Forest of Words
(Finisterrae world premiered at the 2011 International Film Festival Rotterdam, where it won a Tiger Award. Though it doesn’t yet have distribution, you may watch it for free at Mubi for a limited time only!)
Late in Finisterrae, a reindeer as imposing as it is majestic wanders through an empty mansion. The fireplace roars, ornate chandeliers hang silently overhead, and the soft key strokes of a Bach cantata play in the background. What most sticks out about this scene is that it’s one of the film’s more subdued: this is a relentlessly strange, at times surreal story involving two ghosts—which is to say, men wearing white sheets with eyeholes cut out—who trek to the end of the world after growing weary of limbo. (“Finisterrae” is Spanish for “land’s end.”) Though the reindeer’s sudden appearance is indirectly prefaced by remarks made earlier in the film, it’s ultimately up to the viewer to make sense of whatever tenuous causal link there may be between the two events. This ever-present ambiguity is almost certainly intentional: writer-director Sergio Caballero allows many scenes to unfold via purely visual means, leaving us with little hard evidence and much to interpret. Given these metaphysical concerns and its meandering approach, Finisterrae often brings to mind this year’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives and Le Quattro Volte. Also like them, there’s a certain innocence to it—as well as a fixation on animals.
In addition to the above-mentioned reindeer, Finisterrae features visits from a sagacious owl, a frog, a herd of snow-covered deer, a museum exhibit full of stuffed wolves and goats, and even a neither-nor creature with the head of a seagull and the body of what looks to be a cat. Any attempt to fully explain each of these would be folly (as well as besides the point), but Caballero hints along the way that his hooded protagonists understand animals better than they do people and, what’s more, would rather join their ranks than become humans. This takes on a clearer visual—as opposed to verbal—shape: the ghosts can be seen in silent communion with animals at various points throughout the film. Finisterrae is in every way an image-driven film, one that understands and puts to use the visual nature of its medium to the utmost degree. Caballero, who up until now has worked primarily as a video artist in his native Spain, shot the film first and added the dialogue (much of which is in Russian) later. The result is often a marvel to behold.
Switching inexplicably between an actual horse, an artificial one, and a wheelchair as their preferred mode of transport (though one of them always walks), the pair in some ways resemble Don Quixote and Sancho Panza: not only for the fact that they’re on a perhaps ill-advised semi-mystical quest that mostly consists of roaming through Spain but also in that their philosophical bickering is as funny as it is insightful. Finisterrae is intensely concerned with the ephemeral, but almost always in relation to the worldly. Sometimes seen from far out in wide-angle shots not unlike those you’d expect to see in a western, the nameless brothers often appear as little more than white specks on a fog-covered landscape. Though ghosts, the two protagonists are just as earthbound as what few animals and humans they encounter on their strange journey. High-pitched sounds aggravate and even weaken them; grass and mud dirty their full-length robes. At times, the oddities they come across verge on the ominous: “Don’t turn around,” one of the brothers says upon feeling the presence of the seagull-cat. “It’s behind us. The creature from the underworld.” If even sprites on a mystical quest suffer from such afflictions, we’re forced to wonder, what does that say about our own lot as humans?
The particulars of what Caballero is getting at with his dark whimsy may ultimately be a matter for some debate, but he is nevertheless to be commended for the tenacity he displays as a first-time filmmaker, repeatedly answering “why not?” where many exposed to Finisterrae‘s bizarre plot will no doubt ask “why?” Caballero doesn’t need or even want us to understand each of hi bizarre setpieces. We’re merely asked to accept their presence—and, really, the premise that they could coexist in the first place—for to absorb these expressions of the unearthly, he seems to be saying, is vital to our understanding of our own world. The film is further rescued from any claims of pretension by the fact that, despite the otherworldliness of its underlying concerns, it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Suicide’s rendition of “Ghost Rider” can be heard playing at one point (only somewhat ironically, one suspects), seemingly grave situations frequently (d)evolve into the absurd, and near-constant moments of playfulness buoy the proceedings. If dissatisfaction over one’s present state is a shared trait among men and ghosts, then so, too, is the need for humor in the face of it.
— Michael Nordine