Gavagai

A minor hubbub erupted at the screening I attended of Rob Tregenza's unfashionably still, life-as-it-unfolds drama Gavagai. While most of the film's dialogue is spoken in English, several scenes play out in other languages, without subtitles. Was this a mistake or the director's intention? Since the title is a term coined to illustrate the indeterminacy of translation, and since the story itself concerns issues of translation -- the lead, a nameless bloke played by Andreas Lust, is working on Chinese versions of his wife's favorite works by the Norwegian poet Tarjei Vesaas -- I bet on the latter. After all, Tregenza is after the kinds of truths that apparently can best be reached via the testing of an audience's patience.

Gavagai's minutes-long first shot finds Lust disembarking a train, making his slow way up a path and then past some trees, out of our sight, and then turning around, re-entering our field of vision, trekking all the way back and then enjoying a well-deserved rest on a bench. Tregenza's framing and staging is so subtle in its deft precision that it can be read as invisible, like he just left the camera running.

Lust's character is haunted by a vision of his late wife, who follows him, in robes and a geisha's makeup, on a beguiling ferry trip and in a steam room, where he fights to imagine her absence. He bears her ashes and will scatter them in a scene of delicate, rain-spattered urgency. Lust occasionally speaks the words of the poet Vesaas, which matter more than those uttered and not subtitled; at these times, the film becomes poetry itself. (Confirmation came later: Yes, the subtitles have been omitted by choice.)

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