The late Chilean director Raúl Ruiz’s final completed film was made in a spirit of “do not open until after my death,” but that’s less about affecting an air of solemnity than about just putting on a good show. With more than a hundred movies to his credit, Ruiz got away with playing by his own rules because he’d gotten so good at playing. Night Across the Street is a blithely inventive, utterly Ruizian farewell.
While anticipating retirement from his job and from being alive, an elderly office clerk (Sergio Hernández) rather imaginatively reflects on his life. This involves several free-associative episodes, which may be classified as flashbacks or delusions, depending on your need to classify them, and tends generally to exemplify the ancient wisdom that memory is the mother of imagination.
Supporting players include the clerk’s younger self, the pirate Long John Silver, the novelist Jean Giono, and Beethoven. Very loosely based on stories by Chilean author Hernán del Solar, the film accommodates fine work from many fine actors, but its most essential and engrossing performance is the one put forth by its director, a born fabulist.
Ruiz builds worlds within worlds, connecting them with surprisingly organic-seeming digital effects. The big picture is innately surreal, dense with cultural references and aesthetic delights. That it’s more inviting than impenetrable bespeaks the grace of Ruiz’s cosmopolitan style: This somehow buoyantly elegiac work is among the highest examples of pure movie magic.
Like dozens of other Chilean filmmakers, Ruiz self-exiled to France at the outset of the Pinochet regime. Ever alert to tyranny — which can also include office bureaucracy, the conventions of movie storytelling, and for that matter even just the fact of spending a lifetime inside a body — he would decades later exile himself again, to the undiscovered country, in this grand and lasting flourish of creative liberation.