“The train was on time”
Writer/director Daniel Augusto definitely cultivates a dark tone for his short film O Sinaleiro [The Signalman]. Between the quiet isolation of the titular character (played by Fernando Teixeira) and the almost supernatural occurrences surrounding him, you can’t help but conjure ideas of some spectral evil looming at his door. The monotony of his job—logging an on-time train as just that—places him on a path towards psychological upheaval, transforming what we see into nightmarish hallucination as easily as believing it to be reality. Abstract and devoid of explanation, Augusto provides us something to sink our teeth into. But I’m not quite sure there’s much to decipher besides its aesthetic mood without a cursory knowledge of its source material.
I admittedly found myself enjoying the short more after reading up on Charles Dickens‘ The Signal-Man for which it is based. Having the background of what this character is and his state on a subconscious level helps traverse the story’s path. Because watching his routine interrupted by an overflowing toilet achieves greater meaning in the depths the text gives us. As is onscreen it’s merely a bad luck circumstance to be cleaned up. The chance meeting with a mysterious gentleman on the tracks he operates taking place the same night as an accident is simply a strange coincidence. But his fear is real when translating the Morse code from another signalmen down the line despite the stakes not quite matching. The final scene therefore comes out of nowhere—a tragically horrific end that’s perhaps too vague.
If I had read the story first I think I might love the adaptation. As a film on its own, however, I question how open-ended everything remains. The atmosphere is palpable, Teixeira’s performance authentic, and the art direction superb (the little matchstick men are great), but Augusto flips through them too quickly for my taste. His signalman’s fear amplifies with physical shaking and paranoia without introducing the cause as more than happenstance. The toilet trouble and the man on the tracks don’t necessarily feel scary as much as odd; the lack of witnessing the accident lessens its own impact as a warning for something more on the horizon. Only when I think about it in the context of Dickens’ text do I see the danger. I wish there were a way to see it on its own.
Courtesy of TIFF