In Gonzalo Calzada‘s Nocturna: Side A – The Great Old Man’s Night (Nocturna – Lado A – La Noche del Hombre Grande, 2021), Alzheimer’s-addled nonagenarian Ulises (played by Pepe Soriano, and by Jenaro Nouet as a child) reconciled himself to half-remembered guilt, regret and loss over one long, dark night of the soul in the Buenos Aires apartment where he had lived for many decades with his childhood sweetheart and later wife Dalia (played at different ages by Mora Gonzalez della Vecchia and Marilú Marini). At one point, as Ulises stood in his kitchen, a staticky old TV played a documentary about how elephants, evidently aware of their own impending death, would travel to “ancient graveyards” where they could die “among their peers.” The elephants’ final journey not only served as a metaphor for Ulises’ own in-apartment odyssey to oblivion, but also inspired the subtitle to Calzada’s complementary feature Nocturna: Side B – Where The Elephants Go To Die (Nocturna: Lado B – Donde los elefantes van a morir).
This second film forms a strange diptych with the first. It broadly covers the same events over the same night, but is formally very different: much shorter in duration, and shot in Super8 which has been processed in post to look even more scratchy and distressed, like a filmic archive fading as fast as Ulises’ memory and life. This switch from digital to analogue is acknowledged by a female narrator who, in her opening voice-over, declares her preference for “old roll cameras and emulsifiers to digital cameras that don’t know how to whisper”, in what is an express comparison of ghosts to the physical film that she believes is the best medium for capturing their once embodied spirits. The speaker too has become caught, both in this film and in the apartment building that she now regards as a “cage”. For this is Elena (Desirée Salgueiro), the photographer who used to live upstairs from Ulises and once captured his images on camera, but who has since committed suicide and is now trapped there as a ghost doomed always to be playing the same tunes (both literally at the old piano in her rooms, and also metaphorically). She is not the only figure haunting the building. For a lugubrious man (Javier Roson) who shot himself after being excluded from his apartment by his own family now lurks the stairways and corridors post mortem seeking an entry that, were it ever to come, would be too late – while Ulises’ wife Dalia, herself long since dead, still lingers, cold and lonely, in her old home, anxiously wondering what her fate might be after Ulises too has died. These three ghosts split the duties of narration between them.
Where Ulises was the focus of the first film, this second often shifts him to the background of these unrestful spirits who are all stuck in their own grooves, presented in looping, warping, overlapping visuals. Whether they are real ghosts, or mere embodiments of Ulises’ failing, fixated memory as he approaches his own death, their unique perspectives – impossible, otherworldly, out-of-time – ensure that the 23 chapters of Nocturna: Side B – Where The Elephants Go To Die are far more abstract and experimental, and far less narrative-driven, than Nocturna: Side A, forming an obscure reverse to the first film’s rather clearer obverse. For this ghostly mirror of the original offers a radical remix – and anyone who wanders into this sort-of sequel without having first seen Side A will find themselves, like Ulises, utterly lost and wondering “What am I doing here?”. Yet for the original’s diehard admirers, this coextensive follow-up is an uncanny curio which shows us the dying from the point-of-view of the dead. In its melancholic depiction of the apartment building as a closed, entrapping labyrinth wherein memory is but a flickering, fading image on infernal repeat, Calzado’s arthouse oddity holds out the possibility of reconciliation, resolution and ultimate escape at the end of its final reel, beyond the emptiness of death.
strap: Gonzalo Calzada’s parallel sequel is a metacinematic meditation on memory and mortality
© Anton Bitel