Visualizing the unspeakable:
point-zero filmmaking in Alumbramiento

Andreas Kakiou Halskov

What art can still do is testify, not of the sublime, but of this aporia of art (the insufficiency to present the sublime) and the pain it causes. She does not speak about the unspeakable, she rather speaks about the impossibility to speak about it.

Jean-François Lyotard (cited in Ooster ling 1999, p. 91).

According to the French philosopher, Jean-François Lyotard, modernism presents a way of dealing with taboos, of cultivating the heterogeneous or, as it were, "presenting the unpresentable". Unable to speak (directly) about "the unspeakable", modern filmmakers, for example, deal with unspeakable subjects in cinematic terms, using different techniques - lighting, acting, sound and framing - to illustrate the silencing and suppression of such taboos.

Dealing with physical illness and death, the short film Alumbramiento (2007) by Eduardo Chapero-Jackson is all but outspoken, reducing verbal and visual information to an absolute minimum. If death is uncomfortable to deal with - and ultimately unspeakable - Alumbramiento subtly deals with the "unspeakability" of this very subject.

A Spanish word for "giving light" or "giving birth", Alumbramiento is, ironically, about facing death - and, in terms of lighting, the film is vividly low-key. The plot has undergone a process of dedramatization, the cinematography a process of delumination, and the dialogue a process of deverbalization: there are but few lines of dialogue in the film, a scant amount of action, and a sparse amount of lighting.

As distinct from the typical Hollywood film of today - whose style has fittingly been called an "intensification" of the classical film - Alumbramiento is dark, looming and meditative, distending time, while reducing action and dialogue (cf. Bordwell 2002).

The style in Alumbramiento has, deservedly, earned its director and crew a number of awards - including the prize for Best Sound at the Cine Mediterráneo de Larissa in Greece, and the prizes for Best Cinematography and Best European Short Film at the UIP awards in Venice - and the film epitomizes one of the most dependable rules of cinema: "Less is more".

Toward a cinematic point-zero
In trying to analyze the cinematic strategies in Alumbramiento, I use the term point-zero filmmaking, understood as a process of stylistic reduction: the plot is stripped of gratuitous action, the lighting is low-key, and the dialogue is close to non-existent (diminishing the amount of verbal information, in return for an ominous quietude on the soundtrack).

The first of these parameters, often known as a process of dedramatization, is best described in the words of Matthew Flanagan, as "a minimal narrative structure [...] predominantly achieved by a process of direct reduction, a sustained emptying out of deeply entrenched dramatic elements..." (Flanagan 2008).

Closer to "the spacious rhythms of the modern novel" than to classical cinema - let alone contemporary Hollywood films or the French cinema du look - films by Bergman and Antonioni distend time and treat their subjects in a "suppressive or oblique fashion" (Bordwell 2005, p. 152).

In a similar way, Chapero-Jackson dedramatizes the main event in Alumbramiento (the death of an old woman). As a short film, with a playing time of approximately 15 minutes, Alumbramiento may never be experienced in the same way as Tystnaden (1963) or Il deserto rosso (1964), but the stylistic choices in Alumbramiento are not that different from those in the aforementioned films.

The general pace of Alumbramiento is slow and lingering. The dramatic elements within the story are subdued or even suppressed, and, unlike the heightened expressiveness of the classical film, feelings and expressions are often withheld or played down.

The film opens in darkness, punctuated by a recurring source of light that metaphorically resembles a heartbeat, as measured by an echo-cardiogram. The blinking light, it turns out, is from a cell phone, awakening one of our main characters (Rafa played by Manolo Solo). Rafa picks up the phone ("Yes, me...), and his wife, Sara played by Christina Plazas, responds by asking him a question: "How is she?"

No response is given, and thus - in classical terms - a suspenseful set-up is produced. Questions naturally arise as to who this woman is, how she is doing, and how she is related to our main characters. Nevertheless, the plot develops in an all but "dramatic" way (however intense the non-verbal acting), and after a scene in the car - in which our main characters exchange but few lines of dialogue or even gestures - we learn that the aforementioned woman, María played by Mariví Bilbao, is on the verge of dying. There is no acceleration of the drama, no compression of time or intensification of the editing, and the different pay-offs are presented in a slow and subdued manner.

Likewise, when Sara ultimately decides to tell María that she is going to die, no drama or conflict is created around her decision. María's passing is presented in a slow and quiet fashion, the camera lingering on the peaceful expression of the dying mother.

Alumbramiento is not about conflict; it is about facing death, the passage of time and about "coming to an end", themes that are beautifully envisioned through lengthy shots, slow camera movements and a "sustained emptying out of [...] dramatic elements".

A short montage, halfway through the film, perfectly underlines and accentuates the above-mentioned theme: a stuffed butterfly hanging on the wall followed by a clock that is suspended in time and an old photograph in black and white. In all of these instances, life has come to an end, but is suspended and captured in time.

Another stylistic strategy that is evident throughout the film - neatly touching upon death as an unspeakable subject - is a general process of deverbalization.

The technical and aesthetic norms of the classical film, many theoreticians argue, "were implicitly calculated to privilege the voice and the intelligibility of dialogue" (Chion 1999, pp. 5-6). Indeed, using a term coined by Michel Chion, the classical film may be defined as verbocentric: since the early talkies, films have been arranged so as to make the dialogue a primary agent, through which expository information is given to the audience (Chion 1994, p. 6).

On the contrary, some directors have chosen, aesthetically, to deprivilege the human voice, either by rejecting the classical notion of intelligibility (as seen in films by Federico Fellini) or reducing the amount of dialogue altogether (as seen in the German experimental film Tuvalu [1999]).

Not unlike Tuvalu or Tystnaden, Alumbramiento has undergone a process of deverbalization, reducing the amount of dialogue, and realizing this dialogue in a curiously inexpressive fashion (akin to Robert Bresson): the different characters often "speak as if speaking to themselves", at the edge of a whisper, in few connected syllables (cf. Bresson 1986, p.74). The dialogue in the opening scene, between Rafa, Sara and the person on the other end of the telephone line, is a typical example of this process of deverbalization: the characters speak in abridged sentences and fragments, and respond to information that the audience never receives. Especially Rafa, whose facial expressions are also strangely Bressonian, talk in medical terms and one-syllable-sentences that provide us with little expository information; and long stretches of the plot are dominated by an eerie silence, punctuated only by María's sickly cough (reminiscent of films by Ingmar Bergman and Lasse Hallström).

Fig.1,1. Alumbramiento (2007)
Fig.1,2. Tystnaden (1963)

Indeed, the soundtrack in Alumbramiento is eerily minimalistic, consisting of little dialogue, long stretches of ambient silence and a short, non-diegetic piano piece (created by Pascal Gaigne).

But also with regards to lighting and staging, the film may be defined as minimalistic, using few locations and a beautifully dark decor that is lit so scantily as to minimalize the amount of visual information. This process of delumination, as created by cinematographer Juan Carlos Gómez, not only produces a somber and dark atmosphere (akin to Lost Highway [1997]), but also directs and "intensifies the spectator's gaze, awareness and response" (Flanagan 2008).

It is difficult to make out, let alone to recognize, the different objects and locations that appear in the film. Consequently, our attention is directed toward the facial expressions of the different characters (these non-verbal expressions, in turn, being our only true sources of information).

Fig. 2. Alumbramiento

The cinematic strategy in Alumbramiento may, indeed, be defined as point-zero filmmaking, understood as an aesthetic reduction of dramatic, visual and verbal information, through which Chapero-Jackson illustrates the unspeakable nature of death and physical illness.

The heightened expressiveness of the classical film is discarded in Alumbramiento, in return for a slow, minimalistic style. Unlike the typical Hollywood film of today - abounding with gratuitous action, rapid editing and gross visual effects - the style in Alumbramiento may be defined as suble or even sublime. Unable to speak (directly) about "the unspeakable", Alumbramiento instead deals with "the impossibility to speak about the unspeakable". Thematizing death and physical illness, Alumbramiento abounds neither in action nor in words. But its depiction of death - and how we respond to the termination of life - is all the more poignant and cinematic.

Cited sources

Bordwell, David. "Intensified Continuity: Visual Style in Contemporary American Film", in Film Quarterly, vol. no. 55, issue no. 3, 2002, pp. 16-28.

Bordwell, David. Figures Traced in Light: On Cinematic Staging. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005.

Bordwell, David. The Way Hollywood Tells It: Story and Style in Modern Movies. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.

Bresson, Robert. Notes on the Cinematographer. Translated by Jonathan Griffin. London: Quarted Books Ltd., 1986.

Chion, Michel. Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen. Translated by Claudia Gorbman. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994

Chion, Michel. The Voice in Cinema. Translated by Claudia Gorbman. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.

Flanagan, Matthew. "Towards an Aesthetic of Slow in Contemporary Cinema", in 16:9, November 2008, 6: 29.

Oosterling, Henk. "Philosophy, Art and Politics as Interesse. Towards a Lyotardian post-kantian aesthetics", in Issues, no. 9, April 1999, pp. 83-101.

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