The gradual fade-out of an old man’s existence — and a way of life — unfolds with exquisite beauty in Theo Court’s “Decline.” An excellent example of the crossbreeding of fiction and nonfiction (though the pic’s website identifies it as the former), the film fuses reality and poetry in a seamless whole as an aging caretaker does his best to keep up his chores and rituals at a decaying Chilean estate where he’s lived for decades. A fine pickup option for sales companies, “Decline” is already ascendant among tony fests.
Taking place over what could be the course of a few days, the caretaker (unnamed, and played with great stoicism by Rafael Vazquez) returns after a string of errands to a house on the estate, where he lives in a rundown room. Whether clearing brush, collecting water from a nearby creek, preparing meals or tending to what first appears an infirm man in bed (actually, the burly estate owner, played by Alvaro Bustamante), the caretaker slowly proceeds with silent forthrightness, as if this were any other day.
It isn’t, however, and by roughly the film’s midpoint, as the owner stirs from bed, workmen arrive to begin renovations to the old main house. Court has clearly studied Vermeer — some of his immaculately still shots mimic the Dutch painter’s code of a single natural light source coming from the left of the picture — and his framing of the caretaker begins to diminish his presence, to the point where he vanishes from view at times.
When the owner finally speaks, in a slightly inchoate monologue, it acts as the trigger for the caretaker to venture out of town, on foot, to visit his son, of whom he requests work and board. When his son offers neither, the despondent caretaker returns to the estate to dream of its glory years, in the form of black-and-white archival footage credited to the Bustamante del Campo family.
Lenser Mauro Herce’s gorgeous, ghostly images, whose power and richness can be appreciated only on the bigscreen, dominate the pic to such an extent that he can be said to be Court’s co-filmmaker; both men carry on Spanish director Victor Erice’s style of contemplative cinema, in which time slows down, and light and shadow become life itself. No less vital is the sound package (Boris Herrera’s production sound, Carlos E. Garcia’s design, with mix by Diego S. Staub and Garcia), which meticulously reinforces the imagery. Court’s actors aren’t so much performers as models, in the mode of Robert Bresson.