Casanova (Altaió) is staying with benefactors in Switzerland, holding court to a frustrated poet, to his man servant (Pompeu) and to other sundry revelers. He is also eating fruit to ease his constipation (we are subsequently treated to a real-time poo!). Then he is travelling in the Carpathians, staying with a rural landowner/farmer who has three daughters, two of whom are in league with a night-dwelling aristocrat with violence in mind.
If that all sounds relatively dramatic, rest assured: it isn’t. On the other hand, if the first hour of this film doesn’t leave your mouth hanging open (in a really good way!), well, I don’t know what. This is narrative cinema but there isn’t that much in the way of plot.
Instead, you get an extraordinary performance by the non-professional actor playing Casanova. The camera dwells on his face and words in a series of long, mostly fixed shots – especially in the first half. Altaió’s facial gestures are so compelling to watch and seem to incarnate the spirit of the film so well that the film loses some sort of originary, existential importance when it focuses on the daughters of Dracula in the second half.
It is an uncanny experience watching an actor this closely for this period of time – but it is weirdly enchanting too. Serra has a refreshingly simple view of acting as a charisma that is revealed by the camera – and this describes Altaió perfectly: “you shoot, and some people are interesting”!
What really impresses me is that this long-duration approach to actors is a direct response to the technology of digital cameras: they are small and unobtrusive and you can shoot until the battery dies – rather than the 12 minutes a 35mm roll allows you.
This aspect of slow cinema is one of the things that digital cameras do very well. Serra shot 400 hours of material for this film, embodying John Cassavetes’ dream of a cinema wherein actors could develop their performance on film itself.
However, as Serra points out in the discussion with Ben Rivers included here, you need to create tension within this extended filmic duration; you need to contrast the sense of duration unfolding with some sense of constraint or limited time. Which is where the basic narrative structure steps in.
To be honest, my attention did flag a bit during the last hour, when the ‘story’ kicks up a gear, but Story of My Death is obviously an intriguing and important film and deserves a wide audience. The film’s deliberate pace might suggest portentousness but nothing could be further from the truth – it is actually packed with dry, earthy humour.
There are even some idyllic interludes accompanied by sentimental guitar music on the soundtrack – although these give way to darker, doomier sequences with ominous music later in the film.
Extras include a short film by Serra, Cuba Libre, a tribute to film maker Rainer Werner Fassbinder; and the text of a discussion between Serra and Ben Rivers.
Review by Colin Dibben
[SRA value=”5″ type=”YN”]
Story of My Death is out on DVD on 29 June