Film: Remembrance of Things Past

Cinephiles who, like yours truly, aren’t too familiar with the vast, decades-spanning body of work of the late Raúl Ruiz have a lot of catching up to do.

It’s what I kept telling myself when I first saw Mysteries of Lisbon, the richly layered tapestry of intergenerational stories the Chilean filmmaker made for Portuguese TV in 2010 and which arrived in American arthouses the next year in mammoth, marathon-style form. Luckily for us adventurous moviegoers, the prolific avant garde auteur was working on a couple of projects when he passed away in 2011 at age 70. The first of these, Night Across the Street, was his last completed film and is finally being released in South Florida this weekend.

Loosely based on several short stories by author Hernán del Solar, the film, which was shot on location in the Ruiz’s motherland, represents a homecoming of sorts for the director, who fled the country in 1973 following Augusto Pinochet’s coup d’état. Unlike some of his fellow Chilean cineastes, Ruiz opted for a less confrontational depiction of his country’s politics, and in any case, that’s not what ultimately appears to hold his interest. Night on the Street is a Proustian meditation on Memory with a capital “M,” a fitting topic for a filmmaker who tackled Proust in Time Regained (1999).

Lest you become alarmed this is an impenetrable, insufferably narcissistic doodle, rest assured Ruiz was in a playful mood in his final days. His protagonist, Don Celso Barra (Sergio Hernández), might be a small-town bureaucrat on the verge of retirement, but what keeps the movie light on its feet is the pencil pusher’s imagination, which blends real events in his childhood with whimsical encounters with literary figures, both real (Ludwig van Beethoven) and fictional (Long John Silver).

It seems Don Celso is a tad paranoid, concerned that someone is going to send him to the afterlife the moment he leaves the workplace for good. His peers are already used to his existential fretting, but unbeknownst to the characters, Ruiz suggests that this time his fears might actually be justified. Before it morphs into a bonafide ghost story, though, Night Across the Street takes the scenic route to get to its protagonist’s final destination. Vivid vignettes from Don Celso’s youth, such as the day he gets an “F” in math and tries to talk his (politically outspoken) teacher into changing his grade, intersect seamlessly with daydream sequences that show, for instance, the middle-aged man discussing the vagaries of language – in French and Spanish – with Horseman on the Roof author Jean Giono (Christian Vadim, son of Ruiz muse Catherine Deneuve). The most inspired scenes show some of these imaginary conversations intruding on a real memory, such as the moment Beethoven (Sergio Schmied) stomps on a soccer field during an actual game while conducting one of his symphonies from the orchestra inside his head.

Ruiz springs one kooky surprise after another – Don Celso’s runaway alarm clock, his office assistant’s obsession with crossword puzzles, those irresistible pink lampshades – with stream-of-consciousness dexterity. His approach to the medium recalls the work of other filmmakers, such as Theo Angelopoulos’ byzantine narrative structure, or Federico Fellini’s surreal, brainstorm-on-celluloid evocation of provincial life, but he imbues these qualities with an inquisitive zest that’s all his own. “These people are so big,” remarks Beethoven when Don Celso’s young-boy incarnation and a friend take the composer to the movies for the first time. The boys try to explain to him that what he’s seeing are mere projections, “shadows that give out light.” Let’s be thankful, then, that this inventive master of light and shadow got one last chance to explore the possibilities of what can happen in the confines of a darkened auditorium.

If you’d rather stay home, this week is a big one for home video releases. Besides Ang Lee’s lyrical Life of Pi and the dishy middlebrow antics in Sacha Gervasi’s Hitchcock, we finally get the long-awaited Blu-ray release of Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Purists who felt the Mouse House had desecrated Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel about the iconic Paris cathedral’s lovelorn bell-ringer let themselves be heard quite loudly upon the film’s summer 1996 theatrical release. I always felt the musical, which reteamed Beauty and the Beast directors Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise with composer Alan Menken, represented a bold step into mature thematic territory for the animators. Seeing it again after several years, I was struck by how well this medieval tale has stood the test of time.

It might not have been readily apparent for mass audiences when it was first released, but it’s pretty gutsy, and more than a little subversive, to turn Hugo’s prose into what can quite clearly be read as a coming out allegory. During the musical number “Out There,” what is otherwise a subtext bubbling just beneath the film’s surface threatens to erupt into the light of day. It might follow the tried-and-true Disney tradition of the inevitable I-yearn-for-something-more songbook staple, but the number encapsulates a rebel yell against repression that takes on a sexual dimension when coupled with the Freudian trappings in Tab Murphy’s story treatment.

It’s still a thrill to watch Judge Frollo (the voice of Tony Jay), the cruel, racist city official who becomes benefactor to Quasimodo (Amadeus‘ Tom Hulce), the film’s titular hero, after he causes his gypsy mother’s death. (The film’s opening number, “The Bells of Notre Dame,” chronicles the protagonist’s tragic-stricken origins with fangs fairly intact.) This is a Disney villain who is driven by a libido that threatens to consume him. The object of his lust – and Quasimodo’s affections – is the curvaceous Esmeralda (Demi Moore, the weaker link in an otherwise strong voice cast), the gypsy performer who is also fighting for the liberty of her people against the (devoutly Catholic) forces that threaten to wipe them out.

The filmmakers take pains to separate Frollo’s violent crusade from the church’s benevolent, live-and-let-live stance towards outcasts like Esmeralda, but it’s hard not to make parallels between present-day Catholic figures’ virulently anti-LGBT rhetoric and Frollo’s deeply held prejudices, which compete with his sexual urges. These warring impulses coexist most memorably in the musical number “Hellfire,” in which the flames in Frollo’s fireplace take Esmeralda’s seductive shape. I interviewed Trousdale and Kirk in 1999, and they told me they were able to secure a “G” rating by trimming a couple of seconds on a shot in which Frollo, who has grabbed Esmeralda by the arm, smells her long black hair lasciviously. I’m guessing the ratings board chose to ignore the scene, later in the movie, where Frollo tells Esmeralda he will spare her life in exchange for some sexytime.

Hunchback‘s adult underpinnings make the film’s Hitchcockian cliffhanger on top of Notre Dame all the more formulaic. It’s a routine conclusion to a film that peers into the abyss without quite diving in. Trousdale and Wise, who would collaborate one more time – in the underrated Atlantis: The Lost Continent – exhibited a fascinating clash of sensibilities. Hugo’s clear-eyed realism grapples with the hero’s journey of self-actualization emblematic of the studio’s output since a virginal Snow White rode on Prince Charming’s horse to that castle in the clouds. Say what you will about this Hunchback‘s imperfections. I’ll take a flawed movie that, like this gorgeously animated treat, actually took chances over a more cohesive film that gave us more of the same. It showed discerning audiences that even closets made of stone are only meant to store your baggage.

Celebrate Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s rise to popehood with Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, now available on a 3-disc pack that also includes its direct-to-DVD sequel. It lacks any new extras, but the pristine high-definition transfer is worth checking out. (Tom Hooper, eat your heart out.) Night Across the Street starts Friday at the Miami Beach Cinematheque (mbcinema.com) and screens thru Wednesday, March 20.

About Ruben Rosario

Speak Your Mind