If the term “novelistic” is a somewhat exhausted compliment in film criticism, there’s been a puzzling paucity of useful comparisons between movies and short stories. Perhaps this reflects the current zeitgeist of the publishing industry: While its formal traditions are singularly fecund, short fiction has developed an undeniably unsellable stigma. It’s refreshing, then, to find a film that not only exercises the temporal economy and impressionistic characterization of the short story but also invites comparisons to the mode’s exemplars with allusive alacrity. One of the most effective scenes in Carlos Sorin’s The Window depicts an exchange about literature between the aging writer protagonist Antonio (Antonio Larreta), who has suffered a series of humbling heart attacks, and his doctor, performing a house visit. The two discuss the wildly influential Argentine book Morel’s Invention with eager appreciation, but when the bedridden patient requests that his guest withdraw a withered green volume from an overhanging shelf, it turns out to be A Universal History of Infamy, an early collection by Jorge Luis Borges that was later disowned by its author. It’s as though the main character is admitting to us that he wasn’t born to inhabit the space of a novel, particularly one littered with Adolfo Bioy Casares’s phantasmagoric zeal. Antonio’s aspirations are the stuff of sketches—of terse yet labyrinthine puzzles and vague, pocketsize allegories drawn from the pulp of real life.
Sorin also tethers the omniscient, understated camera movement of the film to a literary-like microcosm: Antonio’s deathbed and its adjacent chambers, isolated by an ocean of elysian rurality. We observe peripheral characters revolving through the increasingly sepulcher-like halls as the terminally ill artist attempts to dress up his household before the arrival of his celebrated pianist son, Pablo. This scenario isn’t much more than a canvas on which Sorin can illustrate the interlocking personalities in Antonio’s social life, and even most of these are familiar types: there’s an indigenous nurse with a heart of gold recalling the purity of the servant Anna in Bergman’s Cries & Whispers; a sternly maternal head housemaid; prodigal, urbanized progeny; and so on. What’s masterful, however, is the subtle manner in which these characters interact with Antonio’s estate, facilitating oddly piquant moments that add depth and clarity to the film’s setting. For example, a piano tuner (who distractingly resembles a Latino George Lucas) hired to perform last-minute repairs on the upright in the parlor nimbly retrieves a duo of wooden toy soldiers from the antiquarian instrument’s innards. And when Pablo finally arrives with a harried po-mo girlfriend in tow, she grumblingly discovers that the only location in the entire city with cellphone reception is at Antonio’s bedside—the film’s most cunningly contemporary magical realist wink. Quite unexpectedly, none of these incidents are drowned in thematic significance; we sense that the symbolism is there, if we choose to read it, but more crucial is the vibrancy of the spatial experience. The Window memorably makes the enigma of domesticity its main character—and the elusive yet poetic rhythms of giving, taking, and maintaining life are at the narrative nucleus, rather than socio-political or moral assertions.
With this film, writer-director Sorin has retained the pictorial opulence of his earlier work (El Perro) but deftly metamorphosed a neorealistic ethos into the dreamy fatalism of the best Latin American modernists. Like Juan Rulfo, Sorin portrays memory as quite literally metaphysical, as the “specter” of Antonio’s childhood nanny visits his room in the eerie bookending scenes. Like the aforementioned Borges, Sorin invents alternate realities, or at least pays deference to the reality that has inspired him: Most of the characters are named after their actors, and Antonio Lerreta is an accomplished writer rather than a performer, offering the story a curious reflexivity.
Finally, like Gabriel García Márquez, Sorin creates imagery with sensual exactitude, and it is here, perhaps, that The Window becomes a minor masterpiece. Dark, earthy tones overwhelm the film’s first half as the camera lingers on the ebony of an out-of-tune piano or the chestnut skin of a gentle nurse. These steadily yield to the second act’s golden hues—in the cropped blonde hair of Pablo’s petulant lover, in the fields where Antonio solitarily strolls against his doctor’s orders at magic hour, and in the urine Antonio relieves himself of before collapsing from exhaustion. The concinnity of visual elements seems to tell a concurrent story, enhancing the verbal plot in transcendently tactile ways. It’s as though we’re watching a man supervise his own burial, only to softly ascend to the heavens with the incandescent spirit of domestic actualization at his side.