José Maria de Orbe, 2010
The central character in AITA (Father) is the dilapidated 13th Century Basque mansion inherited by Spanish director José Maria de Orbe. In a recent interview, he said that he made the film to create art where decadence and destruction once ruled. While neither a documentary nor a work of fiction, Aita is a most assured work of art, a mesmerising, poetic contemplation on light, texture, space, the past, the present, decay and rebirth. In the first shot we see overgrowth being cleared away, and in the second, two workmen discuss the outer shell of the house while another fossicks among bones in the basement. These shots prime us for a contemplative film that will require our active participation.
With the measured opening of doors and windows, de Orbe uses natural light to not only paint beautifully composed frames of textured surfaces and shifting perspectives, but to suggest a broader (perhaps political) metaphor for the need to reveal, examine and restore. In this respect, the mansion could be read as more than just a building. While the film largely explores textures and spaces, it frequently pauses to focus on sound: the resonance of rooms, dripping water, wind, rain, birds, and the distant sounds of other life. We get the sense that everything we hear and see is as the house might perceive it. As a silent witness to centuries of war and injustice, this is indeed a haunted house, and Aita could be an attempt to exorcise some of the ghosts.
In a scene where school children visit the house, two girls whisper to each other in the attic. When one tells the other they should leave because she’s scared, I was reminded of Victor Erice’s masterful Spirit of the Beehive (1973), another subtle Spanish film about a nation haunted by its past. It’s also worth noting that 'Aita' is another name for Hades: lord of death, ruler of the underworld, the invisible or unseen one. I wouldn’t know if this had anything to do with choosing the name of the film, but it is an interesting aside.
Throughout the film, a number of (mostly playful) conversations between the mansion’s elderly caretaker and a younger priest allude to various themes and ideas, such as whether the past should be unearthed and examined or simply left in peace. All the while, the film patiently waits on the house to reveal itself. Shown but never fully revealed, the house remains something of an enigma, but as night falls it does indeed start to speak, as images from the past flicker upon walls. Silhouettes (of former occupants perhaps) and numerous other ghosts silently re-enact their eternal rituals in a captivating display of light and texture, a cinematic sequence reminiscent of Bill Morrison’s extraordinary Decasia (2002). Of the many films I saw at this year’s festival, Aita was probably the most original. While the pacing may test some, those with an eye and an ear for rarefied cinematic delicacies will be well rewarded.
Originally published in The Lumiere Reader