Passing the time

27 October 2005

The hours go by (Como pasan las horas)

Sunday 23rd October, 16.15, ICA

“Things change”, says the dying mother Virginia near the end of Oliveira Cézar’s film, “The problem is we’re in such a hurry”. Indeed, the measured pace and minimal narrative of The Hours go by proved too tiresome for the handful of audience members who decided to leave the ICA theatre on Sunday. Those that chose to stay however were rewarded with a film of great depth and beauty, one whose imagery and emotion will linger long in the memory.

The film captures the 12 hours of a day in which Juan (Guilermo Arengo) takes his four-year old son Santiago (Augustín Alcoba) on a trip to the coast. His wife René (Roxana Berco) declines the invitation and chooses to spend the day in the country with her sick mother (Susana Campos). We follow both pairings as they share two different spaces – from the windswept shore to the fire-lit cabin – walking and talking, remembering the past or imagining the future.

As a contribution to the New Sobriety cinema of Argentina (nuevo cine Argentino), Oliveira Cézar’s second film is concerned less with connecting to a wider social environment or establishing substantial narrative progression than with slowly building layers of imagery and metaphor. The result is a meditative and moving reflection on the passing of time, youth and old age, loss and regret.

The early scenes between Juan and Rene are cast in shadow and, after an unsettling speech in which Juan paints the family’s future life in the city, we feel excluded from the real nature of their relationship. The film’s Spanish title – more accurately translated as ‘the hours they pass’ – conveys a sense of forces outside one’s control, a detachment from the passage of life reinforced by the use of long shots and use of distorted angles which create a dream-like atmosphere. It is only through the layering of metaphor and meaning – Santi realilsing “its too late now” to correct his colouring book, the football left out in the wind and now rotten inside – that we begin to make connections and sense the melancholic air of loss and regret between the characters.

Images of time and its passing are present throughout the film, from the opening shot of the sea, birds and clouds passing across the sky, the road rushing underneath a car to the slow dimming of the day itself. The two pairs of characters continually balance each other and contrast the fading of old age with the exuberance and innocence of youth. Santi – played with astonishing naturalism by Alcoba – wants to rush into time, wishing his birthday was tomorrow. Whilst he plays on broken, rusting machines or explains his fear of being swept away by the encroaching tide and then growing tired, his grandmother dreams of looking into a mirror and seeing herself in her youth.

Oliveira Cézar's approach is one of simplicity, using elemental imagery throughout her film, from water (the sea), to the earth of the forest, to fire – as warm and inviting as any I have seen on screen thanks to the remarkable capture of sound – to the overarching and darkening sky. Watching the film and slowly being drawn into metaphoric language was like reading a poem. Simple activities like the two fishermen unloading their boat were mesmeric to watch and pointed to archetypal meanings beyond themselves.

This is not to say that the film was without emotion, not least in the unexpected and melancholic ending. Most touching of all was Santi lying on his sleeping father, cold and tired, trying to express his feelings in a world in which everything is new: “I always wanted to be a dinosaur…until I became a human…but I prefer being with you.” (could this have been scripted and performed so naturally by a five-year old?). Watching the real life mother and daughter pairing of Campos and Berco re-enact their relationship onscreen was also moving, especially in the knowledge that Campos died just 15 days after filming was completed. If this was an attempt to render poetry in film it can be read as an elegy to the Argentine actress. “Give it time” says Virginia to her daughter about her faltering relationship with her husband. “If we only knew how much time we had”, replies René. Whilst many in the audience at The Hours go by agreed with her and were looking in frustration at their watches it was important to give Oliveira Cézar’s film time, to delve into her rich imagery and reflect upon our own position in the world. We have become so used to a cinematic world of fast pace and rapid development that it was an interesting, challenging and ultimately rewarding experience to pass the time in a different way.

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