Film Scratches focuses on the world of experimental and avant-garde film, especially as practiced by individual artists. It features a mixture of reviews, interviews, and essays.
A Review by David Finkelstein.
In Luz en la Copa (Light in the Cup), a complex and brilliant experimental feature by Bolivian filmmaker Alejandro Pereyra Doria Medina, almost every image is doubled or tripled, as multiple versions of events overlap one another. A typical passage, early in the film, shows two versions of a man walking down a street, one superimposed over the other, while we hear two versions of a woman singing a Yiddish lullaby, mixed together on the soundtrack. Pereyra calls this a “deconstructed” film, and he means this literally, as the film reflects back on the life and memories of an older filmmaker, Santiago (in a powerful performance by Santiago Palet), ruminating about his life in Sucre, his small, conservative hometown. Santiago’s story is refracted through four different narratives, freely mixing fantasy with memory, and every moment of these stories is presented in multiple, overlapping versions.
In an early scene, we see Santiago (clearly a stand-in for Pereyra) waking up from feverish dreams and clutching his head (covered by a stocking) and shaking. We see the image in multiple layers, and hear overlapping versions of the director’s voice, guiding the actor in how to embody the agitation. We watch the story and Pereyra shaping the story all at once, bringing our attention to the way that he uses memory both to hide and to uncover uncomfortable memories.
One of the film’s narratives is an idyllic story of first love between Isaac (Isaac Manjón), an inexplicably mute teenage musician, and Sylvia (Luciana Lazo). This storyline is Santiago’s fictionalized version of young romance, but these two expressive and attractive performers make the awkwardness and passion of teen love feel fully real. Isaac’s muteness may be a sign that he doesn’t communicate in a conventional way, but that doesn’t render him opaque. His incredibly expressive face reveals everything he is thinking and feeling, and after a short time, Sylvia understands him perfectly, even without becoming proficient in sign language.
The couple’s first meeting and their final parting are both superimposed over rapid montages of flash moments from their entire romance, casting the story firmly within the realm of memory, and Santiago’s struggle to grapple with his sentimental attachment to his memories. Just as Swann and Odette in Proust treasure their “little phrase,” so do Isaac and Sylvia celebrate jasmine as “their” flower. And Luz en la Copa is a Proustian artwork par excellence, constantly savoring the vanishing essences of memory. At one point, Santiago compares his memory of his mother’s voice to “a forest in my mind or a perfume.” But these memories keep fragmenting and re-forming into multiple versions.
The inevitable happens: Isaac finishes high school and moves to Mexico City to study music. Their romance will not survive the onslaught of adulthood and separation. Hyperventilating with panic at the airport, Isaac imagines himself heroically, romantically changing his mind and running back to Sylvia. Accompanied by the same rock song over which they fell in love, it is clearly a scene he imagined many times. The ridiculous but charming sentimentality of his fantasy, in the form of a music video, captures vividly the imagination of a teenager in love.
In a far less idyllic narrative strand, middle-aged Santiago and his wife Sonia are constantly arguing. She is fed up with his infidelities, and he seems to have no respect for her feelings. He is furious at her for making him fall in love with her and limiting his freedom. In what is supposed to be the most heart-rending scene, Sonia’s final rejection of Santiago, as she closes her door and leaves him alone in the street, some kids wander into the shot and ask the actor what he’s filming. By including this unplanned interruption, and the smile which sneaks out of the actor’s face while his character is in the depths of despair, Pereyra allows life, with its irrepressible urge to renew itself, to assert its sovereignty over art. Hope keeps rising from despair, and despair from hope.
This dance of hope and despair is expressed most poignantly in another narrative strand, the older Santiago and his strange new friendship with Flavia, a sweet but alienated and nihilistic young student, paralyzed by depression. She spends her time reading the lyrical nature poem Profane Symbols by Man Césped. The poem is about a ravine, like the one where she and Santiago spend an introspective afternoon. He is too self-involved to know how to help her, and instead uses their friendship as an occasion for more self-pity. She is his confessor, and her embrace of death, of oblivion, encourages him to let go of regret for everything he tried to do that has failed.
At times, the film can seem as insufferable as its hero, endlessly preoccupied with the specialness of its own suffering. (To be fair, Santiago seems, if anything, hyper-aware of his own shortcomings.) But the film is so beautiful, so poetic, and so well-made, that it wins you over. The film’s montage technique, where footage shot with a variety of cameras and techniques is composited into dense textures, creates a visual style that is deliberately rough and gritty. The energy of the artist’s editorial gestures always show traces of his intuition, his gut choices. But they are also blended together with the powerful musical score by Diana Syrse Valdes with extreme precision and artistic power, creating a visceral, yet controlled epiphany, like a Beethoven symphony. Her gorgeous music, by turns tender and terrifying, is the expressive glue that binds together this fractured narrative, and enables Pereyra to build a unified vision.
The film is preoccupied with images of brilliant light captured in containers: in a silver bowl, in a broken glass, in a gauzy curtain, in the palm of a hand. A hand reaches out to touch the light; a hand reaches out to touch the flowing water. A hand shakes back and forth vigorously in the light, creating a constant flicker, an instant movie. The hand (the invisible hand of Pereyra, the artist who shapes the images), by creating an artificial vibration blurring together several images, hopes to make these conflicting visions come together and reveal their secrets. The key to understanding is not in any single image; it is in the vibration. The artist uses cinema, the art made of light, to break apart mental images and make them vibrate, hoping to find new insights.
At one point, the filmmaker interviews Isaac’s bandmate, a young pianist who is a talented classical musician. The boy talks frankly about the limits of a classical career in Sucre, and Pereyra clearly includes him as mirror image of his own frustration, growing up as a young artist there. The film is an ambivalent love letter to Sucre, a place that Santiago returns to for its sheltering sense of peace, while straining against its provincial point of view. In Luz en la Copa, Pereyra is holding up his memories of Sucre to the light, like a crystal goblet, and dazzling us with the interplay of his hopes, his desires, and his regrets.