Dwein Ruedas Baltazar’s third feature is a morbidly beautiful tale filled with unexpectedly rich textures.
(This review is part of our coverage of the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival.)
There are many horrors to be found in the roster of films presented by Fantasia 2019 — zombies, ghosts, demons, killers — but in Dwein Ruedas Baltazar‘s Ode to Nothing, there’s nothing more terrifying than loneliness. Like Jeanne Dielman by way of A Ghost Story, this Phillippines-set drama has glimmers of the supernatural but is deeply committed to charting its protagonists’ journey through the universal human anguish that comes from feeling forgotten by the rest of the world. It’s also one of the best, most richly textured movies I’ve seen this year.
The first several minutes of Ode to Nothing are rendered in wordless silence, as Sophia (a captivating Marietta Subong), a middle-aged maid working in her family’s crumbling funeral parlor, shambles passively through her years-long routine. Her downcast eyes stare at the broken cassette tape that contains a single Chinese song that brings her solace, as she wanders through her home. Her father (Joonee Gamboa) occasionally joins her in the film’s rigid, symmetrical 1.33:1 Academy ratio framing, two figures lost in the boxed-in confines of their own house. Sophia’s mother has long since passed, and it’s created a rift that neither of them is able to bridge.
Her only comfort comes not just from that old Chinese love song, but from occasional visits by the charming young Elmer (Anthony Falcon), who sells taho drinks door to door. Otherwise, she moves through the world like a ghost, as her funeral home fails to bring in customers and she squirms under the aggressive hold of a greedy bailiff (Dido de la Paz), who owns their land and shakes them down for money they do not have.
One night, Sophia’s life is turned upside down when two men pull up in the middle of the night and drop off a body of an elderly, unnamed woman. “Just give her away if someone comes to claim her,” they say, shoving a modest sum of cash in her pocket and driving away with no answers. Driven by loneliness, it’s not long before Sophia finds herself bonding with the old, mangled corpse, carrying on long conversations and propping it up with boards and curtains. What’s more, customers slowly start to roll into the funeral home again, leaving Sophia to wonder whether the body itself is bringing her good fortune.
From the film’s quiet, textured sound design, to the elegantly ordered, tableau-like framing of every shot, Ode to Nothing adroitly captures the way loneliness and isolation keeps you closed off from the rest of the world. Sophia’s universe is a humid, overcast hell of browns and pewters, her home covered in warped wood and peeling wallpaper; it’s the home of a person who’s very soul has had the color drained out of it.
Ode to Nothing adroitly captures the way loneliness and isolation keeps you closed off from the rest of the world.
Subong’s wide-eyed, dynamic performance is a masterclass in melancholy, her zombie-like routines occasionally interrupted by outbursts of desperate emotion, whether towards her decrepit new mother figure or the heartless customers who haggle her to within an inch of her life (“You 46?” “I’m 44.” “You look 43. Give me a discount.”). Subong is a pop star and comedienne in the Phillippines, but her work here brings out an exceptional emotional depth that accurately captures the lifelessness of someone who feels like a ghost in their own universe.
There are moments of pitch-black humor among the chaos (“Is that how you speak to your parents?” Sophia’s father rages, after she talks back to him with the old woman’s corpse in the room), but Ode to Nothing is above all else a haunting exploration of the dangers of living in the past. The decaying corpse is just an anthropomorphized reflection of Sophia’s own collapsing sense of identity, holding desperately onto their home and business even as it disintegrates around her. There’s nothing for her to move on to — even Elmer’s kindness is cut tragically short — so the only solution is to cling to what she has left before it’s gone. For Sophia, the old lady is more than someone to talk to: it’s the tantalizing idea that our long-gone pasts can return to us.
As Ode to Nothing shuffles slowly but surely towards its elusive and eerily supernatural final minutes, it carries with it a command of metaphor and a deep well of empathy. And its final image is one of the most memorable and deeply affecting I’ve seen in a good minute. Just as David Lowery illustrated the metaphysical aggravation of grief and loneliness in A Ghost Story, so too does Baltazar’s Ode to Nothing use tight, Academy-ratio framing to capture that deep yearning for a past that no longer belongs to us. Like the corpse Sophia stubbornly clings to, grief can linger in our space, turning our lives to ruin while offering empty promises of long-passed memories.