Raúl (Raoul) Ruiz, for me, is the most fascinating Latin American filmmaker alive, who is directing films today. It does not matter that he no longer lives in Latin America. It does not matter that he no longer makes films in the Spanish language. It does not matter that he is living in Europe and is considered a European filmmaker by some. Because of its language and its cast, Ruiz’ film Ce jour-là (That Day) will be considered by some as a typical French film. It will be seen by others as a European film because its subject involves Switzerland. But for those who know Ruiz, the film is all about Chile and Latin America, without any overt comment to that effect.
That Day is a fascinating film—a film that can easily be mistaken for a Buster Keaton comedy film or a simplistic dumb cartoon-like comedy for simpletons. In reality, this is a film that provides a fabulous cocktail for the senses of an erudite viewer, combining elements of the Theatre of the Absurd, politics, crime, innovative ideas in cinematography, theology, and cinema aesthetics. It is a film in which the principal characters are either mad or mentally challenged. But then every other character in the film does not behave normally. Is the mentally challenged then, more normal than others? To truly appreciate Raúl Ruiz’s cinema, one needs to know where he is coming from (literally and figuratively). Director Ruiz is a student of law, theology and theatre and each of his films hark back to those influences. In 1968, he was the films advisor to Salvador Allende’s socialist government in Chile. In 1971, he was forced to go into exile after Pinochet overthrew the Allende government.
Many Latin American cinema aficionados would not recognize the name of Raúl Ruiz. And then many, who may be aware of the name, may not consider him to be a major filmmaker, even though he has been living and making films that make the competition grade of Cannes and other major film festivals, with a frequency that is enviable. The main reason for this is that this Chilean filmmaker no longer lives in Chile, or for that matter in Latin America. He lives and makes films, often in French, while in exile in Europe. And his films do not appear to be “Chilean” or even Latin American. Yet look closely, and each Ruiz film is a lamentation of an exile, an essay on his weaning away from his native land. That Day is no exception.
Today, Ruiz’ contemporaries like Miguel Littin (who I can claim to have hugged me like a lost friend in far away Dubai, some 5 years ago, following a spirited one-to-one conversation on Littin’s early movies in a movie theatre foyer following a screening of his latest film The Last Moon, with Miguel‘s daughter interpreting for us) are considered true heroes of Chilean cinema, but not Ruiz. For me, only Littin’s Alcino and the Condor and The Jackal of Nahueltoro are somewhat comparable to the intellectual robustness of Ruiz’ films that I have been lucky to see so far. Littin, who lives in exile in Mexico, has paled in comparison to Ruiz, who is truly blooming in France, Germany and Switzerland, while in exile.
Raúl Ruiz has made some 50 films and unfortuntely I have only seen two and a half of these. And those few have floored me. They provide images that are not easily erased. The first Ruiz film that I saw was Three Crowns of the Sailor (1983) some 20 years ago, a film that tossed reality and unreal images with a felicity that recalled Orson Welles’ witty and brilliant mockumentary and last official feature length film F for Fake (1973). Only much later I stumbled on the fact that Ruiz was a great admirer of Welles. I suspect the wit in the Ruiz’ film had much to do with Welles’ remarkable last film. And as Ruiz’s father was a sailor the connection to Coleridge’s poem Rime of the Ancient Mariner is not misplaced. The film is a lamentation for Chile that Ruiz cannot forget.
The second one is That Day, to which I will revert in detail presently. The “half film” of Ruiz I mentioned is a fascinating 3-minute segment called Le Don Ruiz made as part of the portmanteau film by 32 of the finest living movie directors from around the world using some of the most enigmatic of actors and this collective film was called To each his own cinema (Chacun son cinéma ou ce petit coup au coeur quand la lumière s'éteint et que le film commence) (2007). In those three brief allotted minutes Ruiz, taking a leaf out of sociologist Marcel Mauss' Essai sur le don, gets the French actor Michel Lonsdale to play a “blind” priest, a true faithful of God, who gifts a radio and a movie projector to aboriginal south American Indians (from Chile?) for their upliftment. The innocents tribals turn the gifts into items of barter and ritual sacrifice, which ultimately reach other Europeans who quickly jump to classify the Indians as “blind atheists” while depriving the Indians of their “access” to sound and images (typically cinema).
To comprehend Raúl Ruiz’ cinema, one has to understand who he is and what makes him tick. First, he is a student of law, theology and theatre. In the two films that I have seen all three streams of study play vital parts in the final product on screen. Then, Ruiz is essentially a Chilean director making films in exile in various European countries, ever since Salvador Allende’s government was overthrown by Pinochet. In both the Ruiz films that I have seen, the images of Chile percolate through the European images. As some critics have pointed out, the very “absence of Chile” underscores the Ruiz commentary on his homeland. Laughter in his cinema is an unreal one, suggesting lies rather than truth. It is often a laugh of a sad individual. Finally, Ruiz is a director who loves to experiment with technology of cinema that would leave a true cineaste stunned with his innovativeness.
Is That Day a simple tale for simpletons? I am sure there are some viewers who believe it to be just that. But let me remind those viewers that the film is made by a director who once said, "If you can make it complicated, why make it simple?"
Ruiz’ has stated in his book Poetics of Cinema: “Often, and at times immodestly, I have made use of metaphors in order to approach intuitively certain ideas; many of which could best be described as images and half-glimpsed visions. I hope that among them it is the angelic smile rather than the sardonic irony or the biting impetuousness that has the upper hand. ‘Metaphor’ is a word that has a bad reputation among theorists. To use it implies that one does not have clear ideas, and in that case, the best thing to do is to remain silent. That may be so and I regret it. Yet, in the present state of the arts: does anyone have clear ideas?”
It is therefore not unusual for a viewer to emerge after a Ruiz film totally unclear of what was presented on screen. Ruiz’ cinema often has a dose of the Theatre of the Absurd (termed as surrealism, a related term, by those unfamiliar with theatre). In That Day, a diabetic psychopathic murderer starts shaving his face in front of a door, using the translucent glass as a mirror. It is absurd, especially when you are capturing the actions with a camera from inside the house. But then one has to go beyond realism. Ruiz’ cinema maybe reminiscent of slapstick cartoons but he offers much more. What is the house representing? What is the world outside and inside representing? The Pinochet violence in Chile? The closest overt statement of linking Chile to Ruiz’ tale (his own original script) is the movement of military trucks in a Switzerland “overrun by the military sometime in the future” at two key points in the film. The Pinochet regime was a military backed regime.
Many impatient viewers would miss the fact that the film is an oblique look at Pinochet’s insane violence in Chile towards supporters of the democratically-elected socialist Allende government that made Ruiz and Littin flee the country. There are macabre images of an entire grown up family killed sometimes by a lunatic and sometimes by an innocent woman who throws a hammer carelessly. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Danish director Lars von Trier was influenced by 2003 Ruiz film That Day when he filmed his unforgetable hammer-killing 3-minute segment within a cinema hall in the 2007 film To each his own cinema, (referred to earlier).
Time is an important element in Ruiz’ cinema. In That Day a character comes up to the camera lens and cleans it. Cineastes will love the act. But wait, Ruiz soon reveals from a reverse angle shot that the person was not cleaning the camera lens but face of an old clock thus underlining the connection between camera and time so essential for Ruiz’ tales on celluloid. The female lead in that day sates early in the film “Tomorrow is the best day of my life according to the runes and I Ching” Time is important for Ruiz as he constantly switches between past, present, and future providing links for the alert viewer. The title of the film That Day, is not without deep references.
Theology is equally important. In Le Don, one saw a blind priest trying to bring “light” of conventional religion to non-religious tribals. In That Day, the principal character talks of fallen angels and equates a man who falls of a bicycle as one such angel.
Ruiz’ preoccupation with cinema as medium is not to be discounted. The visual effects of the diabetic murderer feeling uneasy are remarkably innovative. So is the way food on a fork held in animated suspension in air for an unusual duration between plate and mouth underscoring both humor and fear.
Finally, it is tale of love. The murderer will have to go back to the asylum. But in typical Ruiz' black humor but it is the "crazy" murderer's new lover who inherits the financial control of the asylum. So all is not lost for those who are considered crazy by those who are also crazy in their own way!
The message did not get to the Cannes Jury with two beautiful actresses Aishwarya Rai and Meg Ryan, who I suspect had no idea of the Chilean references or the intellectual depth of the film. The Jury in its wisdom gave the top prize to the less impressive Gus van Sant’s Elephant, probably because of the immediacy of campus violence in the US. I guess many would not appreciate Orson Welles' F for Fake, as well. One man’s meat is another man’s poison.