Director: Manuel Muńoz Rivas,
Watched on: MUBI,
The aesthetic gulf between American and European documentary cinema becomes more dramatically evident after viewing Manuel Muńoz Rivas’ The Sea Stares at Us from Afar, a meditative observation on time, myth, and reluctant progress that settles in with a few desultory inhabitants of an Andalusian beach. The camera pays equal respect to the shifting sands and workaday rituals that exist in an expanse shrouding a buried history, which also offers up tantalizing prospects to tourists and developers.
The characters, such as they are, include an elderly man who lives alone in a shack, spending his days in enjoyable indolence; another man who enigmatically shovels sand near his beach house into a wheelbarrow and then dumps it several yards away with no discernible purpose, while at the same time a couple of men with tape measures and clipboards walk around his house marking off boundaries; and a small group of deeply tanned fisherman who we see repairing nets and trolling for shrimp. Meanwhile, families occasionally play on the beach, a group of decorated horse-drawn carriages trot by, and tour buses cruise the scenery. Some of these scenes seem casually scripted, especially the encounters between a young man and woman who appear at first to be lovers but may be brother and sister.
These elements flow in and out of languid sequences that are as indefinable as to intent as they are lovely to contemplate. Narration is inserted at three different points in the film, recounting the possibly mythical existence of a 4th century B.C. city buried under the dunes. The narrator, whose voice is close to the mic, in almost a whisper, hints that everything we are seeing is subject to flux, to the forces of history, to the arrival of oblivion.
Filmed by the Catalan cinematographer Mauro Herce (who made his own ambiguous, less successful attempt at docu-fiction, Dead Slow Ahead), the movie is remarkably entrancing, with contemplative images of falling sheets of sand, windswept grasses, and ebbing tidal pools, all of it embraced by the lulling music of the sea. When friends of the elderly man gather for an impromptu acoustic jam session, you realize that he is not so alone after all, and that mysteries continue to evolve along with the earth itself. Later, you realize that much of what we’ve been seeing has been going on very near a modern town, complete with lighted walkways and rows of multi-storied apartments, and you are forced to adjust any conclusions you came to regarding the region’s future.
Without agenda or time stamps or a narrative through-line, The Sea Stares at Us From Afar evinces the same dreamy, relaxed, uncertain mood marking so many European documentaries and hybrids (Homo Sapiens, Baronesa, Before Summer Ends, Untitled), as a breed apart from their frenzied American counterparts, which remain focused on messaging and social justice, fixated on rushed dynamics in editing and resolutely free of poetics. This movie, with very little going on beyond the textural and metaphorical possibilities of sound and image, stays in the mind long after any U.S.-made doc has wrapped up its impact campaign.