An estranged couple meets on the day of their daughter’s funeral and discusses the causes of the breakdown in their marriage in Victor De Almeida’s The Ashes You Leave Behind.
The last short film we reviewed by director Victor De Almeida was the tremendous ‘M’, a Batman villain-inspired crime thriller that garnered 5 stars. Back then I noted that ‘M’ directly referenced Fritz Lang’s 1931 bona fide masterpiece ‘M’ starring Peter Lorre as a child killer and that it takes some real guts to blatantly riff on classic cinema. I also mentioned how going up against 90 years of cinematic history proved De Almeida wasn’t short of confidence or self-belief. Well, his self-confidence has certainly not diminished in any way because his latest short film sees De Almeida taking on cinematic heavyweights Ingmar Bergman and Woody Allen with a black-and-white two-handed chamber piece about grief.
The opening certainly reminded us of the aforementioned Bergman, with a black fade-in, then a static shot held for a moment’s reflection on the actress Ruth Lass; there are no “named characters” in this cast, they could be you or me. Lass plays the mother of a recently deceased child and the ex-wife of husband Jay Rincon – also the father and also quite nameless. The opening shot of her quietly smoking tells us a great deal about her state of mind as she sits at a table calmly contemplating her life. As her partner becomes involved in the conversation, she becomes more caustic, more sarcastic, and angrier towards him. Lass is very spikey in these moments, delivering embittered words with venom, the agony etched on each line of her face. A mother’s pain is emphasised by De Almeida’s decision to use medium close-ups and quick cuts between the two leads not only highlights Lass but also the anguished reactions from Rincon with his angry retorts that are sometimes just as hurtful.
Erdvilas Petras Abukevicius’s cinematography also highlights the emptiness of the rooms and the once warm and loving home our couple is sitting in. They are on either side of the table, centre of the frame, and in front of an arch. The room is cold, grey, and unhappy. A once strong family unit far apart and no longer whole. But they are still connected, all be it barely; their lives and voices have a particularly British deprecation. The scene in the bathroom where the wife takes a bath yet doesn’t flinch while the ex-husband is in the room shows how close these estranged partners still are. It feels real and when the husband breaks down and reaches for his wife’s hand we feel it too. There were troubles in this relationship that were hidden for years, and now during a tragedy, it is guilt that brings them together. We understand why the relationship had to end and even though it caused great suffering, separating was the best thing for everybody. We also believe we know why they become closer during this 30-minute short film.
So here we have a Victor De Almeida film, but I’m talking about Woody Allen, Ingmar Bergman, and traditions and influences. His self-confidence is once again well-placed with this assured and unassuming drama. The use of black and white photography is always a bold choice; often it gives films a somewhat timeless quality, while at other times it can come across as cheap and low-budget. The latter isn’t the case here, as the quality of imagery is pure, while the colour choice not only brings him closer to Bergman but also symbolises the ashes of the title.
With The Ashes You Leave Behind, De Almeida manages to treat his themes and the relationship with scenes that have an elegant economy of expression. A moment of clarity while Cass sings to an old song or the scenes around the table are all handled in a way that etches the feelings of this once strong family in just the right tones of resentment, disbelief, and defiance. He also continues on his journey to becoming, in my humble opinion, one of the finest new directors currently working in film.