Oblivion Verses (2017)

[original title: Los versos del olvido]

 

The film’s protagonist is an old man with a slight limp. He says he spent some time in jail under the dictatorship, and it seems that this broke his body. It also seems that he lost a lot back in those days.
Now he works as a caretaker at a large and historically significant cemetery. His duties involve running the tiny morgue at the north entrance and keeping an archive of all the paperwork.
The cemetery partly consists of large walls of burial niches, some more than one storey high. A virtual city of the dead – a labyrinth in which people seem to get lost, even with an official map. This labyrinthian element is mirrored even more excessively in the morgue’s underground archive. Paperwork reaching back for generations is sitting on fragile shelves or is shoved together into haphazard piles.
The complexity of the labyrinths represents the complexity of the country’s past, and the complexity of our protagonist’s memory. He can remember everything – dates, numbers, facts. Only names, he claims, elude his memory. Even his own name. In a country were everyone tries to forget (or claims not to remember), a man with an extraordinarily good memory is at best a nuisance, and at worst a threat. And not being able to remember names might in fact be a form of protection.
And the day comes when this old man, who has been laying low since the day he left prison, has to decide whether he should look the other way and forget.

 

This Chilean-European co-production, which won a number of awards at the Venice film festival, is a complex film. Oblivion Verses does have a plot, but the plot is almost of secondary importance. It is the unnamed protagonist who is the focus of the film – the complexity of his character and the puzzle of his past. And apart from the fragility of democracy and its rule of law, the main theme of the film is death and our relationship with the dead.

 

In a cemetery, the dead are all around us, each with a name, each telling a story. The film’s blind gravedigger keeps telling our protagonist the story of each of the dead he buries. But that connection is broken whenever an autocratic regime resorts to extra-judicial killings, anonymous burials, and concealed causes of death. The dead have no longer a name, they no longer tell a story, and the relatives have no place to grief at and get no closure.

Connected to this idea is the lesser theme of archival work. While nothing in this film bears any resemblance to a true, well-run archive, the fairytalesque archives in this film are, it seems, an unfathomable force, impartial yet unforgiving, which always exists as a threat to the cover-ups. Somewhere in these walls of paper there will be some information that some day might come to light and answer a few questions that no-one dared to ask. The protagonist’s insistence of running his morgue and his cemetery in an orderly fashion and keeping his paperwork in order is therefore a small act of resistance.

 

This is a universal story that is not limited to any specific country. It is a Chilean film, and the story is most likely set in Chile, but the cemetery seems to be semi-fictional. I do not know where the film was shot, but the area seems to be a bit remote and rural, while the size of the cemetery as well as the things people tell you about it in this film are in my opinion clear references to the Cementerio General de Santiago. But the film’s message transcends Chile, and even Latin America, to any place where extra-judicial killings have taken place. In fact, the film’s first-time writer/director Alireza Khatami deliberately transported this story to the end of the world, because thinking of and dealing with the crimes against humanity in his native Iran was too upsetting for him.

With the location being vague, the name of the protagonist unknown, the details of his past life patchy, all in this film combines into a sort of dark, melancholic fairy tale. There are lots of visions in this film, and genuine elements of surrealism. The dodgy officials and the overbearing bureaucracy are two elements that are connected to this as well, giving the film a dystopian vibe.

 

The performances are very good, and Spanish actor Juan Margallo in particular is doing and excellent job embodying the nameless protagonist with lots of difficult non-verbal acting. He is supported by Manuel Morón and Tomás del Estal in the most prominent (though still comparatively small) supporting roles. And I especially enjoyed Julio Jung in a brief cameo that helped to express the film’s surrealist-bureaucratic vibe.

The cinematography by Antoine Héberlé is also excellent, from the wide landscape shot, to the cemetery, to the confines of the labyrinthian archives. And I would also like to mention the editing by Florent Mangeot, who manages to let the many quiet, dialogue-free moments run for just the right amount of time.

 

Oblivion Verses is a well-made and interesting film with important themes. It is an unusual film, if compared to mainstream cinema, but despite all its art elements it keeps its plot going, which is something to latch onto. And by keeping its running time to 90 minutes the film’s art elements never overstay their welcome.

Still, because of its style Oblivion Verses can only be recommended to people who have a certain affinity or experience with arthouse films. While it is not an extreme or particularly inaccessible arthouse film, I fear that people who are only used to mainstream cinema might struggle with it.

 

Rating: 6.5 out of 10

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