On the radio that hums in the background, there’s a report of seven whales who, in an apparent act of mass suicide, have washed ashore not far from the sunbaked Chilean nowheresville where “Oblivion Verses” takes place. Rescue efforts are underway, but in the end, only one of the pod is successfully returned to the sea. So later, there’s a question hidden in the strikingly poetic image of a whale flying through the pale sky over the head of our old-man hero. Is it the one whale who lived, perhaps feeling an affinity for a man who has made it his late-life mission similarly to “save” one person from oblivion, amid so many others who were lost? Or is it one of the whales who died, beckoning the old man and all his razor-wire memories to his final rest?
As with so much in this beautiful and strange first film from Iranian director Alireza Khatami, there are multiple explanations for each moment of dreamlike symbolism, and the peculiar and lovely thing is that almost all of them are equally satisfying. The old man is nameless, appropriately for one with an extraordinarily sharp memory for every tiny detail, except people’s names. But who needs a name when your face is as singular as Juan Margallo’s? The Spanish actor who played the fugitive soldier in Victor Erice’s classic “The Spirit of the Beehive” returns 45 years later with deep, kind creases in his tanned face, and bright, indomitable eyes beneath white, beetling brows. He plays the caretaker of a small morgue and its attached graveyard — a place that is itself at the end of its life, as it’s about to be shut down.
The old man spends his days tending to the stacked graves, directing the few visitors where they need to go, and chatting with his friends: the raconteur gravedigger (Tomas del Estal) nearing the meaningless milestone of the thousandth body he’s buried, and the morose hearse driver (Manuel Moron) who responds to the political violence happening in town with resigned fatalism. But that violence intrudes on this placid kingdom of the dead when government forces, running out of places to hide the bodies of the people they’ve illegally killed, co-opt the near-empty morgue. Due to a sticking door, on their return they overlook one body — that of a young woman, whom the caretaker, despite brutal intimidation tactics, resolves to bury properly, as one last tiny act of remembrance, in defiance of the national mandate for forgetting.
It could all be desperately somber, especially with the deliberately unspecific conflict evoking any number of real-world state-sponsored atrocities, the tragic tale of Chile’s own “disappeared” chief among them. But Khatami crossbreeds the humanism of his Iranian cinematic heritage (he has worked with Asghar Farhadi and makes several direct allusions to Kiarostami) with a distinctly Latin magic realism, which infuses the sedate “Oblivion Verses” with an offbeat sense of humor. A hangdog acceptance of futile bureaucracy pervades scenes in which the caretaker becomes a shuffling Theseus, using a spool of thread to find his way through a cavernous basement full of fusty paper files. And there’s a melancholy half-smile in the way Jorge Zambrano’s intricate production design glories in the obsolete artifacts of the analogue world, as if the film, among all its farewells, were also saying goodbye to mechanical elevators, wind-up alarm clocks, typewriters, and pens that run out of ink at the crucial juncture.
The rich, painterly compositions of Antoine Heberlé’s exquisite photography also have a witty dimension and contrast wide breezy landscapes with dark closeups. The gravedigger is framed oddly, often just a disembodied voice coming from a hole, or a face partially obscured behind a mound of earth, before we eventually discover that he is blind. Wasps swarm busily out of a crack in a grave, a ream of newly printed fliers is blown away by the capricious wind, and a date on a document is altered by the meticulous scraping of a blade against old, fibrous paper. There’s even a sort of meet cute, engineered via the whimsical device of a split shopping bag out of which lemons drop and roll down the steep street to be gathered up and returned to their unwitting owner.
Such moments, observed with light, wry compassion, and played by Margallo with sweet-natured sincerity, make the lovely, sad “Oblivion Verses” an immersive, evocative pleasure, even when the narrative grows sluggish with remembrance of things past. Because even at its most opaque, the heart of this impressive debut is righteously simple: a gentlemanly caretaker performing one last act of caretaking, and finding one good and meaningful thing to do at the short end of a long life.