Don Celso Barra is one of those film noir paper-pushers. Waxing nostalgic, he is fully aware of his approaching retirement, in every sense, including the most permanent one. Language and narrative will be twisted like pretzels in Raúl Ruiz’s final film, Night Across the Street (trailer here), which screens as a main slate selection of the 50th New York Film Festival.
Don Celso studies poetry with French expat Jean Giono (who seems to bear little resemblance to his Horseman on the Roof novelist namesake), with whom he has struck up a friendship of outsiders. Over coffee, Barra tells the poet stories of his childhood, featuring characters (including Long John Silver) who inject themselves into the ostensive reality.
Barra lives in a colorful boarding house worthy of a Chilean Tennessee Williams and works in a soul deadening office. At least he still has his health, but not for long. Barra has foretold his own death at the hands of an assassin acting out of passion rather than for mercenary reasons. Is it a delusion, a foreshadowing of things to come, both, or neither? It will be dashed hard to say with certainty, as Ruiz and Barra play their games with the viewers.
Indeed, it is tempting to conflate the auteur and his final protagonist. Though Ruiz began development on Lines of Wellington (also screening at this year’s NYFF), it was his widow Valeria Sarmiento who ultimately helmed the film after his passing. As a result, when Barra foretells his own death, it takes on obvious additional resonance. Still, it is impossible to invest too much biographical significance in Street, given the eccentricity of Barra’s story. With its Séances, the ghosts of Beethoven, and an excursion into the afterlife, it kind of has it all, but not necessarily in logical order.
The late great filmmaker leaves us with some amazing parting images, but viewers might want to leave a trail of breadcrumbs. It is easy to get lost in Street, especially since Ruiz’s leisurely pace does not exactly propel you along. Still, Sergio Hernández projects the morose elegance perfectly befitting the unprepossessing Don Celso.