There’s something about aging that pushes people toward introspection. Maybe it’s knowing there’s more time behind you than ahead, or maybe it’s the sum of joys and losses added up over the course of a lifetime or the missed opportunities and regrets that nag at you. Whatever the inspiration, Marcel Proust captured the nostalgia and the vivid life of human memory in his 7-volume masterpiece, In Search of Lost Time (À la Recherche du Temps Perdu), first published in France between 1913 and 1927.
In the 2020 documentary Lost Time (El Tiempo Perdido), a group of elderly Argentinians meet regularly in a café to read and discuss Proust’s novel. They read passages out loud to each other (from pages printed with large-size font) and comment on the writing and the story, finding deep connections between his descriptions and their own lives and memories. Proust’s book might have been written in French, but the translation into such elegant Spanish, read aloud in the lilting sway of the Argentine accent provides the perfect conduit for his words.
Proust seems to have invaded the lives of the group’s members. A woman crossing the street feels for a moment that she’s in Paris. Another woman recalls being served a madeleine cookie with her afternoon tea every day while she was in a hospital. The group was started in 2001 by a man, Alberto, whose daughter was named Albertina, the name of the main female character in the book. Their motivation is to inspire each other to continue reading Proust—and only Proust.
Alberto repeats the anecdote about his daughter’s name at least three times over the course of the film. Others repeat themselves as well. Still others talk about their vision problems, hearing aids and hip replacements. The camera captures their wrinkled faces and crinkled hands. One remembers that Proust said trying to reach an agreement with the body, presumably the aging body, “is like talking to an octopus.”
But there’s symmetry in their aging bodies and Proust’s theme of lost time, just like there are allusions in this film to lost arts (reading, café societies, slow-moving documentaries) and lost attention spans (the main remaining audience for books and films like these may well be older people). The group’s members prop up old-timey photos of their loved ones on the table while they read about accepting that ‘absence’ comes after ‘presence,’ that after a loved one dies you might still discover new things about them or only remember gestures like a particular smile.
Much like sitting down with a novel, this film requires effort – it asks that you settle in, get past the first chapter, focus and then let go entirely and be carried away by the story and its characters. The film’s director, Maria Alvarez, has made no cinematographic attempts to entertain or inform viewers beyond what happens in the café reading group (besides street scenes shown every 20 minutes or so and set to wistful flute music). Black and white cinematography narrows the focus and removes distractions even more.
But Alvarez has allowed or nurtured (and edited together) a million small connections between the novel and the reading group. One member describes Proust’s method of revealing character details little by little, and that happens here as well. You might wish to know more about their lives outside the café, but as with any artistic work, we’re only given what the creator wants us to know, hear or see. Alvarez seems particularly interested in these themes – her other documentaries are also about older people’s arts-focused pastimes and memories.
When the group finishes the last paragraph of the last volume, they flip a few pages forward and start volume 1 all over again. Reading and re-reading Proust seems to provide them inspiration, companionship and also comfort, perhaps in dealing with their own aging, memories and losses. Sometimes the words inspire rowdy conversations; other times, tears and nods of recognition.
Proust died at age 51 and the last volume of the classic work looks back as if from the perspective of an old man, one member of the group notes. Of course, 51 is young to this group, and it’s another reminder of how little time we actually have on earth and how quickly it passes. A hundred minutes of that dedicated to this film is time well spent.