Dir: Pere Vilà. Spain. 2007. 103 mins.
For many viewers, Catalan drama Rail Road Crossing will seem like the watching-paint-dry film par excellence. At first sight, Pere Vilà's debut feature exemplifies the three-act structure of art cinema: nothing happens, nothing happens and still nothing happens.
But for viewers prepared to go with its very reticent flow, Rail Road Crossing will be a rewarding low-key pleasure - an uncompromising study of youthful alienation that requires viewers to bring their own perceptions and imaginations to the table.
An exceptionally tough sell, Rail Road Crossing will only find commercial favour with buyers specialising in the low-budget, experimental and idiosyncratic, but in the festival world, director Vilà can look forward to generating a cult reputation.
The narrative, such as it is, follows the driftings of Marc (Homs), a young man first seen graduating from college. Marc clearly has some undefined issues: although he's passed his exams, he asks his mystified professor to fail him. Marc then spends the summer staying with his grandmother (Compte) in a seaside town, while working at an undemanding job in a travel company: picking young tourists up in his van, taking them on speedboat trips and photographing them. He briefly hovers with taciturn interest around a young blonde tourist, and has some fleeting contact with a roadside prostitute (Cardona), although what happens between them, if anything, we never discover.
Otherwise, Marc's inner life is a mystery, while his outer existence is a tissue of mundane repetitions: we see him drive his van between home and his grandmother's, take showers and generally mooch around. At one point - the nearest the film comes to a comic moment - a co-worker remarks, 'You don't talk much, do you'', but Marc doesn't respond. As Marc, Vilà has cast a young actor who is at once inscrutable and lacking in any sort of conventional youthful charisma. Ragged and vaguely hippyish, Homs registers as a tantalising void, moving and watching the world around him with an opaque impassivity that makes Bresson's actors look flamboyant.
But this blankness is exactly what the film calls for, and what makes the enigma of Marc so intriguing (and for some, no doubt, infuriating). What happens around Marc is equally mysterious: Vilà is a master of withholding information. For example, what seems to be a key discussion between Marc and his parents takes place only in long shot, and we never hear what is said. But some 100 minutes into the film, a decisive event finally happens, and Vilà's reserved style makes it a quiet bombshell: in a static extended take, we see Marc reacting to the change in his life and his psyche begins to unravel. The film's hypnotic, repetitive patterning keeps us on tenterhooks. The level crossing of the title is seen repeatedly throughout, hinting that it is there that Marc's drama will culminate - or perhaps not.
The programme note in Rotterdam - where the film played in the festival's Sturm und Drang section of young cinema - compares Vilà's approach to Tsai Ming-Liang and Angelopoulos, but his work is less formally rigorous than theirs. Other recent examples of introspective, wilfully slow cinema come to mind: for example, the works of Germany's Fred Kelemen, Argentinian drama El Otro, and Spanish films by Jaime Rosales (The Hours of the Day) and Pedro Aguilera (the Carlos Reygadas-produced La Influencia), the latter two both about psychological breakdown, coached in a pattern of repetitive, quotidian events.
However, these films, detached as they are, make slightly more concession to the viewer's patience than Vilà, and in future films, he may benefit from being less intransigent. But Rail Road Crossing shows a director who knows exactly what he wants, and is willing to sacrifice a larger audience to see his vision through.
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Mar Vilà Barcelo
David Perez Gimbernat
Director of photography