Films that sell love and yearning often enable characters to reach a serene, comfortable place alongside the object of their affection, ending with a unified vision of strength and hope. But In the City of Sylvia is an altogether different beast, avoiding exposition, character development, and closure while detailing the fragmented emotional state of an unnamed young man searching for a woman he briefly met six year before. His motives are muddled, if not elusive, and one begins to distrust the very notion of expectation as director Jose Luis Guerin guides this character down a long, voyeuristic quest to re-imagine the past.
In the City of Sylvia fills the frame with the action of everyday life, layering the motion of bodies, the sounds of voices, and the pitches of a city constantly in flux. But this is not a combustible vision of city life, but a slow, meticulous look at a man trying to remember the feelings behind a past moment. As the young man (called El on IMDB) sits at a coffee shop waiting and watching, Guerin invades the space of the other occupants with his camera, lingering on obscured faces, reflections in windows, hands curling hair, lips sipping coffee – the permeation of close-up action. Point of view shifts, and the setting turns into a jazz concert of unexpected occurrences, bursts of dialogue, and pure silence.
When El believes he’s found the titular Sylvia, he follows the woman for what seems like hours. Guerin plays with time and space, shortening gaps, lengthening streets, holding on locales long after the principal players have left the frame. It’s one of the most thrilling chase sequences of all time, and by its finale, the film has once again subverted expectation. We cannot ever fully understand the reasoning behind El’s story, but his pain, and doubt, and creepiness, and heartache, become incredibly personal.
So In the City of Sylvia allows El to wait in peace, hoping to catch a glimpse of a woman who might not even exist in a world full of life but short on immediate connection. The process is illuminating, charting an act of strange devotion words could never describe. Time drifts off course with little need for happy endings or reassurances, using the smallest reminders of nostalgia as breadcrumbs for a character obviously lost in space.