The great Chilean filmmaker Raúl Ruiz, who died in August 2011, has left as his swan song a chimerically cryptic meditation on approaching death. Playfully elegiac, “Night Across the Street” – the title a simple metaphor for the big sleep – memorializes Ruiz’s childhood enchantments and traumas and the imponderable mysteries of adulthood (love and the mystique of art, for example) while refusing sentiment or self-pity.
Completed four months before he died, the movie eschews the narrative logic of Ruiz’s English-language mainstream thrillers “Shattered Image” (1998) and “A Closed Book” (2010), the sumptuous art-house projects “Time Regained” (1999) and “Klimt” (2006), and the somber Portuguese costume drama “Mysteries of Lisbon,” for my money the best film (and miniseries) of 2011. Though it’s not as surreal as such gorgeous Ruizian allegories as “Three Crowns of the Sailor” (1981) and “City of Pirates’ (1983), this last effort shares their ghostly ambience and sense of the baroque, structurally if not imagistically. If not transcendent, it lingers long in the mind.
Based on stories by Ruiz’s countryman Hernán del Solar, “Night Across the Street” is couched as a memoir. Don Celso (Sergio Hernández), Ruiz’s surrogate, is an old man in the throes of retiring from his office job – toward the end, his colleagues, who greatly admire him, salute him at a dinner and present him with a giant objet d’art in the form of a boy soldier’s head to which he presses his cheek. Interpreting such symbols is perhaps less important than relishing the movie’s amberish glow, its silkily gliding camerawork, and its emphatic iteration of strange or beautiful words such as “Antofagasta” (a Chilean port city).
Sensing his end is near, Celso believes that every new guest that comes to stay at his boarding house is his assassin. Time is not linear and reality not fixed, however, and when Ruiz pulls away from a shot of Celso in the sitting room to reveal that the landlady and other characters we have come to know have been massacred, it appears that the lodgings are a haunted house. One implication is that when one person dies, for her or him everyone else dies.
In his waning days, Celso holds imaginary conversations with the visionary French novelist and pacifist Jean Giono (Christian Vadim), in whose poetry class he has enlisted. These are intercut with memories of his visitations by his boyhood heroes, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Long John Silver (reappearing from Ruiz’s oblique 1985 version of “Treasure Island”), who regales the young Celso (Santiago Figueroa) with stories, and Beethoven, whom he takes to the movies. Baffled by technology, the composer freaks out during a Randolph Scott Western.
The old man also remembers being threatened with a beating by his father for not getting perfect grades – despite his hard work and intellectual prowess. He harps on his childhood name, “Rhododendron,” which takes on several meanings – a wooden fish, the gun he imagines killing him – but throbs with the idea of Celso’s lost boyhood: think “Rosebud.” Instead of Charles Foster Kane’s long lost sled, Celso has a pocketful of marbles.
There is a solemnity about Celso, intimating an unfulfilled life. There remain unanswered questions about his romantic history – especially in regard to the pretty office typist (Valentina Muhr), who says Celso was her only love and is clearly a phantom from the past. Ruiz wrote over a hundred plays, directed over a hundred films, and had a long marriage, but who knows what ghosts haunted him?
“Night Across the Street” isn’t quite a Borgesian palimpsest. However, it’s worth noting that its maker’s love of “Treasure Island” and its modernist magical properties was shared by Borges. Its dreaminess not only makes it an apposite homecoming for the mariner’s son Ruiz, but prompts a quoting of fellow traveler Stevenson’s own epitaph: “Home is the sailor, home from the sea/And the hunter home from the hill.”