What: Film Review
Directed by: Raul Ruiz
Written by: Raul Ruiz, based on the stories of Hernan del Solar
Produced by: Christian Aspee, Francois Margolin
Starring: Sergio Hernandez, Christian Vadim, Santiago Figueroa, Sergio Schmied, Pedro Villagra
Running Time (in min.): 110 minutes
Language: Spanish w/ English subtitles, French w/ English subtitles
Rating: Not Rated
Official Selection of the 56th Annual San Francisco International Film Festival
Night Across the Street (La noche de enfrente) (2012)
What may once have been only a minor failure in an otherwise illustrious life is marked for disaster by the death two years ago of famed Chilean writer-director Raul Ruiz. Whether from age or lack of focus or a myriad of other elements, the picture that claims stake at the end of the late filmmaker’s life is no testament to his abilities. Notably, the film in question is Night Across the Street, a meditation on the forthcoming death-by-retirement of an office notary named Celso Barra.
Don Celso (Sergio Hernandez, phoning it in) is being pushed out of his office just in time for the early stages of dementia to set in and bring the protagonist back, in his memory, to childhood. The trouble is that as his retirement looms ever closer, Don Celso’s memories start to switch from the real – life lessons with his mother, bullying by other children, playing soccer – to the not-quite-so, as in “chats” with his heroes Long John Silver and Ludwig van Beethoven (both of whom speak fluent Spanish, and are played respectively by the Chilean comic actors Sergio Schmied and Pedro Villagra.) As quickly as it was earned, our sympathy starts to fade for this dying man when we realize he revels in these visions. Just as the film’s old-world nostalgia makes it virtually unpalatable to any but the most patience viewers, so too do Celso’s reminiscences seem foregone and pointless. After all, he knows as well as we do that he’s only building up to his death.
Ruiz switches placidly between the elder Celso and the younger, played with deep intellectual curiosity and WASPish energy by Santiago Figueroa. There is a marked difference in performance between Hernandez, whose gravity and posture famously signal his deep power and authority, and Figueroa, whose smarts conceal his young neuroses. Where Figueroa reacts to Long John and Beethoven with reverence, Hernandez reacts to his best friend, the novelist Jean Giono (Christian Vadim, in a calm and engaging performance,) with little more than patience boredom. While the young Barra absorbs the lessons that will guide his life, the older prepares only for the end of it.
What’s lost in the oscillation is any sense of cohesion that writer/director Ruiz’s noted talents have begot in such wonderful recent films as 2006’s Klimt or 2009’s La Maison Nucingen. Though Celso Barra is meant to be our anchor, he is uprooted by the filmmaker’s temporal shifts and becomes more ghost than aging man. Imbalance takes over as the film’s major theme, rather than the doom of impending death that the title implies, or the values of youth that Long John and Beethoven shove towards young Don Celso.
All such considerations in mind, it does not do Ruiz justice as a filmmaker to neglect his truly astounding visual expertise. Many of Hernandez’s monologues, which are often filled with great (read: exhausting) pauses and obtuse dramatic meter, are accompanied by minutes-long crane shots and revolving camera work. Director of photography Inti Briones shoots in a resplendent widescreen film format, never failing to capture the expanses of a café, an office, or a beach that Celso is “considering himself” on. It helps that Ruiz’s production designer works as specifically as those of Wes Anderson’s films, creating patches of color – the main one in Night Across the Street, ironically, is neon pink – that Briones brings into and out of immaculate frames.
Ruiz devotees will likely recognize Night Across the Street, which was an official selection of the 2013 San Francisco International Film Festival, as one more notch in the belt of one of the world’s most accomplished film talents. This idea, unfortunately, takes a beating under the weight of the actual project. Is it heresy or some form of slander not to accept a beloved director’s final work as a masterpiece? I don’t know the answer, but I wish I did not have to ask it.
Editor’s Note: This review, despite its content, is in full devoted to and in thanks of Raul Ruiz, one of the world’s greatest film artists and writers. Without his work, international cinema, Chilean magic-realism, and the new generation of South American filmmakers would be working without a certain thread in the net of generations of art. We thank Raul Ruiz and wish for him a long and inimitable legacy.