Ulises (Pepe Soriano) has, as his name suggests, been on a very long voyage. He’s so old his precise age blurs somewhere between ninety and a hundred (the actor was born in 1929) but he’s sometimes a child (Jenaro Nouet) as the distant past comes into focus while the present gets darker.
Writer-director Gonzalo Calzada (Luciferina) doesn’t just tackle the subject of dementia here – currently a frequent movie subject inside (The Taking of Deborah Logan, Relic) and outside (Still Alice, The Father) genre – but looks at the end of life … Ulises isn’t particularly afflicted by senility, since for him the melding of past and present and imaginary and real is simply the natural order of things. He lives in a large, memory-laden apartment, shuffling out to get groceries, nagged by his wife Dalia (Marilu Marini) about threats that come from outside (she’s terrified that if anyone sees the state of the apartment, they’ll be institutionalised – though it is pretty well-maintained), and troubled by a nature program on television (about – what else? – the elephants’ graveyard).
On the night in question, things are shaken up by a woman (Desiree Salgueiro) who may be an upstairs neighbour, a lost relative or a ghost knocking insistently on the door, demanding help … and then, impossibly, turning up as a suicide in the apartment’s small courtyard. The patient super (Lautaro Delgado), Ulises’ supposedly neglectful son (Nicolas Scarpino) and the police are called – at dead of night – but have little effect on the psychodrama inside the apartment (and, probably, the protagonist’s head). Calzada has previously specialised in more straightforward horror, but this evokes terror and wonder to other ends – it springs a couple of plot turns that will be familiar to horror audiences – and manages, arguably better than mainstream movies on the subject, to enter the world of the old man (it strikes sparks with some films from an earlier period of cinema, Umberto D and Wild Strawberries).
The occasional replacement of the aged lead actors by their child selves is magical and poignant, and Soriano refuses to take the easy route in playing a hero bowed by years, troubled by all sorts of pettinesses, and physically failing (though he’s still spry and impatient with offers of assistance). The horror-ghost element, involving the mystery woman, allows for some shocks – seldom has simple door-knocking been as annoying on film – but also a sense of tragedy at the way she has chosen to cut her life short while Ulises has to take the long route home. There is, incidentally, a 67 minute companion piece Nocturna: Side B – Where the Elephants Go to Die.