Photo | Courtesy of TIFF
A political and provocative meditation on the purpose of remembering
The first feature length film from writer-director Alireza Khatami, Oblivion Verses, provocatively questions the act of forgetting national travesty. The film centres on a nameless undertaker (Juan Margallo) and his quest to provide a proper burial for a woman left behind after the government conceals the bodies of protesters at a morgue.
As the undertaker embarks on his hero’s journey, he seeks help from a hearse driver (Manuel Moron), a gravedigger (Tomas del Estal), and grieving mother (Itziar Airpuru). Along the way he must overcome such struggles as the morgue’s labyrinthine archives, flying whales, and forces which seek his life. Despite an admittedly morose plot, Khatami successfully weaves his narrative with wit and the fantastic to create a symbolic work, with strength lying not only in story, but in the images produces.
Khatami is intentional about his film’s ambiguity. His characters have no names, the events happen in an undisclosed time period, and the location is unknown. Khatami even guards his film against a definite setting by casting actors with a wide range of Spanish accents. By situating Oblivion Verses nowhere in particular, Khatami suggests that the events of the film can happen anywhere. The themes Khatami examines and the images he creates do not apply only to the Latin American experience but to human experience.
One significant image is the comparison between the undertaker, who cannot forget, and the records officer he visits who cannot remember. This juxtaposition relates to Khatami’s greater plot: the government cover-up. The records officer, whose job involves recording people’s existence, be it through birth certificates or other papers, cannot remember why the undertaker visits him only moments after he is told. Similarly, the government forces the country to forget or to refuse to acknowledge the existence of the protestors. Most characters consent to this national amnesia, except for the undertaker.
Following in the tradition of magical realist works such as One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Oblivion Verses seeks to shock viewers with interjections of fantasy, drawing attention to the absurdity of how similarly real-life events have often been treated. History and our present time is filled with examples, whether overt like Argentina’s 1976 Dirty Wars, which the film draws inspiration from, or Canada’s missing and murdered Indigenous women. The fantastic and the absurd in Oblivion Verses challenges the viewer to consider their own reaction to national travesty. Will they forget? Or will they remember, like the undertaker, and do something about it?
The main plot of Oblivion Verses is straightforward, though it at times become muddled with a secondary plot. The actors deliver strong performances in both comedic and dramatic capacities. Stylistically, this film is a unique experience. Khatami and Heberlé create beautiful images and scenes which are thought-provoking and poetic. For a debut film, Khatami has provided a narrative that is both compelling and inherently political—seeking to make a statement rather than just provide entertainment—and succeeds.