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.)

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.)