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A favorite from Rotterdam 2011: House of Shadows (José María de Orbe's "Aita")

Aitá (José Maria de Orbe, Spain) develops sublimely what is undoubtedly an old pictorial idea: the study of light as inextricable from the study of death.

De Orbe’s modest semi-doc fixes its steady gaze (an unmoving camera) on a house aching towards dilapidation, barely maintained by a groundskeeper (outside) and an old caretaker (inside), toured by local school children, looted by other groups of older children, emerging from the foliage yet descending back to the earth, or, even more suggestively, descending into the crackling film footage of bygone silent actualities, mysteriously projected on the night-shrouded walls of the quiet mansion.

The celluloid flickers are the only fantasy in the film—the rest is but light, the old man going from room to room, passing through or handling upkeep, receding shadows of the deepest black flattening spaces as awesome light sources cast their near-holy shades into the empty chambers. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a film that interrogates light, that produces that rare question in the viewer, a wonderment at the source of light and, intrinsically, its meaning.  The film is made up of various gradations of grey between this chiaroscuro (in the press notes, de Orbe mentions Rothko), yet its colorwork is as minute as the range of grey is meticulous and infinite, deep rubies popping out of a corner illuminated by a window and the whispered shock of shadowy green against the flat modernist palette produced from the combination of the old opulence and the current decay.

The documentary on the house and its light is humanized through the old man’s wandering upkeep and his playful conversations on death and dreams with a local priest.  Pointedly, there is no real sense that the man is dying, but rather that the vessel which contains him and infuses him—this ancient house—is dying, and may have the power to take those within with it.  A beautiful,  architectonically soulful poem of light and death.

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