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** From the Dream that was Rome to a Dream of Light: Nearly as long as Gladiator and almost as extravagantly praised, Victor Erice's 1992 feature is another sort of Mediterranean epic. This is a movie about the making of a static image, an unscripted (if staged) documentary in which artist Antonio López Garcia tries to paint the quince tree in his backyard—and fails.

Recently voted the best film of the past decade by the Cinematheque Ontario's international panel of 60 programmers and archivists, Dream of Light is an autumnal tale that marks the passing of a single season. It begins in Madrid on September 29, 1990, with López's preparations—making a frame, stretching his canvas, setting up an easel, studying and sniffing around the quince tree. Whether or not the artist is acting, this fastidious method seems appropriate to a filmmaker like Erice, who has made but three features in as many decades.

Nothing rushes the wonderfully alert and capable López. He creates precise spatial coordinates, first in the yard and then on his canvas. He uses white paint-marks to place the tree and its fruit. Other work goes on around him—some Polish laborers are renovating the apartment building. (At one point, they help the artist construct a shelter around his setup.) A colleague, the loquacious Enrique Gran, drops by to reminisce with López about their art-school days. The weather changes. Occasionally, Erice's camera tilts up to reveal a larger world. Meanwhile, the radio reveals historic doings in the Soviet Union and Persian Gulf. Throughout, López (a sort of painterly postimpressionist) keeps his eyes on the tree, working until he abruptly switches medium. He can no longer paint the tree but only draw it. The October light has become too erratic.

“Why are you still alive? It vexes me!” Phoenix confronts Crowe in Gladiator.
photo: courtesy of Dreamworks
“Why are you still alive? It vexes me!” Phoenix confronts Crowe in Gladiator.

Details

Gladiator
Directed by Ridley Scott
Written by David H. Franzoni, John Logan, and William Nicholson
A DreamWorks/Universal release
Opens May 5

Dream of Light
Directed by Victor Erice
A Facets Multimedia release
Film ForumThrough May 16

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Sketching now in a chilly wind, López tells some foreign visitors that "the best part is being close to the tree." Whatever the artist's motivations, Erice is illustrating the notion articulated in André Bazin's "Ontology of the Photographic Image" that the visual arts are an atavistic desire to arrest nature's flux. Hence the film's many references to copies. The old painters keep returning to the subject of a snapshot taken of them 40 years before; López has a room full of busts and life masks; his studio is dominated by a model of the Venus de Milo.

By December, the quinces have begun to fall. In the movie's supreme gesture, López picks one and then another. Time has prevailed. He disassembles his easel, brings his drawing inside, and dismantles the shelter. Erice doesn't end here, though. He provides a coda in which the artist's wife, Maria Moreno—credited as the movie's producer—poses him on a cot for her painting. (Although he might be on his deathbed, she's painting him as a young man.) López falls asleep and Erice provides him with a dream as the camera, seemingly alone in the garden, continues to film the tree and its decomposing fruit.

More analytical than contemplative, never less than straightforward, Dream of Light makes no showy bid for the sublime. This philosophical film blots out vain pomp in suggesting that art is the imitation of nature. Marcus Aurelius would have approved.

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