Ghosts in Town: In the City of Sylvia By Angel Quintana

in 64th Venice International Film Festival

by Angel Quintana

One of the most unusual director’s in today’s Spanish cinema, José Luis Guerín has been continuously exploring the relationship between the visible and the invisible, between reality and its ghosts, with six films in the last 20 years. In 1990 he decided, for instance, to stay in Ireland for a while in order to shoot the spaces and landscapes where John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara passed by when they were starring in John Ford’s The Quiet Man (1952). Seven years later, following Marcel Proust’s steps, he traveled to a little Norman town looking remotely like Balbec in the search of the specters created by an inexistent home movie made at the beginning of the 20th century, the time when all films consisted of an apparent innocence. The result of all this was Train of Shadows (Tren de sombras, 1997), a film much more focused in the catching of ghosts than in the fixing of tangible things. Four years on from then and 2001 was the time for transporting us into another universe, as he created Work in Progress (En construcción, 2001), a documentary about the demolition of a building at the Barrio Chino of Barcelona, awarded with the FIPRESCI prize and a special mention at the San Sebastian film festival of the same year. While he was filming the ruins of a dying world another unexpected one appeared, a Roman cemetery, allowing him to certainly prove that behind old stones there always will be the remainings of the inhabitants of the past, the dead.

In the City of Sylvia (En la ciudad de Sylvia, 2007) is José Luis Guerín’s most luminous film, as the basic in its nature brings us to the fact that the most probable aim in it is nothing but the search for romantic love. A man, perhaps a painter or a poet, sits in Strasbourg’s cafés, drawing in a scrapbook and looking at women passing by. The flâneur’s sight maybe, the kind of whose silhouetted impressions correspond to Baudelaire’s vision for the urban metropolis of the late 19th century, and whose main goal is to simply stare around as walking by, watching a real world that is made of an increasing number of different fragments. Although not apparent at the very beginning, the film underlines the fact that the man is not following the searching of a certain kind of beauty, neither the worshipped Romantic’s eternal feminine: he is trying to find a woman in particular. Petrarch put something similar out by enouncing that a lost woman’s face is always the reason for scanning other ones. In other words, by staring at her, oneself immediately transforms into someone who is obstinately chasing… a ghost. Sylvia, the woman recalled at Gérard de Nerval’s prose, stayed in the city a few years ago. Our lead character had a relationship with her, but she went away. So she is hiding now, the desired one, in every other face, and at this precise moment the flâneur transforms himself into one of the key figures of the history of film, Scottie, Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) lead role, the man who desires a woman’s dead body. Back again into a ghost story, then; as it is brought out once more in Guerín’s films, as he is continuously charting the essence of film itself.

Work in Progress showed us ghosts who were coming out from the ruins of a real town. In the City of Sylvia includes them at its urban essence from the very beginning, the reason provoking this impregnation being the sublimation of the real city. Guerín shoots around Strasbourg streets in summer time. Directions are remarked to be very important from the very first moments of the film, thanks to the open map on a table that acts as a solid navigating key. The city looks real. The terraces of the cafés are full of people, trams continuously cross its biggest avenues, some Pakistanis are selling the usual flowers and even a beggar passes by collecting empty glass bottles. The physical city turns into a labyrinth, where a Sylvia lived: she existed and she is still being haunted by a man who desired her but still is in love — perhaps he is just fascinated by these pictures of her. The labyrinth becomes much more complicated as the poet cannot find the Minotaur, the one which would show him the exit. The city’s evolution finishes by transforming it into an ethereal entity, as an image alluding to a dream. A luminous woman from the past gives her way to a group of ghosts while the apollonius beauty masking a deformed face reveal something troubling emanating from its scars.

In the City of Sylvia is the real big sensation of the latest Venice Film Festival, a radical work almost without any words in it, a film structured by the musical sense of the sounds of life that it contains, which invites the audience to stare at the world from a different point of view in order to explore the beginning of everything, that is, those magic moments when a boy and a girl start to look at each other.