THE STORY – In 2012, about twenty years after the mysterious disappearance near the sea of actor Julio Arenas while shooting a film titled “The Farewell Gaze” in the 1990s, a sensationalist television show revives the case, coming to involve film director and Arenas’ close friend Miguel Garay, who talks to Julio’s daughter Ana, movie’s editor and archivist Max, and mutual friend and lover Lola.
THE CAST – Manolo Solo, Jose Coronado, Ana Torrent, Petra Martínez, María León, Mario Pardo, Helena Miquel, Antonio Dechent, Venecia Franco, José María Pou, Soledad Villamil & Juan Margallo
THE TEAM – Víctor Erice (Director/Writer) & Michel Gaztambide (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 169 Minutes
We begin in a French chateau slowly after the end of World War II. A Spanish-Jewish refugee hires a close friend to travel to Shanghai to find his estranged daughter, with only a single photograph of the girl holding a fan to guide him.
Suddenly, it is 2012, and we learn that what we have been watching is the only remaining footage from a 1990 film titled “The Farewell Gaze,” directed by filmmaker Miguel Garay (a superb Manolo Solo). This project was never completed, thanks to the mysterious disappearance of the film’s leading man (and Miguel’s best friend) Julio Arenas (José Coronado) during filming. It was presumed that Julio slipped off a cliff while walking, but since his body was never found, his death became tabloid fodder for the next two decades. Miguel, now retired and living in a small fishing village, agrees to be a guest on an “Unsolved Mysteries” type of TV show to discuss the case, an appearance that sparks in Miguel a renewed interest in his friend’s fate and sets him off on a journey to exhume his own career in film that he thought had been long since buried.
Incredibly, “Close Your Eyes” is only the fourth feature film in the 50-year career of legendary Spanish director Victor Erice, who burst onto the film scene in 1973 with his debut feature “The Spirit of the Beehive.” Hailed as a masterpiece of Spanish cinema, that film has been a regular resident of the Sight and Sound list of the greatest 100 films of all time for years. A decade passed, however, before Erice made “El Sur” (1983), which was also met with great acclaim, and in 1992 came the narrative/documentary film “The Quince Tree Sun.” Since then, except for one short, there has not been a single Erice work until “Close Your Eyes,” which marks not only his return to films but a glorious return to form.
At first glance, Erice has cleverly set “Close Your Eyes” up as a detective story, as Miguel begins to revisit the events of his past and the people who had once meant so much, both to him and to Julio: his film editor Max (Mario Pardo), now a film archivist who has kept all the materials (and secrets) about their film all these years; Marta (Helena Miquel), a one-time lover to both Miguel and Julio; and, most movingly, Julio’s daughter Ana, who now works as a museum tour guide at The Prado and has long ago moved on from her father. What gives the scene an added resonance is that she is played by actress Ana Torrent, who, at age 7, starred in “The Spirit of the Beehive” for Erice half a century before.
Clearly, “Close Your Eyes” is not a young man’s film since the emotional depth of life experiences that pulse throughout its veins could only have come from someone who actually lived it. If, in 1973, “The Spirit of the Beehive” revealed a director with his whole career ahead of him, “Close Your Eyes” captures one looking back with the wisdom of acknowledging the drama in his life and the skills to turn it into art. Had “Close Your Eyes” ended there, it would have made a lovely memory piece filtered through the lens of the movies. But, Act 3 takes an unexpected turn that shifts the film’s focus from melancholy and self-reflection to hope and re-emergence. There are no spoilers here, but suffice it to say, this gives Miguel, to his great joy, an unexpected purpose in his life, one that helps him renew the bonds to those who were once closest to him.
Though the film clocks in at a lengthy 169 minutes, the pace of the film rarely drags, and the screenplay by Erice and Michel Gaztambide drops enough clues along the way to help us buy into the mystery. Notable too is the cinematography of Valentín Álvarez, who contrasts the warm ’90s look of the “Farewell Gaze” footage with the sharper surfaces of the more contemporary material. And Erice is not without his playful side, dropping little movie in-jokes now and again. The best is a bonding scene with Miguel’s beachcomber neighbors singing along to “My Rifle, My Pony and Me,” a song that Howard Hawks used for the same purpose in the classic “Rio Bravo.”
One of the great joys of “Close Your Eyes” is the chance to rediscover Victor Erice and marvel at a storytelling skill that had laid dormant for over three decades. His love for film is palpable, and it is sweet justice that he has constructed a mystery whose very solution can lie in a piece of film. But it’s Erice’s final image that will likely stay with you the most, a moment that gives the phrase “close your eyes” a devastating new meaning. It’s a moment that will likely give pleasure to any movie lover, as will his decision to end “Close Your Eyes” with a final image guaranteed to put a smile on the viewer’s face.