Tag Archives: arthouse films

Darkness on the Edge of Town

Bleak Street

by Hope Madden

The destinies of two undersized twin wrestlers and a pair of aging prostitutes braid in Arturo Ripstein’s grimly surreal Bleak Street (La Calle de la Amargura).

The veteran Mexican filmmaker works again with his regular collaborator and life partner, writer Paz Alicia Garciadiego. The two enlist the aid of cinematographer Alejandro Cantu to conjure an atmosphere that is simultaneously desolate and dreamy.

Filmed in stylized black and white and set in a maze of back alleys in Mexico City, Bleak Street begins with off-kilter vignettes that provide glimpses into the dreary lives of the film’s four primary figures before pulling the strands together to depict the true crime that inspired the effort.

Juan Francisco Longoria and Guillermo Lopez play the twin brothers, costumed dwarf wrestlers who “shadow” full size grappling counterparts and never remove their masks.

Patricia Reyes Spindola and Nora Velasquez portray prostitutes facing the realities of their shelf lives as they watch younger women take over their corners and customers.

The two pairs have workplace struggles and disrespect in common, though this hardly binds them. While Ripstein never misses a chance to showcase the humanity of each of his characters, transcending their destiny is not his aim, nor theirs.

Ripstein adds to the hypnotic quality of his picture with a score consisting only of the nearly imperceptible sound of water as scenes fade to black.

Cantu’s lengthy, prowling shots underscore the voyeuristic feel of the film. His sparkling black and white fills the screen with brightly lit surfaces and shadowy backdrops, the landscape taking on a beautiful but nightmarish quality that suits the wild assortment of characters.

Regardless of their actions, these are not characters Ripstein judges. This is both refreshing and off-putting, because the film never feels like the tragedy it is.

Respectful but absolutely never preachy, Bleak Street holds itself and its audience at a distance from the characters onscreen. While that disconnect feels intentional, Ripstein missed an opportunity for lasting relevance because he doesn’t generate any kind of emotional connection with the tragic, true events unfolding.


Bleak Street screens this weekend only at the Wexner Center for the Arts.

When Worlds Collide

Story of My Death

by Hope Madden

Infamous womanizer Giacomo Casanova’s autobiography “Story of My Life” became an irreplaceable documentation of 18th Century Europe. His libertine lifestyle and the age it represents come to an unusual conclusion in the hands of Spanish filmmaker Albert Serra, whose film Story of My Death introduces Casanova to another major European literary figure, Dracula.

Weird, right?

Well, it is certainly unique, as is every frame of Serra’s film. Utterly naturalistic performances, a judgment free approach to the proceedings, a painterly cinematic quality and a very loose narrative structure keep the film feeling simultaneously realistic and surreal.

Casanova (Vincenc Altaio) spends his waning years in his castle penning memoirs, then embarks on an extended journey to more rustic locales in the Carpathian Mountains.

Altaio brings something wonderfully fresh to his turn as Casanova, a performance that’s all sensuality and no smolder, no seduction. Delighted by bodily functions and enamored with every sensuous aspect of daily life, he makes for an unusual hero in a deeply peculiar film.

His Casanova is an overripe figure – something, like his era, just a bit past its spoil date. We spend fully half the film lazing about his castle with him and his coterie, slurping pomegranates (among other things!) and waxing poetic. Serra’s lighting and framing take on a magisterial quality, but all this – the flouncing, the debauchery, the balance of light and dark – develops a more brutal, sinister quality as the film moves to its second half out on the mountainside.

The daintiness of the chateau has no place in this land of the hardy. While Casanova’s behavior back home elicited nonchalance, here in Romania it finds disdain, whispers of condemnation, worries over wickedness.

Why does Casanova meet Dracula (Eliseu Huertas)? Serra’s image is less a monster mash up than a metaphor. By pitting iconic figures of the two eras, the film animates the moment that the age of reason gave way to the Romantic period, when reason took a back seat to darker thinking.

Serra’s film is never quite as simple as that, with every seemingly random and spontaneous scene nonetheless riddled with metaphors and busy with details. From concept to execution, his film is a unique piece of art that will confound and entertain in equal measure.