Berlinale 2020: Dreaming the Impossible Cinema

Three diverse films by Raúl Ruiz, Cristi Puiu, and Lois Patiño test the notions of cinema and experiment with cinematic devices.
Ela Bittencourt
I can’t think of a better start to the Berlin Film Festival than Raúl Ruiz’s The Tango of a Widower and its Distorting Mirror (1967/2020), an eerie, imaginative story about a despotic professor, haunted by the ghost of his deceased wife, and which is also a tribute to experimental cinema. The film was to be Ruiz’s debut feature, but he never completed it. Ruiz’s widow, Valeria Sarmiento, who was also behind the completion of Ruiz’s other celebrated posthumous project, The Wandering Soap Opera (2017), effectively became its co-director.
The film’s plot is quite simple, perhaps even schematic. A renowned professor (Rubén Sotoconil) sees his nightmarish dreams infect reality, assailed by her image in daylight. Wigs move around his apartment—surrealist, sensual, tormenting. In one dream, his nephew removes a wig from his body, as if he just gave birth to it. There’s plenty here to create tension, not the least the professor’s patronizing of women, in striking contrast to how clearly he feels at the mercy of his wife’s tantalizing ghost.
Similarly to The Wandering Soap Opera, The Tango of a Widower is not just a film—it’s a film artifact. Since it lacked an audio track, Sarmiento hired a group of deaf persons who read lips to reconstruct the narrative. The screenplay was then written by the playwright Omar Saavedra Santis. Sarmiento also hired her and Ruiz’s longtime collaborator, the musician Jorge Arriagada, to compose the original soundscape. Arriagada’s desolate musical arrangement, with plaintive handsaw notes, heightens the film’s eeriness. So does the decision to play some of the dialogues backwards. Ruiz envisioned the film as a hallucination: structurally fluid, yet interspersed with clear, linear parts. In the film, some of these parts repeat. When the dialogues play backwards, the fabric of reality tears—the gaps in our understanding, and the atonality of warbled speech, turn minutia into spectral forms.
Ruiz’s film delights in experimentation: the camera’s agile, often in closeup, rarely frontal, capturing the surroundings in fragments, and conveying the whirl of mental and visual disorientation. Relishing unusual angles, Ruiz, like the late Polish auteur Grzegorz Królikiewicz (Through and Through, 1973), who also theorized about utilizing the off-camera space to dramatic effects. Ruiz makes the space just beyond our vision the source of ongoing suspense. Wigs, hands, or the wife’s face may spring up at any moment, infusing each frame with a sense of peril. In this sense, Ruiz’s film brings to mind the feverish experimentation of the late 1960s, as seen in the films of Królikiewicz, or earlier, Maya Deren and others.
While Ruiz is in thrall to the possibilities of movement, the Romanian auteur Cristi Puiu heads in the opposite direction in Malmkrog, in which a group of aristocratic friends gather on a snow-covered mountainous estate in Transylvania (in Romania), and debate all day their faith and morals. The film opens with the vista of snow-covered peaks – an image that returns a few times, as a cesura. Puiu then divides his film into six parts, each devoted to a different interlocutor. Their disquietude is stirred by a crucial question: Is war necessarily wicked? Puiu’s approach to the adaptation of Vladimir Solovyov's philosophical text, War, Progress, and the End of History: Three Conversations, Including a Short Story of the Anti-Christ is so invested in the text it’s bound to put off some viewers. The winding argument moves on from military service to good and evil, and then to whether Europe, as a “civilizing force,” is poised to save the world. But as someone who once spent the entire Christmas Day trying to convince a friend that torture was evil, and unlikely to make America safe - we argued all night, yet I failed - I’d like to believe that anyone who’s had a similar experience can relate to Puiu’s deliberately slow yet ardent film.
From our contemporary perspective, the European presumption to save the world is bluntly questionable (though it echoes some countries' current ambitions). Puiu’s critique is slyly embedded in the film. Firstly, thanks to his use of multiple languages—French, as the aristocratic language of choice in 19th century Europe, secondly German, and thirdly, Russian, as most of our chief protagonists are Russians, and only then, Romanian. To hear this bewildering whirlwind of idioms is to immediately understand this world’s rigid hierarchies. Russians, and all South and Eastern Europeans are only “civilized” to the extent that they submit to the westerns. And if that’s the case, what is to be said about Asians, Africans, Latin Americans, and others?
Puiu’s film isn’t merely an exhaustive, supple treatise. After all, can philosophy be cinema, and vice versa? I’d like to think so (one might cite Straub-Huillet as one example), plus to the extent that Dostoevsky, Kafka, Beckett, and other writers devoted to the irrational made philosophizing part of our narrative DNA. But it wouldn’t be cinema if Puiu hadn’t taken such pains to give his film a rigorous formal framework. You can love it or hate it—and one must note how far this new film is from his earlier feature, Sierranevada (2016), a lush social melodrama, in which a family the Christmas Eve thrashing out their petty differences in cramped interiors. This time, Puiu has purged the holiday melodrama; he aires it out by setting Malmkrog in sparse interiors. Out goes the clunk and in goes the lux of European gentry, with its erudition but also provincialism, its admiration for combat and fierce nationalism.
Puiu empties out and stills his frames; numerous times the camera takes in the entire ensemble looking out the window, frozen. The filming tactics change from slow pans to shot/reverse-shot in scenes at the dinner table. Close-ups are rare and the framing is mostly kept to medium shots. All of the protagonists, except one, are aristocrats. At times, they allow themselves bits of meta-critique, such as when one guest, Nikolai, notes how the metaphors used by the young religious woman, Olga, mirror the logic of master/servant relations. All this is delicious if you consider Puiu’s deliberate mise-en-scène, staging, and sound. In the stately surroundings, as the camera often confines us to a single room, voices pour in from the adjacent spaces. Such porousness isn’t neutral: The masters’ voices resonate and echo; the servants are silent and invisible; they make all this talking and lounging and eating run smoothly. When the masters speak, the camera often crops the frame in such a way that almost out of eyesight we catch servants toiling incessantly. Their reflections are caught in the mirrors, in the frame’s corners, nearly cropped out, yet persistent, always moving. The masters don’t notice, but as dusk creeps in, and as they complain of their vision getting dimmer, their time’s coming to a close—their power dims, in the dying light.
Lois Patiño takes stillness even further. In his gorgeously photographed second feature, Red Moon Tide, shot on the Galician coast, the key element is the immovable landscape, as well as human figures often frozen in space. Patiño uses documentary material, by working with actual fishermen and villagers, but expands it with folklore and dreams. In this sense, he’s after a phantasmagorical landscape as much as the real one.
Stories of fishermen’s deaths are represented through the singular legend of Rubio, a valiant sailor who recovers the bodies of drowned fishermen, until he too is lost at sea. Patiño opens the film with underwater shots of a wreck, and then switches to primarily filming the villagers, as the voiceover poetically recaps Rubio’s fate. A monster is capturing the men, one villager tells us. The damn poisoned the water when it was constructed, says another. “The sea is dreaming us,” adds yet another. Perhaps that’s why Patiño uses the radical tool of showing the villagers frozen, to signal the semi-dream, semi-death in which they find themselves. A number of recent nonfiction films, not just Patiño’s but also the Portuguese Gonçalo Tocha’s The Mother and The Sea (2017), have detailed the fate of the European fishing villages, where the combination of young people fleeing, economic hardships, and the death of the artisanal way of living has emptied out the coasts. Red Moon Tide is a physical manifestation of this emptying out.
To this scenario, Patiño adds a subplot of three witches who arrive in town, to help find the lost man, and of the locals gossiping that the dead man’s mother may herself be a witch. The ending is pure Lazarus, and points to the fact that there is some limit to overlaying a ghost story over the real settings, with only a thin narrative structure to support a full-length feature. And yet, some scenes evoking ghosts are nuanced and somberly effective: In one, Rubio’s mother summons spirits, as the camera slowly takes in the furniture in one of her empty rooms. Suddenly a shot rings out, but we never establish its source. When the camera finally turns enough to capture the foyer, a black goat struts in, and peers into the darkened hallway—a coincidence, or a manifestation of the devil? Think of it what you will. The film grows exponentially when ambiguities arise.
Red Moon Tide’s power lies not so much in the narrative gestures as in the willful suspension of each frame, the investment in the landscape, the use of tint to color this landscape red, in mystery and obscurity, perhaps even obfuscation. The staging at times recalls the frozen frames of the photographer Jeff Wall, where we are always suspended in the midst of action. This speculative aspect makes reality itself seem uncertain. In one long shot, white water gushes out of the damn against the rigid blocks, parts of the image tinted red. This slow massive pouring out suggests an otherworldly force, a cataclysm—the visual intensity of Scott Barley’s Sleep Has Her House (2017) comes to mind, for comparison—then slowly transitions to the scene in which “witches” and locals march, covered in white sheets, like a secret covenant. Such image doesn’t necessarily ask us to believe its veracity, but rather to surrender to its magic.        

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Raúl RuizCristi PuiuLois PatiñoBerlinaleBerlinale 2020
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