A minor hubbub erupted at the screening I attended of Rob Tregenza’s unfashionably still, life-as-it-unfolds drama Gavagai. While most of the film’s dialogue is spoken in English, by Austrian and Norwegian actors, several scenes, some quite lengthy and impassioned, play out in other languages without subtitles. The question at issue: Was this a mistake or the director’s intention? Since the title is a term coined to illustrate the indeterminacy of translation, and since the story itself concerns issues of translation — the lead, a nameless bloke played by Andreas Lust, is working on Chinese versions of his wife’s favorite works by Norwegian poet Tarjei Vesaas — I bet my money on the latter.
Supporting my position was the fact that, as an artist, Tregenza is after the kinds of truths that apparently can best be reached via the testing of an audience’s patience. Gavagai’s minutes-long first shot finds Lust disembarking a train at a small Norwegian town’s station, making his slow way up a path and then past some trees, out of our sight, and then turning around, re-entering our field of vision, trekking all the way back and then enjoying a well-deserved rest on a bench. Tregenza’s framing and staging is so subtle in its deft precision that it can be read as invisible; the uncharitable will carp that Gavagai plays as if Tregenza (who serves as his own cinematographer) just turned the camera on and told the cast to wander around.
It’s little surprise, then, that later confirmation regarding the missing subtitles came from a publicist. Yes, the subtitles have been omitted by choice, so as not to distract from the performances. The scenes without them communicate as clearly as the others, perhaps even more so. I invested them with what I thought they might mean, which is what we do with all language anyway.
The story concerns three relationships: Lust’s character is haunted by a vision of his late wife, who follows him, in robes and a geisha’s white makeup, around the countryside, on a beguiling ferry trip and, most memorably, in a steam room, where he fights to imagine her absence. He bears her ashes and will scatter them in a scene of delicate, rain-spattered urgency.
His first acquaintance in Norway is an open-for-suggestions entrepreneur (Mikkel Gaup) with lots of free time who agrees to drive the traveler around. As they journey together, the driver faces his own deep investment with an estranged lover (Anni-Kristiina Juuso) with whom he argues in an untranslated confrontation. Lust occasionally speaks the words of the poet Vesaas, which matter more than those uttered and not subtitled; at these times, the film, written by Tregenza and Kirk Kjeldsen, becomes poetry itself.
Tregenza tasks the audience with the hard work of understanding. What’s the import of the long shot where Juuso walks a distance down a path, slows down and then turns around to walk back? That’s up to you, who — even if you’re sympathetic to Tregenza’s project — just might be trying to shake off a nap. Gavagai offers moments of sublimity unlike anything you’ll see in most contemporary movies. It also tests the patience. In that key respect, it’s much like life: You have to throw yourself into it to reap its rewards.