Tuesday, October 27, 2015

La casa del fin de los tiempos (2013)

aka The House at the End of Time

Warning: even though I’m keeping things as vague as I can here, deeply spoiler averse readers might want to avert their eyes, because while I’m as always loathe to disclose a film’s last act, I don’t think I can avoid it completely in this case.

Dulce (Ruddy Rodríguez) has spent thirty years in prison for the murder of her husband Juan José (Gonzalo Cubero) and the disappearance of one of her sons, Leopoldo (Rosmel Bustamante). The film’s first scene will certainly suggest to the audience there was actually something stranger and most probably supernatural going on in the creepy old house the family lived in that night Dulce supposedly did the deed.

Thirty years after the deed, a now elderly via unconvincing age make-up Dulce is transferred into a very old school form of house arrest in said creepy old house (which hasn’t gotten less creepy since). There are no electronic shenanigans here, but two cops sitting in front of the building house all day, which seems a rather ineffective use of police time to me. Be that as it may, in flashbacks, partially told to a priest (Guillermo García) who doesn’t completely believe the official version of what happened that night thirty years ago, Dulce and the film reveal what truly happened. It all started with the poisonous combination of a marriage gone bitter with time and poverty (the family only living where they did thanks to a government program selling empty living spaces to the poor), and the second-most traditional kind of ghostly manifestation I know – nightly, very loud rattling of door handles and knocking on doors. From there on out, things turned in turn complicated, tragic, and creepy, and it seems as if the house doesn’t deem Dulce’s tale to be quite finished yet.

Venezuelan director/writer/producer/editor Alejandro Hidalgo’s debut feature is quite the thing. It starts out as an effective traditional ghost story crossed with a just as effective kitchen sink drama, and eventually turns into something more complicated, perhaps less clear and certainly much more ambitious than that, and this in a deeply satisfying way.

Hidalgo’s trick here is that he has mastered the language of the genres he then diverts from quite wonderfully, portraying the life of his characters in a non-fussy, focused way on the kitchen sink side, and going to town quite effectively with the hauntings, the latter again proving you can use very old hats of the spooking business and still give a theoretically jaded viewer a bit of a fright if you only get the timing and the mood right, which Hidalgo does quite excellently. Of course, the specific old hats Hidalgo uses here are old and well-worn because they touch on something raw in a lot of us, the feeling of nakedness and helplessness we feel when imagining to be threatened alone in our beds, the dread of the place you live in turning strange and potentially dangerous on you, and so on.

What distinguishes the film further, though, is how well Hidalgo handles things once he deviates from the traditional and the pretty much universal, once all the things happen I would call twists if they weren’t organic parts of the film’s narrative structure and thematic interests. Because this, ladies and gentlemen, is very much a film about people haunting themselves, both in a literal as well as more metaphorical meaning of the phrase (and how potent is this as a metaphor for our connection to our own pasts?), surely driven by an outside supernatural influence but not controlled by it as they are by their feelings, in particular their love.

What begins as a ghost story eventually turns out to be a canticle for motherly love in a rather conservative view. You know, the love that is willing to give the whole of her life to her children, the sort of thing I’m willing to believe in for the duration of the film mostly because the film itself and its cast are working so hard to convince me. Still, the film’s sort-of happy end does carry more than just a bittersweet streak, because Dulce will really have given everything she can give to save her son, all the time of her life, and horribly, she will always have done it already, leaving free will on the wayside next to a Doctor Who episode.

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