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Festival Gems: José María de Orbe’s “Aitá”

Permanence and corrosion go side by side in José María de Orbe’s “Aitá,” where light is a crucial character.
MUBI is exclusively showing José María de Orbe’s Aitá April 17 - May 16, 2016 in the United States.

As with Josef von Sternberg or Pedro Costa, light in José María de Orbe’s Aitá (Father) is a crucial character—suffusing rooms and corridors, throwing ornate patterns on panels, encircling people and then leaving them stranded amid darkness. Delicate yet tangible presences abound in the vaguely haunted setting, a large, crumbling house in the pastoral Spanish town of Astigarraga, a mansion replete with several centuries’ worth of dust and splendor. The aged caretaker (Luís Pescador) pulls weeds, digs up bones, and occasionally waxes metaphysical: Did you know, he asks a visiting priest (Mikel Goneaga), that hearing is the last of the senses to leave the dead? Seemingly still in control of its perceptions, the manor awakens at night as supernatural flickers materialize on its walls, with each blotchy moving image (ragged newsreels and Lumière brothers-type actualités, ranging from bustling streets to infernal bonfires) projected like shards from some vast, spectral conscious. Space is palpably concrete here, but time stretches and contracts capriciously. "History is slow. Life is fast." Filmed over the course of three years in de Orbe’s own family property and inhabited by nonprofessional actors, Aitá shares a semi-documentary element with Victor Erice’s El sol del membrillo, another work of delicate temporal sculpting and Hammershøi-like attention to luminescence. Like that fellow Spaniard’s masterpiece, there’s a distinct spiritual dimension to the cinematography’s rhythmic gradations, particularly as the film evocatively connects the fragility of the house to that of the old man wandering its vacant interiors. If Aitá showcases decay, it also extols resilience—plagued with pests and vulnerable to vandals, the manor nevertheless endures as a repository of past history and art, not unlike a dilapidated museum or, perhaps, a movie theater. (It’s no coincidence that, in the midst of the various ghostly projections, a lingering view of a bright, circular window evokes a silent-film iris shot.) The combination of permanence and corrosion, like that of light and shadow, remains pointedly unresolved; de Orbe’s closing scene, a charming gag involving a cork in a bottle of wine, might be his toast to the mystery.
Looks great, like a nutritious meal for the senses.

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