Nocturna: Side A – The Great Old Man’s Night (2021)

Nocturna: Side A – The Great Old Man’s Night has its UK première at FrightFest 2021

At the beginning of Nocturna: Side A – The Great Old Man’s Night (Nocturna – Lado A – La Noche del Hombre Grande), a young boy (Jenaro Nouet) runs with a group of other children from a large house into the woods beyond, as a girl (Mora Della Veccia) on the porch counts down. From behind a tree, the boy closes his eyes as the girl approaches – and when he opens them, he is ninety-something Ulises (Pepe Soriano), standing on the stairway in an urban apartment building, lost in a state of confusion and disorientation. “What am I doing here?”, the doddery, somewhat demented old man asks himself. The building’s superintendent Daniel (Lautaro Delgado) worries about Ulises’ wanderings, not least because there has been a recent spate of burglaries in the area, and helps Ulises back to the door of his apartment, which he has for many years been sharing with his wife Dalia (Marilú Marini). Worried that they will get kicked out if anyone sees the state of the place, Dalia does not like visitors – but nonetheless over this one long night of the soul, an upset woman (Desirée Salgueiro) will come knocking, bringing with her a flood of intrusive thoughts and associations. . 

Ulises was playing hide and seek when he first met Dalia as a child, and in a way he is still doing that now, as he retreats into imperfectly-grasped memories, be they comforting or traumatic, and engages in games of cat-and-mouse and peek-a-boo with present circumstances that keep slipping away from him. As such, this somewhat cumbresomely titled feature from Argentine writer/director Gonzalo Calzada (Luciferina, 2018) – ‘Side A’ to Calzada’s sister film Nocturna: Side B – Where The Elephants Go To Die (2021) – offers an internalised, psychologised variant on home invasion tropes, as Ulises finds himself having to accommodate all manner of shadowy guests intruding from his past. There is no real horror here apart from the persistent ghosts of personal history, but as Ulises becomes ever more lost in an infernal, cycling lifetime of joys and regrets that he is forced to revisit and reconstitute without fully understanding, the ensuing psychodrama is much more harrowing in its effect than your average genre flick. 

Like his mythic namesake, Ulises is on an odyssey, taking a mystical round trip home to his long-lost wife and family, and to death – except that this epic voyage unfolds not on the wide open seas between Asia Minor and the Greek archipelago, but entirely within the confines of a residential block in Buenos Aires, with Ulises’ errant mind the only means of transport. On this nostalgic foray, where younger and older selves, relatives and strangers, the living and the dead, all blend and blur under the influence of a soul lost to dementia, Nocturna: Side A – The Great Old Man’s Night falls somewhere between Michael Haneke’s Love (2012), Florian Zeller’s The Father (2020) and Jonathan Zaurin’s Wyvern Hill (2021). Being ahead of this addled hero in reconstructing “what happened” (a question that Ulises repeatedly asks), who is who and where things are headed only makes this leisurely night journey through memory and mortality all the more tragic. For it is only Ulises’ second childhood, as much a flight from reality as a return to innocence, which enables him finally to make peace with all the grief and guilt that still haunt his rapidly emptying mind. 

strap: In Gonzalo Calzada’s internal odyssey, memory & mortality, grief & guilt haunt a demented man’s long night of the soul

© Anton Bitel