The Mist in the Palm Trees (La niebla en las palmeras)

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Dir. Carlos Molinero and Lola Salvador, Spain, 87 min., 2005.

I still don’t know whether this film is fiction or not. It uses archival film footage, still photographs, animations, and some original footage to create a ballet of imagery and sound — various types of music and disembodied voices — to tell a biography in a completely non-linear, piecemeal fashion. The editing (José Recuenco, Renato Sanjuan), which includes the music and sound (Ricardo Palacín, Wildtrack), and research (Patricia Campo and Maite Bermúdez) are mostly amazing, though the piece lags at times, and some people might hate it. (I’m sure both that accolade and that criticism include the direction, as well.) The story that eventually emerges is every bit as mysterious as the way the film reveals the elements of the tale.

Santiago Bergson, born on a ship crossing from Havana to Asturias in 1905, lived a life of adventure and intrigue. Two things became his obsessions — photography and physics — which both come down to one element — light. He also has various entanglements with women on both sides of the Atlantic — or maybe with just one, fathering three girls — or maybe just one — whom he does not raise. He participates in wars and destruction. He is a man of ideas, action, and images. He takes nude photos of women to sell inside cigar boxes in Havana; he tries to save a man from execution in Spain by manipulating old photos; he works for the Manhattan Project, which built the first successful atomic bomb.

(The Manhattan Project actually emerges as the one spot of humor in the film. Dark, hard, electric rocks bursts into the air as the intro music to a thriller film called Proyecto Manhattan, starring…Niels Bohr…Robert J. Oppenheimer…Albert Einstein all the way down to Bergson with real pictures of those guys flashing on the screen like we were about to see the latest star-studded Hollywood blockbuster. It’s great.)

It was tough to sit through some spots in La niebla, but ultimately it was worth it. It’s a thinking piece. An attack on the senses and on the brain. It can stimulate, but you have to be prepared for the wild barrage of ideas and the lack of a clear narrative and not necessarily expect real answers. It’s an experimental film in the Spanish sense of experimentar: It’s an experience.

Ideas seem to form the central thrust of the film, mostly coming out of the mouth of Bergson — whose voice is provided by a woman. He talks a lot about photos and photons, light and dark, memory and the future, war, and how all of these things intertwine and propel our lives. The images on screen add deeper elements to Bergson’s statements. The film presents some ideas that overlap with Tom Stoppard’s play Hapgood about light and spies and human positioning.The flickering light and the disembodied voices of philosophy — and at some instances the music — recall similar scenes in Darren Arnofsky’s brilliant film Pi. La niebla somehow makes photos of naked chicks seem exemplary of the fundamentals of human existence.

The film abounds with statements like: “Vivimos mientras moríamos”; “En las fotos hay todo; solo hay que mirar”; “He fotografiado el futuro”; “El sonido no miente; no es como las fotografías”; “Sin imágenes, los recuerdos son más puros, más verdaderos”; “¿Para qué sirve recordar?”; “Fotones sirven para matar mejor”; “Todo se une; todo se borre, el barco, la niebla, las palmeras”; “Soy luz, viajando; no sé que pasó realmente”. Neither do we. Truth and fiction come under questioning. Sometimes the statements seem to contradict themselves and each other. We don’t really know all the facts by the end. That’s fine. This is a detective story that runs from vague, drifting pieces to concrete discovery and off into something else. Like the future.