As I mentioned last week, over the course of the next month or so I’m planning to (re)post some pieces that were written for the original Nobody Knows Anybody blog. It was only really in late 2013 that I started to be happier with my writing – almost all of the pieces that I’m planning to reuse were written in 2014 or later. I will be rewriting/editing some of them, but this one is actually untouched (it was originally published in February 2014 – Update, August 2017: where I have reprinted something here, I have decided to remove the contents of the original on the old blog and instead leave a link there to the new site (it doesn’t make much sense to have the pieces appear in two places)) apart from the fact that I’ve taken the opportunity to learn how to make GIFs and have replaced some of the original images accordingly. The only thing that I’ve changed my mind about in relation to Aita is in the penultimate paragraph – I don’t think that the bedroom within the footage is necessarily the room that the image is projected in, but because the way in which one image flickers over the top of the other that was how it seemed to me on first viewing.
The film relates to my recurring fascination with architectural spaces that are presented as repositories for memories, or that otherwise have their history written into the fabric of their construction (a theme that will reappear in a couple of the other posts that I’m planning to revisit), but its play of light and shadow also results in a magical and slightly otherworldly film (and one of my favourites that I’ve seen in the course of writing the blog).
Aita (José María de Orbe, 2010)
This film casts a spell as a once grand, still-impressive house is depicted as a repository of memories that sporadically flicker into life on its faded and peeling walls.
Aside from a group of schoolchildren being shown the house part way through the film, we learn little of its history or the specifics of the people who once lived within it. It is old and has been expanded at various junctures with different historical tastes and styles being integrated into what nonetheless feels like a coherent space. That said, we do not really gain a sense of the geography of the house; rooms are shown in isolation and it is difficult to work out where they are in relation to each other. Likewise, the film is made up of a series of windows, mirrors, and doorways that frame the interiors but reveal little: they frame what we see inside but offer no outer view (we only see the grounds from the outside, although they are sometimes half glimpsed through shutters or net curtains), and the sense grows of the house as an enclosed, hermetically-sealed, entity. The passing of time has marked its surface, as nature has reclaimed every nook and cranny, vines like veins that take life rather than sustain it (and add to the sense of the house being sealed); a scene where the caretaker (Luís Pescador) starts to remove them from the facade seems like it is breathing life into a suffocated surface even while bits of cement audibly crumble and fall away. Renewal and death. Death and renewal.
Little by little we work our way into the inner life of the house. The film starts outside with a discussion between two archaeological workers about the neglected state of the house and garden, which ends with the observation that there are signs of someone trying to take on nature and reclaim the house from its grasp. The rest of the film follows this caretaker as he commences a concerted effort to bring the house back to life (to what end, or why now, is not something we discover). It is a film with many textures as almost every wall we see is peeling or is in some way marked, the remnants of lives and previous incarnations left on the surface: the house is littered with tactile reminders of times past. Director José María de Orbe unfurls the house for the spectator, utilising layered spaces within single shots that are revealed or concealed by light and shadows (the use of light is beautiful) via the very deliberate opening and closing of doors and windows as the caretaker makes his way around the building.
The film largely unfolds in silence apart from the diegetic sound of the local environment and the physical actions of those onscreen, and a series of short conversations between the caretaker and the local priest (Mikel Goenaga). Those conversations – about bones found in an archaeological dig in the grounds of the house (which is next door to the church), the senses that last longest after death, and a terrible white light (unseen by us) that starts to plague the caretaker – point to what the house will reveal as its layers are peeled back and raise the issue of whether some things are better left undisturbed. To begin with, it seems that ‘breathing life’ in to the house just involves repairs and sprucing it up, but about halfway through the running time something unexpected happens and the house becomes a living entity in and of itself, a repository of memories (of the house, its inhabitants, and the locale). As a storm lashes the house in the dark, and the rain running down the window ripples down a tiled wall in shadow form, making it seem as though the wall is trembling, the house suddenly flickers into life (the sound of the rain still on the soundtrack).
The images projected onto surfaces of the house – mainly the wall of the grand hallway and that of a small bedroom – are history of the house (which can be seen within the footage) and its locale. Blending archival footage of the Basque Country (which is where the house is although only the archaeologists at the start speak in Basque; the caretaker and the priest converse in Castilian Spanish) with film of the house and the eponymous Aita (the Basque word for ‘father’) (Pedro Mayor) shot in the same style, the deliberately degraded and manipulated film stock (Antoni Pinent has the credit ‘manipulación de 35mm’) recounts sadness, suppression and the hidden, and the forgotten ghosts that populate the interstices of history. In the booklet that accompanies the DVD, the director says that they wished to create a new dialogue between the fragments of archival film and the house. Images that you would expect from early cinema (people enjoying themselves – we see a beach and later men dancing) are interspersed with sights that have a sinister undertone (priests and men in white coats seeming to torment children and young people in different contexts) and those of destruction. Looking at the end credits, the sequence showing men consumed by smoke (which finds an echo of the sequence where the caretaker smokes the woodwork of a grand fireplace) as they vainly attempt to tackle an enormous fire, may be footage from the bombing of Guernica (the town is named but there is no date given – if the fragments are listed in the order in which they appear, then ‘Guernica’ matches this section); if it is footage of the aftermath of the bombing, the deliberate degradation of the celluloid (the warping of which ripples, tremulously, across the surface of the image), with the effect of seemingly layering fire over fire, obliterating the past, is an eloquent and elegant indictment of the act.
But the footage that specifically relates to the house is both mysterious (we are given no context) and threatening (the small bedroom, which already generates a sense of foreboding, is seen within the footage); the spectral beings that appear in those ‘memories’ seem to relate to the white light seen by the caretaker (who sleeps in that bedroom when he stays at the house). In one sequence the ‘light’ obscures a girl’s face, rendering her anonymous and denying her an identity (again, a suppression), but in the sequence relating to the bedroom, it passes from the spectre to the man in bed, engulfing his head (an attack). The lack of contextualisation lends the images an almost stream-of-consciousness poetry: vestiges of the past witnessed by the house are replayed on its walls without an obvious narrative structure. The related short film (50 minutes) Aita, carta al hijo (2011) is essentially a reworking of the feature but shorn of all conversation scenes and adding a voiceover (as well as some additional shots such as rooms viewed from a different angle and a few more inserts of archival footage). The voiceover (performed by the director himself) is that of the current owner of the house, who has been sent the papers found by the caretaker in the aftermath of a break-in, and takes the form of a letter written from a father (the father / aita we see in the fragmented archival footage?) to his son asking that he try to break from the cycle of violence and hate propagated in the region as if it is a tradition to be handed down through the generations. The lack of human interaction in the short (although it does include the footage of the atheist caretaker apparently finding some solace in listening to the harmonies of the church choir) adds an additional layer of melancholy.
But the mystery and melancholy are not affectation and neither is the poetry of the film. It is rare that a film feels utterly original, but that was how Aita felt to me. I recommend watching it in darkness because the play of light and shadow is magical.