Review: Night on Earth (1991)

Night on Earth (1991)

Directed by: Jim Jarmusch | 128 minutes | comedy, drama | Actors: Gena Rowlands, Winona Ryder, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Giancarlo Esposito, Rosie Perez, Isaach De Bankolé, Béatrice Dalle, Roberto Benigni, Paolo Bonacelli, Matti Pellonpää

It must have been a nice idea in 1991, a year in which reality TV did not yet play a significant role. ‘Night on Earth’ has five short films, each featuring a taxi ride somewhere in the world, in which the relationship between driver and passenger is the theme. Today only interesting because the creator is Jim Jarmusch, and you can see a young Winona Ryder with the experienced Gena Rowlands (‘A Woman under the Influence’) in one shot. Quite valuable, then, but Joris Linssen’s taxi has already broken down, if you know what I mean. Even reality TV has become a negligible niche in the overflowing media bucket of 2017. The opening act involves a drive in Los Angeles with Rowlands as the casting agent and Ryder as the trashy driver. Although the whole thing seems to have been shot in a short time, it is one of the tastiest courses of ‘Night on Earth’ because of the acting violence. Arthouse had a distinctly low-budget character in 1991, but Gena Rowlands is haute cuisine, an actress with indestructible charisma. Ryder is practicing for later. Yet it is charming, because of the clashing cultures: a girl who refers to the cartoon character Popeye when she talks about men and a lady of standing who recognizes something in it.

Film 2 is about black Brooklyn, and is especially intrigued when a foul-mouthed Rosie Perez appears as a passenger, while the driver and a previous passenger have switched roles because number 1 cannot drive. Funny but no more than that, and then you start paying attention to the soundtrack with soft jazz that you can blindly pull off the shelves in these kinds of movies. And it shouldn’t. This part of the film offers an image of a time of Brooklyn, which is far from being refurbished. And it’s quite moving to see a driver pay the passenger for a taxi ride.

Sketching people is what Jarmusch does in ‘Night on Earth’. While you are still in development, we are already switching to Paris. Here too light in the darkness (all rides are at night), because who do we see there: Beatrice Dalle (‘Betty Blue’) as a blind passenger. Once again, acting quality makes the difference, with a gorgeous Dalle making herself up as her eyes roll away. Good actors don’t need words, they are a story themselves. Not to disparage Jarmusch, because he is a master of atmospheric drawing – necessary for the limited mise en scene of a taxi interior.

Also in Rome we see an old acquaintance: Roberto Benigni (‘La vita è bella’) as a driver on duty. A comedian who performs his act without passengers. The intriguing premise of an empty taxi makes the atmosphere of nighttime Rome all the more striking, although you can hear Benigni talking through it all the time. Pierre Wind is also a good cook, shall we say. When there is finally a cleric in the car, the contrast with the passenger quickly gets boring. The reverend thinks so too, with fatal consequences.

Finland is the eccentric end of this taxi series without highlights. In snowy Helsinki, the gloomy driver has to deal with drunks and a conversation about life unfolds. Finnish pessimistic is about refusing to love your newborn child because it is dying, served up so dry that it becomes tragicomic. No well-known actors, but finally a story that lasts. ‘Night on Earth’ is a bit strange, like the music of Tom Waits who is allowed to open and close the film.

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