The vast majority of movies adhere to the basic tenets of narrative. They tell a story that is more or less linear, even if those events are shown to us out of order (a la Memento). There are, on the other hand, a number of art-house films that throw off the shackles of narrative and present themselves more like music does, with recurring themes reappearing throughout the piece. Raul Ruiz spent his career bending time and perception, and his dreamlike, melancholy-laced final picture, Night Across the Street, is no exception.
The movie centers on Don Celso (Sergio Hernandez), a soon-to-be forced retiree whom we first meet sitting at a desk in a poetry class surrounded by young men listening to a teacher lecture on the translation of a poem. There’s a line about “shadows of the past” and the teacher says, “Let’s play with that.” That last quote serves as the mission statement for the whole film.
Ruiz has no interest in following a conventional narrative, so instead he treats us to scenes of Celso as a young boy, talking with his idol Beethoven (nobody else can see the famous composer) and learning about his family’s staunch political positions at a time when Chile was in turmoil.
Eventually we learn that Celso believes one day a man is going to murder him, and he supposes that everyone who comes to stay at the boarding house where he resides will be that man. However, when death finally comes for Celso, that’s far from the end of the story; Ruiz is unconcerned with reality -- let alone conventional ideas about time -- and his conception of the afterlife turns out to be just as mysterious and free-flowing a place as life itself. This is all the more poignant because Night Across the Street received a U.S. release after his 2011 death at the age of 70.
Hernandez has a fantastic face. Looking at him is like looking at your wise but sad grandfather as he reminisces about being a child -- only in this instance, those memories include chatting warmly with Long John Silver about his parents’ deaths and taking Beethoven to the movies with his best friend.
Ruiz may have had some clear understanding of what this work is supposed to mean, but truth be told, he’s structured it so unconventionally that it seems impossible to misinterpret it; however you feel about it or organize it in your own mind and heart will be totally valid. He brings back pieces of music, particular words (this movie must hold the record for the number of times the word “rhododendron” is uttered onscreen), and conversations about time, translations, and ships with such regularity that they take on the same importance for us as they do for Celso.
Like the majority of Ruiz’s work, Night Across the Street isn’t easy to understand, but the opaqueness is intentional. That will make it an impossible viewing experience for many people, but for those already familiar with Ruiz’s filmography, it’s a fitting farewell from the director. leave a comment --Perry Seibert