[Written for The Stranger]
In 1973, the Spanish filmmaker Victor Erice announced himself as a major director with one of the great debuts in cinema, Spirit of the Beehive, a stunningly assured and poetic evocation of the fantasy of childhood, as well as a beautiful salute to James Whale’s Frankenstein. It took a decade for Erice’s second film, El Sur, to arrive; and his third, Dream of Light, didn’t come along until 1992. (To add to the frustration, Dream of Light languished for eight years without achieving distribution in the U.S., despite rapturous reports from every festival it played.) What qualities of patience, methodical self-confidence, and even-tempered humility must one possess to release only three films in as many decades without growing bitter or cynical about moviemaking? Precisely the same required to make a riveting, engrossing film about a man trying to paint a quince tree in his back yard.
For that is the sum “story” of Dream of Light, a documentary of sorts; staged, obviously, and artfully composed in a way life never is — but then the struggle between life’s constant mutability and the artist’s attempt to freeze it into place is the film’s great conflict. For two hours and 20 minutes Antonio López Garcia, a painter friend of Erice’s, tries to re-create on canvas something about the tree — an elusive play of morning light, a weighty fullness to the yellow fruit — that has captivated him. Meticulous and perfectionist (quite likely one of the common bonds between the artist and filmmaker), López goes through a marvelously detailed preparation: hammering together his frame, tying string and hanging a plumb line to stretch a Cartesian grid before the tree, painting the horizon line on a rear wall of the courtyard. Even the artist’s own possible restlessness is accounted for: Having found his perfect vantage point, López pounds nails into the soft mud so his feet always return to the same spot.
Then, having set up so thoroughly, the painter takes his position, and watches; and it is the glory of the film that we are privileged to watch with him, with the same unrushed wonderment. He makes odd little daubs on the leaves and fruit of the tree, their initially mysterious nature becoming gradually apparent. He paints the canvas here and there, and as his impressionist study takes shape, the progress of the work is revealed to us periodically. A radio provides inspirational music; the nightly newscasts, reciting each evening’s stabbings, auto fatalities, the grim buildup to the Gulf War, are as often as not switched-off, irrelevant messages from a world entirely removed from this one little garden with its all-important tree. The film is not locked into López’s head — in fact, it is when he is most immersed in his task, happily murmuring a song about heartbreak as he strokes the brush across the canvas, that Erice opts to leave the yard for the first time, taking us on a delicate little circling tour of Madrid — but it doesn’t force the proceedings along, either. When visitors with desires come by — a lifelong friend wanting to talk of the beauty of Michelangelo; the painter’s daughters wanting to give Dad his haircut — they and their conversation are given priority, and the painting is left standing beside the tree.
At first, given the leisurely pace and López’s unruffled demeanor, it feels as though he has all the time in the world to complete his task. But seasons change, the sunlight shifts, fruit ripens and begins to pull the tree’s branches sagging toward the ground; and the more López sketches and paints, the less he can find the golden shimmer that initially attracted him to the subject. He switches from paint to drawing; he has friends prop up drooping leaves with a stick so that he can again see the quinces glow in the sun. Time continues remorselessly on, however, and it appears that Dream of Light is to become that rarest of artistic works, the chronicle of an artistic failure.
Ultimately, however, whether or not a painting emerges from López’s efforts, we come to understand that he has succeeded. The artist’s efforts to lock into place life’s transitory ebb might be an impossible task, but Erice finds in the mere attempt a nobility and grace; the willingness to try and halt time — López’s in paint, just like Erice’s in film — become a victory in itself, and a sublime one.