Night Across the Street
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On the verge of a forced retirement, Don Celso, an elderly office worker begins to relive both real and imagined memories from his life a trip to the movies as a young boy with Beethoven, listening to tall tales from Long John Silver, a brief stay in a haunted hotel. Stories hide within stories and the thin line between imagination and reality steadily erodes, opening up a marvelous new world of personal remembrance and fantastic melodrama. A playfully elegiac film from the great Raul Ruiz, conceived to be seen only after his death, Night Across the Street is a beautiful final masterwork exploring the director s favorite subjects: fiction, history and life itself.
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As I was watching it, I couldn't help recalling a few of the magical realist writers from Latin America (from Cuba and Argentina primarily) that I've read, as well as some of the European Surrealist, Avante Garde, and Baroque writers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries from France, Spain, and Italy (Pirandello is also present).
As for cinema, Bunuel and Fellini, even Almodovar (and the Soap Opera) are there to some extent, as is a film like Charlie Kaufman's Synechdoche, New York.
At its most literal, Night Across The Street is about the "imaginative" mind of an elderly man, Don Celso (perhaps going senile toward the end of his life). Past, present, and future, memory, fantasy, and dreams all seem to fuse together for him under influence of all that has inspired him as much as what has terrorized him throughout his life, and it's some times difficult to know what is real (or if anything is) and what is a figment of his imagination, though certain things (including certain themes) are clarified well enough during the film that we are able to latch onto as viewers.
At times, the film feels very novelistic, at others like an elaborate stage play, but there is a highly developed cinematic aesthetic that drives the narrative, as well.
I really don't want to give anything away, which is why I am speaking about it somewhat abstractly, but suffice to say that it is a jouney well worth taking that would probably beneift from multiple viewings. If there is something missing, it is that neither the actors nor the narrative created the strong emotional connection that most of my favorite films do, but then, one of the marvels of cinema is how there are so many different ways of tapping the wonder of the medium.
Many have likened this to a weak variation of Ingmar Bergman's `Wild Strawberries', a film that I personally didn't connect to as strongly as so many others have, but I was still very curious to see what this film had to say. Settling in earlier this week to watch this, I was on pins and needles in anticipation, mostly because I was afraid it would let me down.
In a way, it did.
This isn't to say that what Raoul Ruiz does here isn't noteworthy, but there is an obvious lacking in the finished product that is sadly very present in the finale. As it was coming to a close I found myself acknowledging the film's fault to my own dismay. It just doesn't connect. That isn't to say that the film is particularly cold, or even distant, but the film doesn't find solid footing in the delicate detailing and winds up feeling disjointed in composition despite containing an obvious flow of imagery. The concept of following a man's mental journey on the brink of retirement is an intriguing one, and I'm always up for a good `reflective' piece that allows the audience to follow the protagonist as he examines his life and where it has led him. The main issue is that as the film comes to a close, I'm not sure that this journey was all that meaningful. Despite pondering seeming insightful `life lessons' and ruminating over words, Don Celso's life journey doesn't feel all that special or memorable.
The interwoven realities here are actually interesting in their own right. The flashbacks to his youth and his obvious literary and historical obsessions are intriguing and surprisingly layered, and yet visually appalling (for such a beautifully shot film, those horribly ugly flashback sequences with obvious green screen glow and pee yellow sky are a real detriment) and disjointed from the rest of the film. The fictional `murder plot' aspect of the film feels fresh and is my favorite aspect of the film (and that `one take' tracking shot in the retirement home is breathtaking to watch) and yet it all felt contrived as a whole.
I think that is a huge problem with a film like `Night Across the Street'. There are many admirable aspects to each layer of this film (the reality, the fantasy, the flashbacks) and yet they don't come together in a way that feels unified or cohesive or even poignant.
It's a shame that Ruiz left us on this note, and yet maybe it is fitting (considering that the film's exploration of death seems a fitting `final piece'). I just wish that the exploration of life and death and the working man's journey had made a stronger impact in the end. That final scene should have felt richer, and yet it came and went without much more than a shrug from me.
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