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▶︎ Red Moon Tide is streaming on Mubi.

Located on Galicia’s northwest seaboard, the Costa da Morte is a craggy stretch of land where the earth meets the Atlantic in a biblical display of crashing waves and jutting rock formations. Named for the many shipwrecks that have occurred along its shore, the Costa da Morte lent its name, mythology and magnificent vistas to Lois Patiño’s 2013 documentary Coast of Death, the Spanish experimental filmmaker’s first feature-length work following a number of shorts that dealt with landscape and the anthropological forces that pit humanity against the natural world.

Red Moon Tide, Patiño’s long-awaited follow-up, finds him returning to the same location for a more sustained exploration of not only the porous boundaries between fact and folklore, the living and the dead, but also how myth-making has transformed the language and imagination of the Galician people.

More narrative-driven than its largely observational predecessor, Red Moon Tide obliquely dramatises the story of a diver named Rubio de Camelle who, the legend goes, rescued over 30 corpses from shipwrecks to give the victims’ families a chance of closure and to allow their souls to transition to the afterlife.

As the film opens, Rubio seems to have met his own fate: a ship has run ashore and an unidentified body floats in the shallows nearby. In voiceover, Rubio’s friends and family, stock-still among the region’s treacherous mix of jagged slopes and post-industrial sprawl, speak gravely about his disappearance, but also of an ominous red moon that is able to summon a sea monster and potentially restore the lives of those lost at sea. As we quickly learn, these are the last inhabitants of a land in which reality and local legend are blurred to the point of indecipherability.

Red Moon Tide (Lúa vermella, 2020)

As Patiño slowly surveys the surrounding area in a combination of glacial tracking shots and meticulously arranged tableaux, certain of these figures reveal themselves to be other shipwreck victims caught in a kind of earthbound purgatory. In and around the region’s vacant homes and abandoned factories, which provide the film’s few indoor locations, these men stand immobile in anticipation of a call that may never come – a notion borne out by the arrival of a group of witches (meigas, in Galician mythology), who drape each victim in a white sheet, giving literal shape to the film’s themes of suspended time and indeterminate spaces. One particularly cryptic voiceover passage outlines the temporal dimensions of this ghostly world: “That was not yesterday. That was a hundred years ago. And it will be tomorrow again, and in a thousand years.”

Unlike much of Patiño’s prior work, the images in Red Moon Tide are left largely untouched by either in-camera or post-production effects. (One may recall the negative-reversal imagery of Night Without Distance, 2015, or the colour separation and desynchronisation techniques used in Strata of the Image, 2014.)

Instead, a new focus is placed on the words of his subjects; adapted from interviews with real-life locals, the disembodied narration evinces a poetic and enigmatic sense of reverence for the stories that shape Galician culture, functioning less as dialogue than as a broader meditation on memory and the slippery nature of consciousness. By separating speech from image, Patiño allows the film’s aural and visual properties each to quietly echo and enhance the other, creating a heightened sensory experience with fewer aesthetic abstractions.

Red Moon Tide (Lúa vermella, 2020)

All of which makes the film’s slow progression and discreet formal disruptions so powerful. Against a horizon bathed in crimson light – Patiño’s only blatant concession to visual trickery, achieved through the use of a coloured filter – the promised red moon finally rises, opening up the floodgates of a nearby dam, which spills out in an extended overhead shot that pushes the introspective mood to breaking point.

As an image of renewal, it rhymes with the emergence of the sea monster, which, however preordained, is bracing to behold as it swims in majestic rhythm with the sound of subtle drone frequencies. (The evocative sonics are credited to Juan Carlos Blancas, who did similarly intricate work on fellow Spaniard Eloy Enciso’s Endless Night, 2019.)

When I interviewed Patiño following Red Moon Tide’s premiere at the Berlinale, he invoked Romain Rolland’s notion (coined in a 1927 letter to Sigmund Freud) of an “oceanic feeling” – a “sensation of eternity” when a person is one with the external world – to describe the experience he hopes his films create for the viewer. Here, that sense is generated through the unique depiction of, as Patiño calls it, “inner time”, a contemplative space for character and audience alike which, in its suggestion of a temporal synergy between one’s self and one’s surroundings, in turn evokes Tarkovsky’s notion of ‘sculpting in time’, as well as the philosopher Gilles Deleuze’s concept of the ‘time-image’, in which the onscreen event unfolds sensorily and is invested with metaphysical import. These are lofty reference points, but they’re comparisons that Patiño’s larger project supports and that Red Moon Tide quietly extends into uncharted new realms.

Further reading

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Sight & Sound Summer 2021

In our current (double) issue we hand centre stage to 100 hidden heroes of cinema who have shaped film history. Plus Ben Wheatley on In the Earth, Emma Seligman’s Shiva Baby, Victor Kossakovsky’s pig portrait Gunda, Jane Fonda interviewed, Limbo and refugees on film, and a look back at My Own Private Idaho. Available in print and digitally.

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