The arrival of the last train
What does an important railway line actually mean? And who is going to still be there to tell its story, when the final train to cross it becomes but a memory of the elderly, its tracks begin to rust, and weeds begin to rise in the spaces between its crossties? Buenos Aires al Pacífico, Mariano Donoso’s 2018 feature film, raises these questions and many more. Its aim is anthropological, historical, aesthetical. Donoso follows the tracks of such a history, which runs across more than a century, unearthing ideas and illusions, solidary communities and specters of catastrophe along his path. His camera captures something of the essence of these impalpable things, crossing concrete territories and affective islands in an ample memorialist inquiry, along the route between Buenos Aires and Valparaíso.
Donoso describes the project himself, by the end of the film, as a process of apenas un registro: a modest assemblage of photos, of quotes pulled from books, notes, and memories. But his film is anything but modest, and any attempt to summarize it seems doomed to fail from the very onset. The same can be said of any assertion of finding any coherence in its multiple threads – coming as rails along the side-lines – that the film unweaves along its path. A fascinating world comes to life from this thicket of shots and words spoken in the background: mostly shot on sumptuous black and white film, it’s a world that is, for the most part, extinct, with its abandoned warehouses and skeletons of sheds strewn across the railway lines. It’s a world which people remember nostalgically. One can infer that something really glorious happened there, at one point. The film uncovers a series of such ruins, leaving in its way broken thoughts about all sorts of things: about the director’s mother and children, about what it means to chart a territory, some bits and pieces of historical information or philosophical thoughts. And one of the principal merits of this project is that it never imposes its red line upon the spectators – it’s not the kind of film to constantly ask, „Are you following me?”. But rather, by being faithful to the spirit of a flâneur attracted to ruins and putrefaction, the film proposes a sketchbook of reflections about everything, which it doesn’t fill out to the very end, rather allowing it to blossom freely in the minds of the audience.
The reasoning behind the film is complex: the director sees the train as a machine that offers a privileged understanding of the past century. Uncoincidentally, the other such machine is cinema. „The train has created cinema”, says the off-screen voice at one point, and such an affirmation encapsulates this film’s capacity of making us see the world with different eyes. It discusses movement and illusion, conquests and progress, the working class and the oppressive power. Mirroring this visual archaeology that Donoso compiles out of a patchwork of diverse sources – from recordings that are one hundred years old to personal archival footage – the film jumps back and forth without any inhibitions. Its formal liberty is incredible – a deteriorated image lies next to a clean-cut digital shot; a teary confession of a former Argentinian railway worker intercuts with an intimate dream. And it is maybe for this reason that the film manages to invent, throughout this fantastical journey, an adequate shape of conveying the history of the century through fragments. A history that, in this case, is shared between two countries (Argentina and Chile), two oceans (the Atlantic and the Pacific), two inventions (the train and cinema), two ways of relating to reality (fiction and documentary).
After all, the train is a splendid metaphor to describe cinema. The history of one mostly coincides with the path of the other. It’s what allows Donoso to close this loop of „a century and a bit” in a very natural way: in 1895, the Lumière Brothers were screening The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat / L’arrivée du train en gare de La Ciotat, and the spectators fled for fear of being run over by the locomotive. It is precisely this series of films that marked the beginning of cinema as we know it, a series which also contains Employees Leaving the Factory / Sortie d’usine, a shot of the workers of the Lumière factory in Lyon. Donoso, as is the case of others who have reflected on this interesting aspect – from Godard to Harun Farocki – doesn’t overlook the significance of these moments: it is trains and crowds of workers that have inaugurated cinema. And Buenos Aires al Pacífico is a wonderful elegy sung to all of these things that have left a mark at one point, recounted from the historical moment in which the last train arrived in the station, and the workers – the laboring bodies which offered the promise of cinema – are increasingly rare. This essay-film teaches us to breathe and to look differently at the signs of the past that are inscribed upon the spaces which surround us; but it has nothing of a rigid demonstration, because, in between all of the layers that compose the film, Donoso left cracks through which emotion can leak out. The force of this construct is impossible to overlook, in my opinion.
Buenos Aires al Pacífico can be watched online for free.