Night on Earth is the fifth feature film directed by Jim Jarmusch, and it was released in 1991. In it, there are five episodes unrelated to each other and set in various parts of the World: Los Angeles, New York, Rome, Paris and Helsinki. Back in 1991, Jarmusch already was a fairly established name in the world of independent cinema and had already started shooting his various Coffee and Cigarettes short movies in black and white that only years later would be released as a film (in the meantime, it was possible to see some of those in the cinema introducing other films, sort of Pixar-style with the shorts that precede the films). In short, the American director was focusing on short films in this period! And how are those contained in Night on Earth?
The themes are the usual ones, those already explored in Permanent Vacation, Stranger Than Paradise, Down by Law and Mystery Train. The director explores the lives of marginalized people, of those who are tired of life, who are disillusioned, who only see the ugliest and dirtiest side of the American and, in this case, European cities they live in. For example, in the episode set in Paris forget to see the Eiffel Tower or Montmartre! It’s true that there’s a glimpse of the Colosseum in Rome, but mostly the action takes place in squalid and hardly memorable streets. So let’s talk about the five episodes.
In the first one, a young Winona Ryder rides a taxi in Los Angeles while smoking a cigarette after another. Thanks to his dialogue with a talent scout who just got in town (Gena Rowlands), we discover that she has very clear ideas: his dream is to become a mechanic! Nothing, not even the promise to work in the cinema industry, will change her plans. Jarmusch plays with the expectations of the viewer who expects a happy ending with the young woman entering the world of entertainment but… that’s not what happens! Winona Ryder, without too many ceremonies, decides to continue with her life without caring about the promise of a life of luxury and an easy fame. The final dialogue is brilliant.
In the second episode, the German Helmut (Armin Mueller-Stahl) drives another horrible taxi, this time in New York. He has to bring, or rather be brought by, Yoyo (Giancarlo Esposito) to Brooklyn, a place where apparently few taxi drivers want to go at night. This is almost a tender story, with the African American, who’s marginalized in his own city, trying to help the German immigrant, a fish out of water who still likes to recall that he was a good clown before leaving his country.
The third taxi driver is a boy from Ivory Coast (Isaach De Bankolé) who works in Paris. After a terrible ride with some racist Cameroonians (Pascal N’Zonzi and Emile Abossolo M’bo), he has to bring home a young blind girl (Béatrice Dalle). This is an excuse to reflect on racism, given that for her the color of the skin doesn’t matter, while the taxi driver assumes that for the majority of people it does (and the first part of the episode demonstrated that the social classes and above all money are even more important than skin color for racism). Not to mention the prejudices that emerge about blind people! The delightful ending only emphasizes how much being able to see doesn’t necessarily make up for the deficiencies due to blindness…
And then here we are in Rome, with Benigni taxi driver! His monologues are non-sensical at first (clearly improvised by the Tuscan comedian), and then become a sort of dialogue with an ill priest (Paolo Bonacelli): his confession which should be almost dramatic is funny, and then things get even more comical with the surreal ending of the priest abandoned on the bench. It can be said that the theme addressed here is love, even if declined in a grotesque and amusing enough way provided that you like Jim Jarmusch’s dry sense of humor!
The film ends in Helsinki with a story that could have been perfectly featured in an Aki Kaurismaki film, which in fact is also referenced by Jarmusch with the names of the characters. Three drunks (Kari Vaananen, Sakari Kuosmanen and Tomi Salmela) get on Mika’s taxi (Matti Pellonpaa) and tell the story of one of them who’s very sad for a number of reasons (but never as much as the taxi driver). The theme in this case is death and there’s very little to laugh about…
The film lasts two hours but feels like ten minutes long. All shot at night, both the scenes in the cars (shot by putting the camera in place of the engine and pulling the car around the city towed to another vehicle) and those outside are beautiful. The soundtrack composed by the friend and now almost permanent collaborator Tom Waits (who also returned to work with Jarmusch in the recent The Dead Don’t Die, 2019) is nothing short of splendid. So, Night on Earth is about life, racism, death and love. It treats these themes seriously but without forgetting the comical side of things. I highly recommend it, in case it wasn’t clear! Ciao!