entreated the Count of Santa Bárbara not to marry Ângela.
There has been no shortage of superheroes on movie screens this year, and whilst this fare might seem light years from Thor or Captain America, it struck me while watching Mysteries of Lisbon that Dinis is another superhero, and by far the best of them. Unfailingly conscientious, weary and wary-looking, yet darkly charismatic, a master of disguise, and a kind of swashbuckling holy man, Dinis acts for much of the first half of Mysteries of Lisbon like an unstinting force for good. He fearlessly rights wrong once he builds up a head of steam, even as he sits on a deep well of brooding emotion, saddled with a past, aspects of which he’s proud yet can’t acknowledge, and others that torture him with guilt. He keeps a room in the orphanage where he sits and contemplates the past, his alternate identities and dark secrets just waiting for João to penetrate on one of his inquisitive ventures. All those passions, sexual and political, are for him and so many other characters in the film the provenance of the past, as happiness constantly becomes something that can only be remembered, with their living products like João and Elisa de Montfort (Clotilde Hesme) left troubled, even damaged. The doubling in Dinis’ life and young João’s is hardly coincidental, as the narrative moves into a final movement in which João, grown into a young poet and going by his proper name (played as an adult by José Afonso Pimentel), encounters Elisa, a woman with a resemblance to his mother and a fine line of near-crazed manipulation.
Elisa is the daughter of Dinis’ own tragic love, Blanche de Montfort (Léa Seydoux), who married Dinis’ comrade in arms Benoit (Julien Alluguette), but eventually took a lover, Lacroze (Melvil Poupaud). Lacroze was a man whom Benoit and Dinis saved from a firing squad during the war and introduced to her, and whom they later pretended was dead so that she would finally marry one of them. Benoit finally killed Blanche and tried to cover it up in a fire. In his bleakest and most telling instance of presenting a lingering, deep-focus frame, Ruiz shows Benoit, dressed in his old cavalier’s uniform, calmly reading whilst everyone else tries to douse the fire and Dinis carries out Blanche’s body; Benoit eventually goes wandering off idly to disappear in the smoke and distraction.
The offspring of that tragedy, Elisa, in her turn, proves something of a disturbed and vengeful mirror to Ângela’s capacity for suffering, acting like a hellhound on the trail of de Magalhães, who, under one of his other names, had an affair with her in Paris. With finesse she tries to disturb de Magalhães’ happy marriage to the Count’s former mistress, Eugénia. Eugénia hides under a table and demands that her husband keep out all threats to their security. Whilst Dinis recounts to Elise the story of her mother’s death, de Magalhães bursts in and almost strangles Elisa to death in front of the priest after she threatens to shoot him; Dinis’ invocation of their long-past bonhomie in other guises talks him out murder. Elisa later enlists João when he falls for her in France to return to Portgual and avenge her besmirched honour by challenging de Magalhães to a duel, having no idea of the part de Magalhães once played in saving João’s life. The scene seems set for some sort of ironic tragedy, as either man could kill someone to whom they owe their life in a fashion, but the narrative sidesteps the obvious. De Magalhães, after making it clear that he can easily kill João in a duel, gets him to call it off and explains the less romantic truth about what happened between him and Elise: she and he signed a contract that was really just a gambit to an erotic game, where he would pay her for sex. Forming a passion for him that he could not reciprocate, she developed a nasty habit of repeatedly convincing romantic young men, like João and even her own brother, to try to kill him.
Mysteries of Lisbon works on more levels than just the literal one of plot and character—it’s also a meditation on storytelling, in a subtle but irreducible fashion, and on circles of life that resemble yet do not exactly reproduce each other. Ruiz isn’t trying, like so many postmodern stunt merchants, to sunder the nature of narrative so much as to suggest that life itself as a complex interweaving of repeated events and constructed perspectives. Time folds back on itself at the end of Mysteries of Lisbon as João, who might be dying, and is certainly feeling the impact of having his shaky chivalry and sense of what his life means broken in pieces by Elise’s game-playing. As inheritor of all these stories and truths which leave him old before his time, he leaves the country and finishes up deathly ill in a hotel in a foreign land, dictating a memoir. The final tragedy—and it is a tragedy when all is said and done—is that João finally reaches a point where, just like the rest of the characters, he achieves maturity at the point of losing his illusions, retaining only a memory of perfection, the one moment in which all of life and hope seemed to lie before him: when he awoke from a similar sickbed to find his mother, still a stranger and yet somehow familiar to him, hovering over him. It would be an insult to leave off without mentioning the general excellence of the cast, especially Luz, Pereira, and Bastos.
The world of cinema was shocked by the not-unexpected, but relatively premature death of Chilean-born filmmaker Raúl Ruiz on Friday. The 70-year-old director was known for his parodic approach to film styles, his lush canvasses, his sometimes overstuffed plots, and his extremely fecund output. For those seeking a deep dive into this complicated, experimental filmmaker, I recommend this survey/memoir by Jonathan Rosenbaum for starters and a date to view his Mysteries of Lisbon (2010), which has started to show in the United States and likely will be booked in more venues in tribute. As a Ruiz novice, I will try to honor his legacy as best I can with a review of Klimt, one of his more recent and accessible films, and a style of biopic more filmmakers should adopt.
Ruiz takes an ingeniously elliptical approach to film biography, one that puts the spirit of artist Gustav Klimt and fin-de-siècle Austria at the forefront as it drops the details of his life almost subliminally into our consciousness. As such, the film does something that is nearly impossible to do—find a channel, however speculative, into the creative process itself.
The film opens with Klimt’s protege Egon Schiele (Nikolai Kinski) going to visit Klimt (John Malkovich) as he lays dying in a bath. The doctor greets Schiele by swinging a skeleton in front of him and pointing out the various bones that comprise it, each from a different donor, all of different nationalities. Schiele comments that while there may be a scarcity of many things, there is no shortage of dead bodies. Klimt died of syphilis February 6, 1918, a few months before the “cure” for all war, World War I, formally ended. Klimt was treated with mercury, the standard remedy of the time and a poison that may have hastened his death and one that did not save him from the madness that accompanies advanced syphilis. Thus, the parallels Ruiz sets up between Klimt’s private disintegration, delusions, and madness and those of Europe at this time are established. Klimt’s mental free-fall through his life comprises the rest of the film.
Klimt’s life could be a template for the stereotypical successful Artist. He was a sensualist who bedded many women and fathered many children out of wedlock, who enraged the art establishment while still enjoying great popularity. We meet him in memory first in his studio, as three naked models move above his head on swings of cloth and another lays down on a bed in the background. Klimt ignores all of them as he pours water on a square of glass to examine the images it creates. He dismisses the models. The one on the bed remains. He says, “What about you?” She answers provocatively, “What about me?” Malkovich lets virtually nothing cross his face to indicate his state of mind, though perhaps the tiniest of smirks does escape by the end of the scene; it’s a bold choice, to keep Klimt in the state of sexual abstraction he must have needed to do his work when faced with an off-hours temptation.
This containment marks much of Malkovich’s performance, even in scenes where he declares his ardent love for an actress (Saffron Burrows) who plays dancer Lea de Castro (Georgia Reeve) in a short film by Georges Méliès (Gunther Gillian). Their embrace is one of the more awkward in film history, though Brown is wonderfully natural in her nakedness considering that her character is being watched from behind a two-way mirror by the real Lea to see how Klimt behaves. The fracturing of personality, the real and the false fronts, the interchangeability of human beings as seen in the mix-and-match skeleton in the first scene, all are preoccupations of both Ruiz and the Klimt he has written. Indeed, any representational artist is faced with how his or her creations poach from many sources and create illusions that are, nonetheless, physically real and real experiences for those who take them in.
Ruiz’s hallucinatory touches are inspired. Klimt’s long-time companion Emilie Flöge (Veronica Ferres), called Midi here, quarrels with him in his studio while he is applying gilding to a painting. Suddenly, her lips are gilded as well, an incarnate inspiration that Klimt would transfer to his canvas. When she slams the door to his studio, she blows the small squares of gilding into the air, sending Klimt, childlike, chasing after them to catch them on his brush. His cat starts mewling, and Klimt comes face to face with the Secretary (Stephen Dillane), a government functionary who becomes Klimt’s projected guide through his life and desires and, finally, his death. The Secretary, though sympathetic to Klimt’s art, seems to contradict Klimt’s outsider stance as part of the Vienna Secession, and suggest that his life was a function of bureaucratic manipulation.
Ruiz isolates the artistic claptrap of the day in a wonderful scene in a Vienna coffee house. A waiter takes orders from some of the patrons, calling their names and having them respond “as usual.” Klimt is dining with a friend who gives him the lay of the land of the different artistic schools of thought. A camera tracks around them, the background spinning one way, and Klimt and his friend spinning in the opposing direction, suggesting Klimt’s contrarian state of mind and bringing a liveliness to the Viennese art scene that ends with Klimt pushing a cake into a rival’s face.
The proper Viennese bourgeoisie, represented by Klimt’s mother (Annemarie Düringer) and sister (Marion Mitterhammer), are placed in a cool, utilitarian setting. His mother scolds him for his many illegitimate children, and his sister insinuates something unnatural about him for choosing only Jewesses to bear his children: “I didn’t make it up, I read it in the paper.” Klimt retorts, “You didn’t have to make it up because the papers already did it for you.” The poisonous atmosphere that would later engulf Austria gets a brief, but effective airing, but so do the distortions of media about celebrities, a very modern concern.
Apparently, no expense was spared in putting this film together. The costumes and sets are utterly sumptuous, and artists were brought in to recreate the scandal-inducing paintings Klimt produced for the University of Vienna that were destroyed in a fire in 1945, as well as a fictitious portrait of Lea and various Klimt canvasses in different stages of completion. Little is known about Klimt’s life, so the decadence of the times is brought to bear on his womanizing reputation while creating an atmosphere that helps the viewer sense the forces that influenced his sensual art. For example, Klimt goes to the Moustache brothel, where gentlemen play games in various rooms—Klimt is locked in a cage wearing a gorilla head in the African room—before going off with one or more of the moustachioed whores.
The anteroom of Klimt’s death is filled with the atmosphere of his life—the ever-present Viennese snow, stuffed cats, a bare-bones studio, and doors opening onto different paths. I hope Ruiz’s anteroom was just as inviting.
Most people go to the movies to relax, a term that means different things to different people. Some like a comedy that can induce the laughter needed get those happy-making endorphins going. Others like films of human emotion that can serve as a catharsis for them. Still others don’t like to relax at all—they’d rather be juiced on the latest actioner, thriller, or scifi/fantasy. In all these cases, the moviegoer may experience a feeling of well-being, but I’d argue that very few of these films are actually relaxing.
The Sky, the Earth and the Rain is that extremely rare film that truly turns down the noise of the world, creating a meditative state that allows one’s body and being to relax totally and be in the moment. It’s likely to leave many people feeling fidgety, waiting for something to “happen.” In fact, a lot does happen in this film, but its story is told with an economy of exquisitely designed visual compositions that unmistakably communicate developments in the plot and extremely spare dialogue that can’t amount to much more than 25 lines in the entire film. This Chilean film is the epitome of show, don’t tell.
The movie’s central character—whose name we don’t learn until the film is nearly three-quarters finished—is Ana (Julieta Figueroa), a woman in her late 20s whose captivating face often looks much younger than her years. Her days are spent taking long walks; gazing out at the sea; tending to her paralyzed and dying mother; spending time with her friends, a 30ish Verónica (Angélica Riquelme) and depressive Marta (Mariana Muñoz); and riding a ferry that takes her from her island home to the mainland of Chile, where she works as a cashier in a grocery store. One day, the store owner receives a complaint from a customer that Ana has shortchanged him; at the end of the day, the money in the till is short. Ana is sacked. Verónica arranges for her to work as a housekeeper for Toro (Pablo Krögh), a friend of hers.
Every strand in Ana’s life will move forward in what can be considered plot developments. Yet, plot is almost beside the point. This stunning film, shot by Into Briones using handheld, steadicam, and fixed camera techniques, and directed with utter sensitivity and patience by Torres Leiva (for which he was rewarded with the FIPRESCI Prize at the Rotterdam International Film Festival), creates such a peaceful, rhythmic world that it envelopes the viewer.
The opening scene takes place in a misty wood where a girl is playing with a magnificent chocolate German Shephard named Eka. The girl, whose identity we won’t learn until about the time we learn Ana’s name, calls to the dog as she moves through the woods and off camera. The dog strays in another direction, toward the cameraman. For some reason, this random move by Eka affected me with its freedom—not something I’m used to seeing in movie dogs.
Ana’s island is a cold, damp place, and again the detail of the islanders walking around in knee-high rubber boots and layers of clothes topped with warm coats when outside and thick, wool socks when inside conveyed a very visceral feeling for me of the land and its atmosphere. Brione manages to create dimensionality on the screen by finding and shooting layers at a slightly skewed angle—for example, trees, mist, more trees, and a figure in the background. He plays with focus, blurring the foreground focal point in a straight-on shot while sharpening the background, and vice versa. There are many haiku-like shots—with matching soundscapes—of trees, fields, ocean waves, weathered buildings, a slow-moving ferry docking, that aren’t in any hurry to matter except as what they are. Toro hunts with Eka at his side, and Ana watches him with quiet adoration. Yet later, when a group of city slickers out for a day of pheasant shooting fire into the air, the sound actually causes Ana and the audience to jump, so deep in our quiet moments are we.
Plot turns occur as they might in real life. Ana walks up the dirt path to Toro’s home one morning and finds Verónica walking toward her. A worried look comes across Ana’s face. Later she asks Verónica, “How long have you known Toro?” Verónica responds, “Why?” That’s all we need to know to surmise that Verónica is sleeping with Toro, and Ana is jealous. In another scene, Ana is returning from the mainland on the ferry; we spy Verónica next to a taxi with the housekeeper who cares for Ana’s mother while she’s at work. Again, we know instantly that Ana’s mother has died.
Some plotlines are left open. Marta has once been found crying inconsolably and later, tried to wade into the ocean, resisting Ana and Verónica as they pull her back. In the most starkly evocative image of the film, Marta stands next to a solitary tree with a limb just perfect for hanging. We view them in long shot, then Marta collapses. The camera moves in to an extreme close-up of her eyes, and that’s the moment we realize Marta is epileptic, may be brain-damaged from the seizures, and certainly hates living with the condition. Her actions, formerly mysterious, suddenly make sense. She runs off into the woods one day, and that’s as far as her story goes.
This film’s trailer was cut in a more frenetic style that I found a bit deceptive about the film’s atmosphere. I have included a clip below that truly captures the film’s slow-paced seductiveness.
If that felt like watching paint drying, this film is not for you. However, if you want to see a Monet painting and expressive Old World faces come to life, I highly recommend this treasure of a film. l