la_noche_de_enfrente_xlgRaúl 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, edschoice_LaNuitdenexistential 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. la-noche-de-enfrente-raul-ruiz-02As 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. Santiago Figueroa and Sergio Schmied in Raul Ruiz's Night Across the Street.Courtesy of Cinema Guild.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.

Hans Morgenstern

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 ). 

(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

cartaz-tabu-lightPortuguese filmmaker Miguel Gomes heralds the new year of cinema with a bold film approaching masterpiece greatness. Shot entirely in black and white and featuring mostly silent action dominated by voice-over narration, Tabu also features an unclassifiable narrative structure. Though romance is at heart of this film, Tabu vibrates with life beyond a love story. Gomes is interested in working beyond cinema’s narrative techniques by calling attention to them and then pushing story beyond straight beginning-middle-and-end narrative to offer something grander and more self-reflexive. The director’s work recalls other cinema pioneers interested in exploring the edges of the art form, including Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Guy Maddin and his fellow countryman, the late, great maestro Raoul Ruiz.

As Ruiz did with his final masterpiece, Mysteries of Lisbon (read my review: ‘Mysteries of Lisbon’ peels away layers of story to reveal infinity), Gomes is interested in capturing the other lives many people have a chance to experience in their mortal moment on this planet. He does so by presenting the viewer with distinct episodes of the life of Aurora. Laura Soveral plays old Aurora as she approaches her twilight in Lisbon. These are the days in her 80s, as she approaches hospitalization. They are filled with a perceptive range of naïve wishful hope but mostly paranoia and bitterness seething with an unshakable awarenessTabu The End approaches. Then there are the days she lived in Africa. The younger Aurora (Ana Moreira) is a sensual being full of life, freshly married, hunting (she never misses) and making a cuckold out of her nameless husband (Ivo Müller) all while she carries his child.

But dividing Tabu into two sections is not enough for Gomes. He sets Aurora’s story up by offering a brief but colorful introductory tale, and then later, another character, Aurora’s pious, patient and solitary friend Pilar (Teresa Madruga). The first story unfolds in that place seething with so much life: the jungle. The film opens with an explorer decked out in cliché pith helmet and khakis following African men taking machetes to the thick brush. The explorer takes careful, methodical steps as the men of that land tangle with the brush for him. A voice-over (Gomes) explains the explorer’s mental state. The voice uses ornate language indulging in melodrama to  explain this explorer’s misery and melancholy. A piano plays a shifting, dramatic score, as in a silent film, as his guides confront the savage land while he follows behind. All the while, the narrator emphasizes this explorer’s despondency while explaining the loss of this character’s wife. In the end, the adventurer takes dramatic action to join his wife and chooses suicide by crocodile. The savages break out into a song and dance. Then, an apparition of his wife appears sitting next to the crocodile. The melding of life and memory becomes part of the land that carries on. The surreal notion of a ghost haunting a crocodile that has eaten your lover captures the utter romance of these mortals while also showing how insignificant they are to the (comparatively) immortal land. It offers a twisted joke that sets up a film, which will end in nothing short of idealistic romance.


This first narrative is then revealed as a movie. Gomes makes a wild, dramatic shift reminding the audience they are in the theater by introducing Pilar gazing right into the camera in an empty movie theater in present-day Lisbon. After she has experienced her dream within dreams on the screen, this is now to be our waking dream, and the layers of dreams, fantasy and memory all play key roles in this film. Often movies are made as distraction from our lives. However, Tabu spends much of its time telling stories within stories within stories that enforces the artificiality of life on the big screen. Despite that, Tabu still manages to magnify the verve of our own knotty existence on this planet, which, the film often reminds us, has its own power to create and extinguish life.

A title card introduces this section with Pilar as “Part I: Paradise Lost.” It follows her, as she heads to the airport to pick up a young pilgrim who was to stay with her. Instead, a friend of this young woman in short shorts and a backpack meets Pilar to tell her that she will not be coming. tabu_04The dialogue has a dry quality, enhanced by the stilted use of English, as the young woman is Polish and her common, shared language with Pilar is English. This manner of speaking, the notion of a mystery lodger who never arrives and the way this messenger from another country turns and walks away once again feels surreal. With its black and white cinematography and this jarring behavior of the actors, Gomes recalls Maddin or even David Lynch. In fact, Gomes loves to reveal what lies in the dark in a gradual way that will seem very familiar to those who have seen Eraserhead. This visual referencing to the unconscious is unmistakable.

However, Gomes is not interested in using dreams as narrative. He actually seems to subvert the notion. When he introduces old Aurora she is telling Pilar about a dream. Reel1_2Casino_Aurora_old_reducedAs they sit and talk, what appears to be a treadmill with baggage, heavily blurred out in a short depth of field focus, trudges along in the background, giving the illusion that these sedentary older women are always moving. Aurora describes a dream of seeming nonsense where she battles monkeys who have invaded her house. During the fight, one of them morphs into the form of the deceased husband of a friend of hers and begins to talk to her. She notes that even though he talks, she is always haunted by the idea he was a monkey, and he sometimes behaves like one even in human form.

This glimpse into Aurora’s unconscious could illuminate how she regards her African maid Santa (Isabel Muñoz Cardoso), who she says is trying to poison her with voodoo. tabu-stills-010It also may reference her alleged experiences living in Mozambique as a young woman, which will not be revealed until the second part of the film by a man who may be an unreliable narrator. But before this recalled life appears, Aurora is revealed to have a bad gambling habit. Though Aurora tells Pilar that a dream showed her how to bet and beat the house, she admits, “People’s dreams are not like their lives.”

Aurora does indeed seem a character uncomfortable in her dying skin. Her daughter never returns her calls, and she doesn’t trust her only caretaker. “They want me dead,” Aurora says with a loaded sense bitter acceptance. When Pilar finds Aurora’s phone in her refrigerator, it is indeed a sign of not only her approaching senility but her giving up on the rules of this mortal world.

Gomes toys with perceptions constantly. Though Aurora seems to only treat Santa with paranoia, both Santa and Pilar are up to seeking out and bringing back a man Aurora mentions on her death bed: Gian Luca Ventura. It would seem this was Aurora’s true love. Though he too seems to have lost his mind, this is the man who will so vividly tell the second half of Tabu, taking place sometime 50 years earlier, when a younger version of he (Carloto Cotta) and Aurora shared an intense affair in the heat of the jungle. Reel3_3GpAurora_19001713When old Ventura (Henrique Espírito Santo) speaks, he again enhances what Aurora said about dreams not being like life. However, Gomes indulges in this fantastical second part of Tabu with poetic whimsy. The lush black and white cinematography and intimate academy aspect ratio constantly enhance the filmmaker’s utter delight in the medium, beyond the relevance of whether this story may be true or not. Through the staging of the action, costumes and period music that includes a Portuguese version of “Be My Baby,” the viewer cannot help but feel swept away.

Gomes is still not above showing a sensitive awareness to the limits of both cinema and memory when it comes to dialogue in this last hour of the film, however. There is none. This story of Young Aurora and Young Ventura is all told in a voice-over narration by the elder Ventura, who makes no effort to reproduce the exact words between the characters, even though we still hear sound effects and music. Instead, though the actors’ mouths move in many scenes, no one ever utters a word. Tabu_Gomes_04It’s as if the actual words exchanged were lost in time, and all Ventura can muster are the ideas of what was said, adding to the haze of this “memory.” It’s probably truer to memory than most other alleged memories, however, because of this vagueness. But this is also a defiant statement against the cynicism of today’s idea of film trying to make everything seem so “realistic” with digital effects and 3-D, inviting the suspension of disbelief so characteristic of cinema and its classical techniques found in editing and image alone.

Throughout Tabu Gomes reveals a keen awareness of the limits of cinema and how embedded the memories of dreams are in the structure of the art form.  From his choice to omit dialogue in the film’s last hour to the manner he frames the opening and closing of a door in an early scene, as if the door’s action is a wipe cut, do not call anything Gomes does in this film shallow or superfluous. tabu31Ultimately, Gomes makes no more a poetic choice than to feature much of the action in Tabu in the wild of the jungle (albeit through the eyes of invaders trying to tame the land by bringing their comforts of home there, from music to swimming pools). However, there exists nothing more primal and awesome and humbling a thing than the living landscape of the jungle, a grand symbolic stand-in for the unconscious. With Tabu, one should prepare for an intense journey into the primal as Gomes masterfully exploits the narrative elements of cinema to transcend the limits of story-telling. With Tabu, Gomes raises film to the art form it deserves to be.

Hans Morgenstern

Tabu is in Portuguese with English subtitles, runs 118 minutes and is not rated (though this is a film for adults). It premieres in South Florida on Friday, Jan. 18, at 9 p.m. and plays through Jan. 23, at the Miami Beach Cinematheque. The theater hosted a preview screening for the purposes of this review.

Up-date: Tabu also premieres in Broward County at Cinema Paradiso, in Fort Lauderdale, Friday, Jan. 18, at 8 p.m. and plays there through Jan. 24.

(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Mysteries of Lisbon offers a cinematic statement like no other film the 21st century has offered. The theatrical release is actually an abbreviated version (at four-and-a-half-hours!) of the six-hour European TV mini-series, based on a three-volume novel of the same title by Portuguese writer Camilo Castelo Branco, which has never been translated into English. The fact that a film adaptation arrives in this lengthy, literary (at least in a cinematic sense) form by the late, prolific and intelligent director Raúl Ruiz, should be something to celebrate. In his “preface” to Mysteries of Lisbon from the film’s press book, Ruiz, a Chilean who directs the actors in the movie in Portuguese and French, offers dense insight into Branco’s approach to story-telling, revealing how well attuned he was to translate it to the cinema. About his own experience reading the books, he said, “[W]hen I try to summon the characters and the twists and turns of Mysteries in my memory … I am only able to find fragments of ghost stories that were never written.” In turn, Ruiz has left movie-goers with a similar sensation with this lengthy, meandering film.

Ruiz offers literate reasoning behind his decision to film not just a complex story, but a complex loom of stories, woven together by— if anything— circumstances. In his preface (not to mention the film itself) he goes on to damn the traditional Hollywood narrative, as defined by famed cinema academic David Bordwell, which dictates a movie must have a single protagonist (or group of protagonists) who must overcome a variety of obstacles to reach a single goal, causing conflicts meant to entertain the audience (see Armageddon, for instance). “When [producer] Paulo Branco asked me to direct Mysteries of Lisbon, I understood that I had in fact been waiting for this kind of offer for years … for an eternity…”

Unfolding over many years, before, after and around the turn of the 19th century, across countries as diverse as Portugal, France, Italy and Brazil, the film opens as a priest, Father Dinis (Adriano Luz), decides to tell an orphan boy named João (João Arrais) about his origin. A slew of shifting characters emerge, from the boy’s mother (Maria João Bastos), a countess who later becomes a nun, to the assassin (Ricardo Pereira) turned wealthy businessman assigned to kill off the bastard child sent off to Dinis’ boarding school. Father Dinis undergoes several transformations, from the life he lead before becoming a priest as a gypsy to an enlightened man searching for spirituality beyond God, after leaving the priesthood. Hence, characters emerge within characters, but Ruiz never dwells on the transforming conflicts that births these “new” characters. The boy himself grows up to take on another name altogether when he appears later in the film as an adult (José Afonso Pimentel).

You could try to grasp for a common thread between these characters. One that jumps out of the proceedings is that these are stories of parents lost to give birth to lost children, and when the connections happen between the characters, not to mention their evolving and shifting identities, it is almost epiphenal. Again, in his notes, the director states, “the characters that form the social fabric of Mysteries of Lisbon go through three stages: birth, betrayal and redemption … But does this explain the jubilatory tingling triggered by the accumulation of stories that are in turn disparate, truncated, labyrinthine and baroque?” The film can indeed feel exhilarating to watch unfold, and it leaves this viewer wondering what other treasures were left on the cutting room floor in the 90 minutes of footage excised from the European mini-series version of this movie.

As the action unfolds, a recurring moody, melancholic orchestral theme often swells up. The music has a droning atmosphere about it and appears like those over-the-top musical stings do in the soap operas this film comes close to spoofing. It goes to show Ruiz’s wit when handling one of the most complex narratives ever committed to film while also adding a surreal mood to the scenes. Throughout, the film tests the audience’s attention, as there are no cinematic devices like title cards to reveal leaps in time and place (the sets in the film are simple but capture the eras of the 1800s and 1900s well, especially with the help of the dynamic costumes the actors don). The shifting characters are also so extreme as to involve name changes, leaving one to wonder if these are only the same actors playing other characters. In some ways, this might be accurate, but the best way to experience Mysteries of Lisbon, is not to over-intellectualize the events and enjoy the unrelenting journey that unfolds over an amazing marathon pace for a theatrical screening (there is a pause for an intermission). Keeping the pace brisk is a restless camera that constantly pans and swivels around the action, which is mostly dialogue, though there is some hitting and even a couple of duels to liven up the drama.

But, ultimately all these cinematic tools work to serve story, and the story of Mysteries offers something beyond anything I have ever seen in a movie theater. It is much more than a linear storyline. One might imagine it follows a path that can only be illustrated in a three-dimensional cone that begins as a dot and spirals wider into a curlicue with gaps while branches sprout off the curls and twirl off in their own twisting manner into a dark abyss. One of these little branches ripe with mystery appears when Father Dinis takes João out for a walk, early in the movie, as he begins to explain his origins. A little boy interrupts to ask João if he would like to come with him to see something. After Father Dinis nods his permission, the boy leads João to a nearby gallows. “It’s my father,” says the boy, pointing to one of three hanged men. Though it appears only briefly, this little boy’s shocking story offers a penetrating encapsulation of the extreme stories and mysteries that saturate this film. So many of these stories, no matter how brief or long, are swollen with implication and possibilities.

The movie’s layering of stories comes across almost dream-like, recalling a recent Hollywood movie that excited movie goers by diverting from the traditional form of blockbuster films, by meshing together layers of ever-shifting settings and even goals: Inception. Like Inception, when the finale in Mysteries of Lisbon arrives, the audience is left to wonder:  was all that happened really a sort of fever dream, brilliantly adding a layer of infinite possibilities to the proceedings with another surreal bow on top.

Mysteries of Lisbon tries its damnedest to illustrate the complexities of the world by never offering a concrete definition of character, who all still change in dynamic ways. No one can ever rely on anyone else, and things that seem as life-defining as a marriage are just a point in a single person’s existence. It was Orson Welles who said: “We are born alone … and die alone.” Not many films succeed in illustrating this reality, but Mysteries does so in spades.

Hans Morgenstern

Mysteries of Lisbon is unrated and opens today, Friday, Oct. 7, in South Florida exclusively at the Coral Gables Art Cinema. It will play for one week only. See the cinema’s website for screening times, which vary by day. If you live outside South Florida, the film’s official website lists screening dates across the US (you can also download the full press notes and see the film’s trailer).

(Copyright 2011 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)