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DEATH AND THE COMPASS (director/writer: Alex Cox; screenwriter: based on a short story by Jorge Luis Borges; cinematographer: Miguel Garzon; editor: Carlos Puente; music: Pray for Rain; cast: Peter Boyle (Erik Lonnrot), Miguel Sandoval (Treviranus), Christopher Eccleston (Zunz), Pedro Armendariz Jr. (Blot), Alonso Echanove (Novalis), Zaide Silvia Gutiérrez (Ms. Espinoza/Harlequin), Martin LaSalle (Dr. Yarmolinsky); Runtime: 85; PSC/ KHB; 1996)
“A weird and obscure thriller…”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A weird and obscure thriller, based on a 13-page detective story by Jorge Luis Borges. The South American Borges was a former film critic, and his writings easily lend themselves to visualizations. Director/writer Alex Cox (Three Businessmen/Repo Man/Highway Patrolman/Sid & Nancy) sets the film in an imaginary big city (he uses Mexico City for his location shots) under totalitarian rule that is riddled with crime and corruption. The death part of the title comes from the murder of an Hasidic scholar (LaSalle), while the compass part comes about in the use of geometry to solve the crime. The film’s settings of magnificent architectural structures play a significant part in the lurid mystery.

The film might not make sense until the final moments.

Death and Compass was originally a 55-minute TV show, commissioned by the BBC as part of a series of Borges’ teleplays. But when more funding emerged, it was expanded to an 80-minute feature film and the story was made more inaccessible. The film is filled with ideas and beautifully surreal dream-like settings, but there is no excuse for the story to be so muddled. Its lack of clarity does not add any intellectual dimensions to the artificial mystery it creates, as it tries to recover a sense of order by the film’s end via an explanation by the narrator. But the effort is too little and comes too late to save the filmmaker from being deemed as pretentious — as he deliberately chose to make things unclear for the viewer.

The film is shot in the present, past and future tenses. The future tense tells the outcome of the mystery and uses jump cuts which adds to the confusion of what happened, while the present is shot without any cuts in the editing. The past tense is indicated when the film changes from color to black-and-white, as when showing the crime committed.

A frustrated retired police commissioner, Treviranus (Miguel Sandoval), narrates the tale going over his apparent guilt over what fatally happened to one of his outstanding but unorthodox inspectors, Erik Lonnrot. He reviews a case of some grisly murders handled by the inspector some 45 years earlier.

The case of the death of the Hasidic scholar Dr. Yarmolinsky appears to be a botched jewelry robbery, but Lonnrot finds clues to link it with a cabalistic ritual sacrifice killing and is assisted along those lines by a nerdy editor of a Yiddish newspaper, Zunz (Eccleston). This investigation sets Lonnrot off the tracks of the obvious killer, against the wishes of the police commissioner, and onto an investigation of mystical Hebrew lore having to do with how many letters there are in the word God. There are two more murders and at each crime scene there are left mysterious religious messages for the detective to decipher. These serial killings form a triangle. After the detective is aided by Ms. Espinoza, a seer with a compass and a map of the city, she tells him the murders will stop now. But he’s not satisfied and believes the murders will form a rhomboid, with the last point being in the south where another murder will take place. The south is off-limits to the police, it’s a criminal haven run by the notorious gangster Red Scarlach. But this does not stop the detective from meeting his fate by following his hunch and going to that part of the city into a ghostly edifice with the untrustworthy Zunz.

I’m still looking for a more rabbinical explanation about what happened, but I must confess that even though the film failed because it was too muddled it, nevertheless, was a literate and interesting failure. It was still superior to most conventional Hollywood thrillers, but is only for a select audience. Probably the kind of film for cultists who coo over Peter Greenaway films.

REVIEWED ON 12/15/2001 GRADE: C +

Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”