Morelia 2023 review: Cerrar los ojos (Victor Erice)

Cerrar los ojos is also a farewell kiss to filmmaking.”

What is a name, anyway?

During the 1940s, in a manor house in France, Mr. Levy awaits his death. His fortune is useless against his illness. His sole desire before closing his eyes: to see his daughter, who was born to a Chinese mother – a cabaret performer – fourteen years ago, with a civil war in between then and now. He hires a man to track her down; a man that is not exactly a detective, or exactly anything really, but he is someone who embodies trust. His quest should start in Shanghai, where the girl is supposed to live. As the mysterious man leaves the manor his search is interrupted: we have been watching the opening scene of La Mirada del Adiós (The Farewell Gaze), Miguel Garay’s unfinished second feature from the early ’90s, shot in a Spain that was fresh off a dictatorship.

Two decades later Garay is in Madrid. He has been invited by a television documentary series to talk about the possible reason for the disappearance of Julio Arenas, his best friend and the lead actor of his incomplete film. Arenas disappeared in the middle of the shoot, leaving no trace but a feeling of uneasiness during filming which might have led him to an accident or to suicide. Arenas’ vanishing shook Garay and his immediate circle; each one of them seems to have struggled in both their personal and professional lives after the incident, and they react to the documentary with refusal or scepticism. Miguel delivers his testimony on camera, partially motivated by an economic reward, and then returns to his humble home in a parking lot facing the Mediterranean. The documentary is aired, new clues come in, and an epic unfolds…

Victor Erice seems unruffled about establishing blatant connections between his own career and the film-within-a-film in Cerrar los ojos. The Spanish director not only went through a film being interrupted in the middle of a shoot (El Sur, which was still released), but also saw his passion project El embrujo de Shanghai (The Shanghai Spell) being assigned to Fernando Trueba despite Erice having developed the project. With Mr. Levy the director creates a reflection of himself: an old man transparent about his desires and frustrations making a late effort to reconcile with what troubles him, be it an absent daughter or a film being ripped off. Now in his 80s, and after a 30-year hiatus from filming a feature in a conventional format, Erice is aware this could be his swan song. Cerrar los ojos is also a farewell kiss to filmmaking. Released in the era of streaming, the story draws a dichotomy between the highbrow character of the unfinished film and the mainstream entertainment provided by the TV show in which Garay takes part. Erice does not make a judgement about television, but introduces film editor and archivist Max Roca – a sort of cinematographic Jiminy Cricket who Miguel falls back on when in trouble – as a character nostalgic about the purity and monumentality of filmmaking as a craft. And in spite of the mystery of loss and uncertainty surrounding Arenas, the story literally turns into a love song to film.

Cerrar los ojos is Victor Erice’s fourth feature, and his first in three decades. It was released this May under the international title Close Your Eyes. While a title’s translation may answer to properly tested marketing reasons, in this case a tiny variation in the words causes a complete change in the character of the title. Close Your Eyes adds an imperative tone and a second person, both non-existent in the original version. A more precise adaptation for this title would be something like to ‘close the eyes’, or even more so, ‘the act of closing one’s eyes’.

In Roman Catholic tradition baptism is the first of the sacraments. Cerrar los ojos is a constant meditation on the sacred act of naming, un-naming, renaming. It’s a film lost and a film unfinished, renamed into a film-within-a-film. Mr. Levy, its pivot, explains why his mansion is called Triste-le-Roy, how his family name hasn’t always been the same, why his daughter got a different name. Miguel’s son has his name translated, a name now somehow lost. A man is nameless, he is renamed Gardel… Cerrar los ojos is both baptism and extreme unction.