FIT 728x90 Film Society of Lincoln Center

Critical Dialogue: Oliveira, Ruiz, and Late Filmmaking

By Max Nelson on February 20, 2013

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Night Across the Street Raul Ruiz

Night Across the Street

Night Across the Street, the final film from Chilean master Raul Ruiz, has all the common, often contradictory, characteristics of late cinematic style: an abundance of metaphors for moviegoing and moviemaking; an everything-must-go surplus of visual and thematic ideas; a blithely languid pace; a fondness for digression. In his review of the film for our January/February issue, Aaron Cutler remarks that Ruiz “respond[s] to the world’s finite number of official histories with an infinite number of imagined stories, free of all constraints, including mortality.” Like many late films, Night finds its director invoking the power of the movies to deprive death of its sting: life is equated with a game of marbles and death with the falling of dominoes. You can always play again.  

Edward Said once wrote that late style “does not admit the definitive cadences of death; instead, death appears in a refracted mode, as irony.” The real irony, though, is “how often lateness as a theme and as a style keeps reminding us of death.” The more Ruiz repeats what Cutler identifies as one of his favorite maxims—“dying is no big thing”—the sadder Night Across the Street becomes: in his denial we see a love of life so strong it refuses to admit defeat.

Manoel de Oliveira’s Gebo and the Shadow shares Night’s deliberate pace, its reflective mood, and its preoccupation with death as a plot device and central theme, yet they are markedly different responses to the threat of mortality. For the 104-year-old Oliveira—who, as J. Hoberman observes in the January/February issue, “has been making his last film for 25 years”—death is not something to be denied, refracted, or softened. It is something to be confronted, unblinking, sans magic tricks, illusions, or games. Cocteau once said that mirrors showed “death at work,” and Hoberman argues that Gebo does the same: two once-young actors sitting at a wooden table in a dark, claustrophobic room, staring down the camera.

Blood of a Poet

The story, adapted from a 1923 play by Raul Brandão, concerns an elderly couple (the stately Michel Lonsdale and the elegant Claudia Cardinale) who sit up late each night awaiting the return of their prodigal son and bemoaning their hard lot, both lit only by a sole, flickering candle that looks as if it’s constantly on the verge of extinction. The setup is theatrical, but, according to Francisco Ferreira of Cinema Scope, the effect is not: Gebo and the Shadow “may be haunted by theatre, but it knows how to play with its masks and keep them hidden.” Rather than “filmed theatre,” it’s “a purely cinematic antechamber of death.”

Oliveira seems to keep his long takes going by compulsion, as if every extra second of candlelight is an extra second spent among the living, but he recognizes the extent to which the camera records death at work. Ferreira cites an especially troubling Oliveira quote—“the act of filming, the act of photographing, is in itself violent. Just as a murderer cannot avoid death, the director cannot avoid filming”—and concludes that Gebo is primarily “a film about death and despair.”

And yet if denying the reality of death means implicitly acknowledging it as a threat, it’s possible that the opposite holds equally true—that by confronting death head-on, Oliveira is really drawing our attention towards what it means to live. That candle is the frame’s center, its focal point, and the only thing keeping Gebo’s long takes from falling into darkness; it suggests that, though the act of filming might sometimes be violent, it also depends entirely on the preservation of life.

Gebo and the Shadow Manoel de Oliveira

Gebo and the Shadow

When Lonsdale’s Gebo finds himself faced with a tough ethical dilemma, that candle takes on extra moral, even spiritual significance. Oliveira’s film becomes, as Jordan Cronk put it in a review in The House Next Door, a work “concerned with past glories and transgressions and how we work toward (or in some cases resist) forgiveness”—which itself constitutes “a death and resurrection of a different sort.” Gebo and the Shadow enacts a strategic double metaphor: in Gebo’s candlelit world, the preservation of life is inseparable from the preservation of moral integrity.

And in the final moments of this late film, there’s room for one magic trick. The flame doesn’t go out after all; at the moment of Gebo’s final decision, in what Hoberman calls “one of the few justified freeze frames in cinema history,” it is left to burn forever.

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