Film review: ‘Night Across the Street’ uses poetry of cinema to capture life in reflection
March 17, 2013
Raúl Ruiz is one lucky son of gun to have left a testament like Night Across the Street as his swan song. The film, released posthumously, stands as evidence of a master filmmaker interested in exploring not only cinematic images but movie-making’s unique characteristic of editing to tell a profound story that explores life and death and the tendrils that intertwine them. Besides gorgeous, fluid cinematography and art direction, Ruiz also maintains a sly sense of humor when confronting the abyss.
The film unfolds through layers and layers of coming to terms with what defines a life when faced with one’s inevitable twilight. The story might seem cumbersome at first, but a viewer who loosens up the mind and forgives a narrative that refuses to follow a straight line will reap enchanting rewards. With Night Across the Street Ruiz does with existentialism what he did with identity in his masterful Mysteries of Lisbon (read my review here).
Ruiz seems well aware that movies looking to answer the deeper questions of life are better served by obtuse structure in order to mimic an encounter with the sublime that defies literal language. For instance, Terence Malick’s Tree of Life indulged in wonder and pastiche that begged inference from the audience. Either you gave to it or you took from it. Those who took from it in search of logic left disappointed. By the same token, a film such as the Life of Pi replaced revelation with a gimmicky twist ending that reached for sentimentality. The latter film may feel easier to digest to some, but to others it might feel manipulative. If that is the case, does that make the film as intellectually satisfying and, more importantly, representative of the mystery we all shall face when the inevitable arrives?
Stanley Kubrick knew a film that harbors a message in the images, defying language, re-creates a more transcendent experience than an expository work. His most sublime film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, proved as much. It famously only contains about 45 minutes of dialogue in 141 minutes of images. He also knew the value of editing, noting it’s cinema’s only distinctive characteristic that separates it from all other media. In a 1972 interview in “Sight and Sound,” he said, “… editing is the only aspect of the cinematic art that is unique. It shares no connection with any other art form: writing, acting, photography, things that are major aspects of the cinema, are still not unique to it, but editing is.” (Read the interview).
In Night Across the Street, Ruiz uses language, editing and images in a playful manner while looking at deeper, existential themes. The film is as soul-stirring and heart-breaking as it is witty and life-affirming. It opens with a few sweeping aerial shots that unites the desert and ocean: two grand representations of death and life. Our hero, Don Celso Barro (Sergio Hernández) may just be dead already, if not unconscious and in a dream world reflecting on his life.
The director introduces the elderly version of Celso as he sits among students in a classroom from the past. A teacher who later is revealed as the author of the 1951 literary classic the Horseman on the Roof, Jean Giono (Christian Vadim), discusses the subtleties of translation to a class of teenage boys ordered to close their eyes. It’s a statement on the limits of language and how unreliable it may be without vision. That most of the class does not get the lecture stands as condescending testament to the unenlightened naiveté of youth unconcerned with defining their lives, yet at that hormonal moment of know-it-all attitude.
Celso also appears in the film as a boy on the cusp of his teen years with a seeming knowledge of a life fulfilled. This version of Celso (Santiago Figueroa) interacts with heroes like Beethoven (Sergio Schmied) and Long John Silver (Pedro Villagra) to varying dynamic effect as far as an exchange of ideas and knowledge. As this may be the life of a dying man in reflection, this intellectual boy seems a fantasy projected by the elder Celso of returning to naïve youthful days with the perspective and knowledge of maturity. But, even then, Ruiz will trip up our hero with a humbling encounter with an opposing figure who personifies the immovable contrarian.
Though much of the film seems to unfold in a period of the early to the middle 20th century, the boy version of Celso explains to Beethoven how soon “you don’t have to learn anything. Machines will do everything.” He could very well be talking about such definitive cultural modern inventions such as the Internet and how easy it has become to lean on things like Wikipedia or Google for knowledge. Beethoven’s response? “It’s sad.” The pleasure of Night Across the Street comes from an intellect let loose in search of defining a mortal life, hence why it dwells on a time mostly in the past, before the digital world, the Internet and cell phones, which all seem to be crutches on our current human intellect.*
Ultimately, the film is concerned with its own limitations as a medium but also its possibilities and power to create sublime cinematic encounters like 2001: A Space Odyssey and the Tree of Life. When Celso takes Beethoven to the movies and describes film as “special shadows that give off light” he defines the medium with a metaphor that beautifully captures both the medium’s possibilities as well as its limitations. Soon, Beethoven seems confused as a result of the editing and shifting perspectives of the moving pictures, to which the young Celso says, “It’s hard to explain.” “Why come to the cinema, if you can’t explain the movies you come to see?” Beethoven replies. It’s a witty moment addressing antiquated perspectives meeting new forms of story-telling. As much as Ruiz seems to celebrate the past, he also seems open to the future, as revealed by this scene.
Night Across the Street is filled with such stimulating moments, which will reward repeated viewings. I can only scratch the film’s surface, but rest assured there are wonderful, humbling moments that go into coming of age, self-worth and yearning for a well-defined, mortal life that are explored and turned on their heads. It’s an enchanting film about time, memory, language and existence that never forgets a sense of humor. Sailing ships assembled in bottles, the recurrent concern of creative definitions of Rhododendron are just some of the many symbols that add further richness to the literary quality of this film where a bullet is described as an “epiphany from the depths.” Night Across the Street is truly an extraordinary work that constantly surprises with one layer of seeming enlightenment after another. Once you might think you understand it, Ruiz turns another subversive corner in his narrative of life in reflection, always celebrating epiphany while keeping it grounded.
The Night Across the Street is in Spanish and French with English subtitles, runs 110 minutes and is not rated (despite implied murder and low-key violence, the film should not offend). It premiered in Miami at the Miami Beach Cinematheque and plays there exclusively through March 20. The theater loaned me a DVD screener for the purposes of this review.
*Whether Ruiz knew it or not, it’s a rather prescient observation. Not too long ago, I heard futurist Ray Kurzweil discussing his 2012 book How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed on the “Diane Rehm Show” on NPR. He predicts that in the very near future— within most of our lifetimes— one will be not only be able to expand the brain’s neocortex by simply uploading it to the Internet but also find immortality, which is not too different with what happens that great science fiction movie by Duncan Jones, Source Code (read a transcript of the the show by jumping here; the relevant section begins at 11:49:50 ).