Local Color
by Max Nelson

The Dead Man and Being Happy
Dir. Javier Rebollo, Spain/Argentina/France, no distributor

Santos and Erika make an odd pair. He’s a dying hitman who’s just left his hospital bed for a whirlwind tour of old haunts and new prospects. She’s his much younger traveling partner, having leapt into his passenger seat after a gas station spat with her boyfriend. They must feel right at home in The Dead Man and Being Happy, Javier Rebollo’s vivacious third feature. Rebollo delights in making strange pairings seem natural, even prosaic, and at first glance The Dead Man certainly seems wired to baffle: a character study that has for its characters two perfect enigmas; a film that inundates us with information, yet which gives us very little in the way of context or background; a film about death that relegates death to the space of an ellipse, or a question mark; a film about happiness whose hero ultimately finds contentment in . . . ice cream?

For a film so steeped in memory, The Dead Man and Being Happy is surprisingly allergic to psychology. Its omnipresent third-person voice-over seems content (for the most part) to describe that which lies in plain view of the camera, the contours of its subject’s face, the steps he’s about to take. In all the narrator’s chatter, one message comes through with particular clarity: there’s nothing words can tell us that images can’t. If speech can’t give us access to Santos’s inner life, then the burden falls squarely on the image itself—and we can’t help but wonder if it can bear the load. We see that Santos (José Sacristán) is, or at least was, a hired killer, that he’s just left Buenos Aires for the open country (where he’s headed, we don’t know), that he drives a beat-up Ford Falcon, and that he lugs around a constant supply of morphine to ease the pain from the lethal tumors attacking his pancreas and brain. For all that, though, we get few direct insights into Santos’s motivations and his intentions, his memories and dreams, his pleasures and pains. For those viewers who keep their eyes fixed on this stooping, resilient figure, Santos leaves the film as he entered it: a fascinating cipher.

But look around Santos—at the towns he inhabits, each only for a few days; at the hotels he rents, always for one night; at the dusty, anonymous road that is his only consistent home; and, most tellingly, at his relationship with Érika (Roxana Blanco)—and a profile of the man starts to emerge. Rebollo refuses to let us go where we have neither the ability, nor, he might say, the right to linger: inside Santos’s head. Instead, though, we visit the seaside spa town where our hitman spent his honeymoon (who with?), the faux-American restaurant whose glory days likely corresponded with Santos’s own, and the decrepit beach that Santos, for reasons unknown, proclaims in his broken English “one of the most beautiful place in the world!”

This is a character study by negation: a portrait that takes the form of a series of landscapes and tries to sketch out the borders of the human-sized gap in the middle. Santos is clearly attached to these places: it’s written not on his impassive face, but on the rocks and the walls themselves, in the dust and the sea. And while he may have done his best to rid himself of memory, of baggage, and even of attachment altogether, the places he once imbued with meaning haven’t moved on. What’s more, this conviction that the external, observable world can be made to speak of things recognizably human, and can continue to do so even after whoever made it speak has fallen silent, would seem to inspire faith in any medium capable of capturing and preserving an image of that world—especially the movies.

Santos is the film’s chief fascination, but Erika is its beating heart. For Santos, she is both object of lust and surrogate daughter, for us, a way into her companion’s inscrutable inner world. Upon the pair’s third-act visit to Erika’s hometown, the film bends inward: “Santos will dream of horses,” the narrator tells us as we watch the two sleep side by side, “and Erika of dogs.” The final stretch of The Dead Man and Being Happy, in which both dog and horse usher Santos to his final point of rest, could be the couple’s shared dream. What’s remarkable about the film’s final minutes, though, is how closely they resemble what came before, even as they do what the rest of the film was loath to do—directly represent the movements of Santos’s consciousness (or subconscious, as the case may be). The jungle that lies just outside Erika’s estate, and which comes to stand in for Santos’s inner world, is, if anything, more aggressively physical than the landscapes that preceded it: all rustling leaves, glancing sunlight, and cooing exotic birds, rendered with such attention to texture and atmosphere that you’re tempted to try and touch, even smell it. In the world of The Dead Man and Being Happy—and, for that matter, of cinema as a whole—that which is thought or dreamt isn’t so easily separated from that which is visible and, at least seemingly, real.

The movies have seen their share of inscrutable protagonists. But Rebollo has, in this 90-minute beauty of a film, accomplished something altogether rarer: he’s picked up formal strategies often employed to push the audience away, and used them instead to draw us closer. We learn about Santos and Erika’s first night together from the narrator, who recites the story dispassionately over footage of an empty bed. And yet how much affection and warmth even that empty room suggests! The Dead Man and Being Happy defines people by way of the places and other people that surround them, and with an emotional sensitivity that’s more often the province of films whose characters are more clearly motivated.

The film ends on a quote from Don Quixote: “There is a remedy for everything, except for death.” It’s a line that’s hovered over Santos’s journey from the start, but Rebollo never treats it as anything more than a statement of fact—to be accepted, like any other detail lying around the edges of this film, with nonchalance and even a wry smile. Midway through the film, Santos and Erika stop at a small cemetery in the province of Santiago del Estero, “home to the poorest, most easy going Argentineans.” Graves flit by, presumably real, garnished with photographs and draped in cobwebs. The locals, our narrator tells us, “have a close relationship with death, and with the siesta.” That seems too to sum up The Dead Man and Being Happy, a film in which the restless languor of old age (and, for that matter, mid-life crisis) becomes an excuse to luxuriate in the moment—in which dying becomes a particularly graceful way of living.