Aita AKA Father (2010)
Director:José María de Orbe
An oddly poignant hymn to memory, time, and place, José Maria de Orbe’s Aita (Father) may appear to be about two custodians of a dilapidated Basque Country estate, though make no mistake: the central character is the frail 13th Century mansion whose nooks and crannies are revealed throughout the course of the film’s stately duration. Ostensibly a documentary on the property and its occasional inhabitants, de Orbe’s film crisply conflates fictional and nonfictional practices with an eye towards the experimental, resulting in a personal essay on the intrinsic and spiritual value of the house in question. (de Orbe inherited the mansion from family, and spent three years filming it.) Once home to aristocrats or a decadent class, the building’s origins are unavoidable when contemplating its image on screen; cinematically, it conjures up allusions to the dwindling dynasty in The Leopard; while politically, it seems inseparable from the region’s war-torn past (namely, the Spanish Civil War). But de Orbe is more fascinated by the architecture’s waning life force than he is the ancestral context or historical burden of the site—a fading, if still breathing entity which history moves continuously through, rather than weighs heavily on.
Periodically, de Orbe’s gaze will pause on a muffled conversation between the groundskeeper and caretaker, or an excitable group of school children touring the house—brief human interludes, which merely serve to remind us that people no longer occupy the space, and quite the opposite of advancing any sort of plot, boldly draw attention to a sense of absence and decay (such as when the place is ransacked by vandals one night). If this strategy around dignifying the building’s existence sounds aggressively minimalist, it is, however there is more to de Orbe’s film than speaking the stark visual language of contemporary art cinema. Aita is beautifully edited, and the finite length in which shots are held—never too long, never too short—imbues the static camerawork with a lightness of being while allowing us to lose ourselves within the frame. And as we explore the interior space with our eyes—guided, in part, by the majestic play of natural and artificial light (as in the film projections creatively used to illuminate rooms in darkness)—the sound of ageing is unmistakable. In one scene, the elderly caretaker (Luís Pescador, who tends to the property in real life) presses his ear against the wall of a corridor, catching the echo of a choir whose voice warmly reverberates throughout the ailing structure. Like a seashell, the mansion is a receptacle for ambient murmurs—an elusive leak, the creak of a staircase, or an uncanny silence—and de Orbe amplifies these noises as an evocation of memory and time passing. While it’s perfectly justified in the festival’s “Go Slow” section, Aita is slow cinema at its most heightened and alert, giving improbable life and dimension to a derelict old house.