It all starts in a dark bedroom.
“Alumbramiento”: a family faces the last night of its eldest member. Overcoming fear and taboo, one of them will guide the passing” (from website, Arrivano i corti film festival, Italy)
This is an accurate linear-narrative account of the plot elements of this unique award-winning short from Spain by Eduardo Chapero-Jackson. I will suggest another: “Alumbramiento” is a powerful cinematic experience, efficiently simple but unpredictable. The “surprise ending” sheds light – as the title suggests – onto the realm of big unanswered questions.
It all starts in a dark bedroom. Pitch black and impenetrable. One is unsure when exactly “Lightborne” (as the title is translated in english) begins and the title sequence ends. Did a phone ring? Sounds mingle, invisible hands awake and fumble for a switch. Light. Middle of the night. A man and a woman, another light on. Then off again. An exhausted pattern of taking turns, filling both dream and waking life with exposed nerves, low tolerance, fatigue.
Time to heed the call, to try and see. Where does life go?
Now we’re in a car, slicing through a yawning sequence of on/off lamp-posts, flashing like low-energy question marks, without apparent purpose nor answers, so much more powerful is the night. It’s a journey with no peace of mind. The man drives, focused but spent. His eyes grip the road through the wheel, mind taking logical stabs at the poverty of solutions, given the dire medical report. His woman sits by him, navigating by feeling more than by professional instinct. She offers a hand but he refuses, they don’t hold together. Pain and fear create a kinds of distance that – uncured – can be fatal. The director frames each separately, two broken halves deep in silent visuals of the hallucinatory real. The dawn is much further away. How can life be fixed?
We understand from scant dialogue delivered with surgical precision – in script and performance – that this scenario is recurrent. 120 seconds into the film and we are immersed in an amniotic texture of lucid confusion, a quiet helpless re-investigation of the apparent dead-ends of life, relationships, memory. Before we can even begin to try and escape to safe and controlled rationalizations (what city are we in? have I seen a film by Chapero before?) or connect plot strands (where are they going? who is sick?), a darkened apartment and bedroom engulfs and suppresses our resistance. We are witnesses in a magnetized, polarized cinematic space of dark and bare practical lighting of the devastating narrative undercurrent: life is much more subtle, weaker, than death. We are here to spend ten minutes in the bedroom next door and – through a magical unpredictable development in narrative – we will stay there much longer.
The characters enter, the forces of life assemble around each other’s weakening pulses, matching optimism against pessimism. “She will make it. She always makes it” says his sister. Silence replies. Rafa shifts shape from son-who-is a-doctor to Doctor-who-is-also-son by directing a nurse in the technical requirements of tonight’s pain-aversion attempts. He tries to appear in control, hides feelings. His woman observes, until now a cutaway, a pair of eyes of vast and quiet intensity. The old woman on the deathbed appears childish and angelic, but wrapped in breathing tube and coughing all she seems to have left inside, with resistence. Time and place is now, the narrative secrets of the first first few minutes are explained. There was no need to clarify who was going where and why. This is the doctor’s mother and she will soon die despite the morphine and more morphine.
Predictably, death will not be mentioned around a deathbed. This is a story about death and the living. Its ending escapes classical categories of dramatic endings (happy, sad, good, bad, etc). In “Alumbramiento” the passing on of the old mother is not the end of the story. It is not the tipping point where we cry. The childhood song about the piggies is, sung by the doctor and his sister. Seconds before the doctor’s wife life-embracing beat of no-return “Tu te vas a morir” had opened the dances with death, unafraid. The doctor’s wife now replaces human logic (the distancing and silencing of pain, the fear and avoidance of death) with a peaceful caresse and a simple imperative: – Breathe, you did well in life. Just breathe.” She removes all power from the predictable. These two beats open the narrative doors and award “Alumbramiento” unpredictable emotional heights: the visible moment-to-moment defeat of fear and death by way of love, forgiveness, rejoycing, celebrating life as it was. As it is.
Here is a look at this extraordinary film from a film-practice angle.
“Alumbramiento” has a simple plot yet a complex structure. There are several relationships defined by the story, not provided before the story. Information, when needed, is integral to the development, as in real life. We see what we need to see – and what we manage to understand – at the exact moment the story requires it, all “in medias res”, includes all the characters’ lives, which we encounter “in the middle of the night”. This simplifies audience “narrative baggage” to a focus on the now, nothing more. During the nighttime ellipsis at the mother’s house, we see a montage: images of a butterfly, a photograph of a woman holding hands with a boy. None of this images added narrative burdens by imposing overly-complicated symbolisms to decode. The family imagery remained elusive, poetic, organic to the moment. It is sound that brings the past to life, the clear sound of a shared song sung in tears, wash away the heavy cough of departure and welcoming the final silence.
It feels like this film and itss catharsis may refer to the director’s own experience. Making peace with one’s memory, one’s daemons may be afforded us in fiction more than in real life. The power of short films to engage in topics of deep significance to all of us (i.e. phases of natural life) seems better exploited as a combination of personal experience and dramatizion. The personal links are left to the thank you references to real persons in the credits, but the story is not told in first person. An asset.
“a surprise ending” can be any clever solution pushing standard plot structures aside. “Alumbramiento” has a miniauture three-act setup (the call, the wait, the end) and – quite predictably – cannot prevent the old woman from dying. To the contrary, it is a film about facilitating the end of suffering through shared memory of life’s accomplishments and efforts. The dead woman’s smiling face is an image of eternal happiness and purpose. Rarely have I ever seen on film a sequence so poignant: a woman choosing, accepting to die, honoring the good in the mystery of life.
Two of everything
the director extends the cinematic aesthetic contradiction of light and darkness to all areas of content. The film’s apparently static locations and forms function as a delicate visual and aural layer, with particular magic in the use of duality, ambiguity and repetition. The son has been there many times before, the sister suggests the old mother “always pulls thru”, morphine injections are repeated, childhood memories recur, aesthetic patterns exist.
Repetition is a key to modulation. it establishes what small later variations can highlight. Modal musical scales are a parallel example.
The final gestures (the holding handsover the dead body) is itself a repeated gesture healing the first occurrence, when hands would not hold in the pain-car.
Eduardo Chapero-Jackson is in full control of “Alumbramiento”, its cinematic and narrative textures, and its emotional high. “Alumbramiento” can mean in Spanish both “illumination” and “safe delivery”, the awaited climax, the arrival of light and peace. Imagine all that, in a film devoid of any visible sunlight.