The depths of night in a city — the hours between, say, midnight and dawn — have their own community, their own sense of time. If you’re awake, you’re probably working; if you’re working, it’s because you have to; if you have to, you’re possibly an immigrant, taking jobs the native-born can afford to sleep through. The streets are empty yet there’s a solidarity of night clerks and custodians, security guards and cab drivers; young people breaking free of parents and bedtimes. The minutes stretch out like Silly Putty. Anything can happen, or very little.
“Ghost Tropic,” available as a virtual screening via the Brattle Theatre, is a movie where very little yet a great deal happens. The third film from the Belgian director Bas Devos, it’s about a cleaning lady crossing Brussels by foot in the frigid wee hours, trying to get home. In her journey, she meets other denizens of the night, and their interactions are filled with hesitancy and hope. That’s it; that’s the movie. It gave me a greater feeling of peace than I’ve had in months.
It’s also very slow, as befits a film unfolding in the lost hours. You have to adjust your metabolism to its somnolent pace. You know how when you’re very tired, you can find yourself staring at an object for a very long time? That’s the first shot of “Ghost Tropic”: a small, homey living room at sunset, slipping incrementally into darkness. A prelude.
We next see Khadija (Saadia Bentaïeb) taking a midnight meal break with her co-workers at the office high-rise they’re cleaning. Devos cuts in at the end of someone’s comic anecdote; the crew laughs and Khadija can’t stop laughing, because the story’s funny and then because her laughter itself is cracking her up. She’s in her 50s, with a headscarf, a Muslim from North Africa or the Balkans, but the scene instantly takes her out of a type and into individuality.
Khadija boards the train home at the end of her shift, as she always does, and the camera stays with her for long minutes as the rocking of the car lulls her to sleep. She wakes up at the end of the line; the trains have stopped running. She can’t raise her son on the phone. It’s too cold to gripe. She starts walking.
“Ghost Tropic” has been shot (by Grimm Vandekerckhove) on 16mm Kodak stock that brings out the grain of Brussels’s nighttime architecture; the effect turns the buildings into mysterious swirls of darkness. The film is unexpectedly beautiful and hushed, the soundtrack unadorned except for occasional passages of Brecht Ameel’s acoustic guitar and the cries of nighttime birds. A security guard (Stefan Gota) at a closed shopping center lets Khadija in to use the ATM, but there’s not enough in her account to call a cab. A woman (Maaike Neuville) closing down a convenience store lets her sit inside while she finishes her tea and offers a lift partway. Allowances are made by and for these citizens of an unseen city, these nighthawks at a vast urban diner. What they share is so much greater than their differences.
The film isn’t explicitly political, but it doesn’t have to be. The most pointed sequence involves the cleaning lady passing by the house of a former client; it’s empty, but she peers in and sees a young Arab man (Ghasam Mousavi), a squatter, who raises his finger to his lips. Shortly thereafter, a Belgian man (Willy Thomas) out for a late walk grills her as to what she’s doing there with a sense of ownership as invisible to him as it’s obvious to her and to us. (When he finds out she’s a cleaning lady, he asks if she has any free days.)
“Ghost Tropic” acquires aspects of poetry as it goes. Those bird cries on the soundtrack — are they real or piped in from some distant beach? Toward the end of her trek, Khadija sees her teenage daughter (Nora Dari) out with a group of friends, drinking and hanging out in an urban park. Instead of intervening, she hangs back and spies on the group, and Devos parks his camera close to her face, allowing us to guess at a mother’s feelings toward a daughter disappearing into a host culture. Fear? Envy? Memories of her own adolescent disaffection? The close-ups that follow of the daughter, lost in her own nighttime daydreams, feel like a benediction.
The theme, when all is said and done, is kindness — kindness and an openness to a world that can bless you as easily as crush you. Whenever it feels as if “Ghost Tropic” is leaning on its heroine’s saintliness, it reminds you that she’s traveled far and hard to give herself a new life. But that journey may have also opened her heart to fellow travelers, which ultimately include all of us, whether we’re awake at 3 in the morning or not. At one point, Khadija sneaks into a hospital to check in on the freezing homeless man (Guy Dernul) she called the EMTs to rescue earlier in her trek. The nurse takes her to the wrong room — she assumes a Muslim woman must be visiting her Muslim husband — but both Khadija and the filmmaker sit by this sleeping stranger’s bed and consider him at length, too. No one is to be left behind.
“Ghost Tropic” is a slender 85 minutes, but it expands in your mind even as you watch it. It ends on a note or two of mystery, as if Khadija had one more person (or dog) to rescue before she could call it a night. The sun rises on that selfsame living room, and then we’re on a tropical beach, the daughter racing ecstatically toward the surf with her friends. I don’t know what it means either. I just know that day has finally come.
Written and directed by Bas Devos. Starring Saadia Bentaïeb. Available for virtual screening at brattlefilm.org. In French, with subtitles. 85 minutes. Unrated (as PG: underage drinking)