'Aleph': A Borges-Inspired Odyssey Around the Globe [ND/NF Review]

A consummate man of letters, Jorge Luis Borges frequently receives the vague honorific of being a ‘writer’s writer,” often a fancy way of saying that his work is too complicated to adapt to film. Borges’ fascination with symbols and language, our imperfect tools for conceiving the world, manifested in stories where literary sleight of hand turns the mundane inside out to find the miraculous, where maps overtake the territory they represent and one walks in labyrinths without end. With no lack of ambition, Belgrade-born, Brooklyn-based filmmaker Iva Radivojević has embraced the difficulty of visualizing some of Borges’ abstract concepts in her second feature, “Aleph,” a thought-provoking experiment that takes the viewer around the world physically and intellectually. 

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Borges describes the Aleph as a point in space that contains all other points.  He gives over a page of description to this vision of infinity, using vivid examples from around the world and some of his favorite images like “a splintered labyrinth” and “all of the mirrors on earth.” Radivojević’s film (which employs Borges’ idea of the Aleph, but jettisons the rest of the story) uses a narrator (poet Anne Waldman) to establish the idea of “the Aleph, the starting point of a dream,” before taking viewers successively into the private lives of ten characters, speaking ten languages in ten different countries. Starting in Borges’ hometown of Buenos Aires and traveling to Greenland, the Sahara, Kathmandu, and New York City, among other places, we meet a variety of characters questioning their place in the world.  It’s difficult to articulate reasons for the connections between the characters, but in Radivojević’s hands, it makes intuitive sense. 

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Each is trying to adapt to something specific, whether young love or life out of prison, but also to the general difficulty of being alive. One young woman worries she doesn’t feel enough; another worries she feels too much; it seems to amount to a similar feeling.  Divided by so many things, all the characters are united in their dreaming and their multiple visions of themselves in the world. Even as each scene is different and operates by different rules, the disparate characters are aligned in their philosophical questioning and by recurring visual motifs that Radivojević and DP Jimmy Ferguson use to link the sections both to each other and also to Borges’ work – a body winding through endless corridors, a series of selves looking out a barred window.

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If most Hollywood stories are about finding yourself, “Aleph” would rather you lose yourself, letting go of the ego and looking on humanity from a cosmic remove. ‘All in one is a profoundly spiritual idea as well, explored in most faiths around the world, a dimension Radivojević is more enthusiastic about exploring than Borges. Borges was a humanist but also a gently satirical one.  In his story gazing upon the Aleph engendered ‘infinite wonder, infinite pity,” yet, this transcendent experience is immediately put aside for a petty moment of revenge. Radivojević’s “Aleph” lacks that black humor but is more sincere – she wants her audience to really have that moment of transcendence. [A-]