The opening quote of Foremost By Night (Víctor Iriarte, 2023), borrowed from Robert Bolaño, tells us that this is a horror story, “but it won’t appear to be, for the simple reason that I am the teller.” Inhabiting the spirit of the legendary Chilean novelist, his elliptical rhythms, his political rage, his ability to embrace the mysteries of life and give them stirring power, Víctor Iriarte’s debut film is all about the telling; a riot of formal invention, using the full boundaries of epistolary genre to explore one of the most shameful parts of Spanish history.
We start with Vera (Lola Dueñas) writing a letter to her son Egoz (Manuel Egozkue). While pouring over old-school maps of Hamburg, Porto, Madrid and even Brazil, the camera lovingly caressing over streets and town names, she tells of how she gave him away after childbirth only for all records of him to be systematically erased by a corrupt and uncaring system. Using montage, historical footage and gorgeous renderings of the criminal underground, all shot on film, there is a great, vital energy to these moments, showing how the machinations of a corrupt state, still feeling the pain of the Franco era, are no match for one woman’s love of her son.
Easily the best part of the movie, it displays Iriarte’s talent for unusual compositions, such as the overlay of a laser pointer on a map, representing a car’s movements, or the subtle use of slow-motion to represent men in power, or birds-eye-view shots of maps being arranged, money being packed, guns being loaded. Every shot, every movement, every glance, is heavy with meaning, pointing to a portentous, ominous conclusion.
From Vera, we move to Cora (Ana Torrent), the other victim in this state-sponsored mess. She was told the mother died in childbirth. By switching so cleanly to her perspective, shot mostly through a captivating circular Iris shot, the second third, traversing across the Iberian peninsula from San Sebastian to Porto, shows how both women were screwed over by a deeply uncaring system.
There are certainly shades of Bolaño’s best work throughout this film, both in its exploration of missing children — echoing the central concerns of perhaps the 21st century’s greatest novel, 2666 (2004) — and its epic, freewheeling energy. He’s one of my favourite authors due to his hyperlink style, constantly bringing together disparate characters yet making them feel part of the same, vital story.
Perhaps this namecheck set me up for disappointment, as the rest of the film never quite matches up to the breathless scope and barely-concealed rage of the first two-thirds, especially as it settles into more conventional melodrama by the end. The disconnect between sections, ideas, scenes and scenery, at once touching and revelatory in the beginning, grate by the end, tacking on an unfulfilling heist scene as opposed to truly finding a cohesive and satisfying ending. Nonetheless, I’d rather watch an ambitious yet frustrating experience such as Foremost By Night than a neatly executed yet formally and thematically uninteresting film any day of the week. Let’s hire Iriarte for a 2666 adaptation, stat.