27 January 2010

The window (La ventana)
La ventana - DVD cover
written and directed by Carlos Sorin
2008 / Argentina / color / 77 minutes
Spanish with English subtitles
DVD (region 1) from Film Movement
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In Carlos Sorin’s gently poetic film The window, Time is as much a character as any of the humans. The quiet, insistent ticking of a clock in the hallway and the swish of the swinging pendulum echo almost subliminally through the house and reverberate in the lives of the people with a strength that belies the subtle sounds – but Don Antonio is acutely aware of Time’s presence in his life, looming larger with the passing of each minute. The film opens with a dream – Don Antonio sees visions from his youth 80 years before, of his mother introducing him to his babysitter for the evening. He can almost see the young woman’s face – a tantalizing memory made more poignant by his inability to bring it completely into focus. He can hear music in the house – his assumption is that his parents were entertaining at home.
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Reality asserts itself when he awakens and is troubled that he cannot remember the babysitter’s face – he wonders where he lost the memory, how it slipped away from him. Don Antonio is bedridden, apparently recovering from some unspecified heart-related problem, in San Juan, his ancestral home, remotely situated on the pampas of Argentina. He is under the care – and watchful eyes – of Maria del Carmen and Emilse, who function as housekeepers, cooks and caregivers, along with a longtime handyman. Their lives are pursued with little contact from the outside world – the occasional visit from a deliveryman or repairman, and of course regular visits from Don Antonio’s doctor and friend. They have no telephone, depending on a two-way radio for communication.

The film takes place over the course of a single day – a special day, with the impending visit of Don Antonio’s estranged son Pablo, who is a famous concert pianist now living in Europe. His return after many years is an opportunity for reconciliation with his father, and Don Antonio is determined that his son will be made welcome, and that the occasion will be celebrated as it should. Maria del Carmen and Emilse are pressed into readying a room for Don Pablo, as well as making sure that San Juan’s piano is properly tuned. Don Antonio’s doctor pays a call to examine his patient and check on the progress of his recuperation. He gently refuses Don Antonio’s request that he be allowed to receive his son outside of his bed, telling him that the time is not yet right for him to be more mobile. The nature of his long friendship with Don Antonio is illustrated by his calming assurance that the two of them will go fishing together when the old man’s health is better – but the look in Don Antonio’s eyes reveals that he knows more about his own condition than those around him might think.
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The tall window in Don Antonio’s bedroom looks out onto his land – a panoramic view of the wind-swept fields under the beautiful canopy of the Argentine sky. He longs to walk his property again, to pace through the fields, to see the condition of his beloved garden – but Maria del Carmen and Emilse keep him on a short leash, concerned about his health and the doctor’s orders. The IV constantly in his arm acts as a tether – he can move about the room from time to time, when his bed is being made, or when he sits in a chair to have his hair trimmed, but it’s easy to see that it feels more like a ball and chain to him. The aching in his eyes and on his face as he gazes out of his window is palpable.
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Don Antonio is a writer – one of the few modern conveniences visible in the film is his laptop computer, on which he works sporadically. During the doctor’s visit, he asks the physician to retrieve a book from the shelf – a first edition of A universal history of infamy by legendary Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges. As he brings the book to Don Antonio, the doctor notices that the book is signed by Borges, with a dedication to Don Antonio, making it a very special item indeed – and he is all the more astonished when the old man insists that the doctor take the book as a gift from him. It’s a touching moment – Don Antonio conveys, through this selfless gesture, the value he places upon their friendship, at the same time letting the doctor know that the patient is aware that his time might not be long.
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After a brief ‘escape’ for a walk around his property leaves him in a weakened state, tempering his hopes for a proper celebration around the return of his son. Don Pablo arrives not alone, but in the company of a woman named Claudia, apparently his girlfriend – she is evidently a performer herself, and is only partially present, concerned about the lack of communication with the outside world interfering with an upcoming booking. She greets Don Antonio with a combination of petulance and detached respect that clearly show she would rather be back in the ‘real world’ instead of stranded in the middle of nowhere. Antonio insists on having a bottle of champagne brought up from the cellar for a ceremonial toast – his son notes that the handwriting on the label is that of his mother, which his father acknowledges wistfully. As the bottle is uncorked, the lack of the characteristic ‘pop’ tells everyone that it is flat – another instance in which Time makes its presence and effects noticed. Afterwards, alone, the son explores the house, unfamiliar to him after the ensuing years. He approaches the piano, finding two tin soldiers on the top. They were retrieved earlier from inside, wedged among the mechanism, by the piano tuner, where they had evidently fallen many years ago, when Pablo was a child. He pockets them – a quiet, perhaps unconscious attempt to capture Time.
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The film is shot beautifully – there are long scenes with little dialogue, but volumes are spoken, nevertheless, by the eyes and facial expressions of the characters, as well as by the movement of the natural world, which of course has a life of its own. There is tangible poetry in the cinematography, and a completely unpretentious grace in the characters – something that cannot be taught, which must have its source deep within. The actors embody their roles, immersing themselves in them, becoming the characters they portray – it’s an essential element too often missing in modern filmmaking, and refreshing to see in such quantity and quality as in this film. Sorin’s script is neither heavy-handed nor naïve, dealing gently and openly with mortality and memory, two elements of our existence that are completely under the sometimes cruel thumb of Time. There is a sort of informed sentimentality present – it is never maudlin or simplistic, gifted to the viewer by the director and cast as an undeniable element of life. We are born, we live, and we die – what we experience over the course of a life molds us and shapes us according to our own sensibilities, directed and nudged by the events through which we pass. Don Antonio’s ghostly dream from his boyhood attains a clarity he never imagined it would reach, delivered by a messenger completely unexpected – it is all the more of a treasure for this, just as this film is a moving cinematic treasure for the viewer. It is touching without being manipulative, filled with beauty that is completely free from artifice, visual poetry that moves and flows with the natural rhythm of the wind through the grass.

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