“What’s the film about?”
“It’s hard to explain.”
“Why do you come to the cinema if you don’t even know anything about the film you’ve just seen?”
“We came to have fun, not to learn anything.”
So goes the conversation between the child version of the 2012 Chilean film NIGHT ACROSS THE STREET’s main character, Don Celso (Sergio Hernández as an adult, Santiago Figueroa as a child) and Beethoven (Sergio Schmied) during a trip to the theater. While the discourse may serve as a comment on the innocence and easily pleased attitude of the youth versus the practical attitude adults come to adopt, the brief conversation could also be construed as a comment on the film: difficult to “get,” but easy to enjoy.
The film follows the story of Celso, an aging desk clerk being forced into retirement due to what this medically-untrained reviewer would like to chalk up to as dementia. This story is interspersed with Celso’s delusions of taking a class with a favorite author (Professor Giono, played by Christian Vadim), and the mythical childhood of Celso. In the lengthy childhood segments, Celso hangs out with Beethoven and talks on a beach with Captain Long John Silver (Pedro Villagra). Mixed in with these fantastical tales of his youth come snippets of what may be truth: Celso marching in a funeral procession, receiving a beating from his father for failing, run ins with the political ideas of post-WWII Chile, and the like.
As the story of present day Celso progresses and the film takes on a darker tone, the flashbacks and delusions begin to interfere more and more with the life of Celso, eventually becoming indistinguishable from the real story. His secretary is in love with him, his landlady’s nephew is coming to kill him, he has a huge fortune stashed away; all possibly true, all never truly proven false. Bandied about amidst the convoluted tale are repeated symbols: marbles, seagulls, ships, guns, love, death, even words like “kiss” and “rhododendron.” Such repetition is a hallmark of the surrealist genre, yet it is one that director Raoul Ruiz never quite manages to pull up from the murk of the film. They mean something, surely, but what?
One possible explanation is that they are the musings of a dying man coming to terms with his death. Indeed, just as Celso knows his life is coming to a close in the film, so too did Ruiz while he was making it. NIGHT ACROSS THE STREET, his final finished work, was actually shown posthumously, as Ruiz had died of a lung infection at 70 before it could be released.
Despite its intensely cryptic plot, the film is an interesting look at a man (perhaps) facing his own mortality. After all, sometimes we see films to have fun, not to learn anything.
NIGHT ACROSS THE STREET (2012) screened at The Brattle Theatre on Wednesday, 2/5