Reprint: Arrebato / Rapture (Iván Zulueta, 1980)

I’ve recently had cause to consider Iván Zulueta’s underground classic on two occasions – someone emailed me to ask whether I had any information on the availability of the film (this is the subtitled version I directed them towards), and I happened to spot that it will be screening in Manchester at ¡Viva! Spanish and Latin American Festival in April as part of their focus on films from the Transition. These two things led me to read over what I’d written about Arrebato on the old blog – it was one of my favourites of the films I wrote about there – and as a result I thought that I’d briefly suspend my break from blogging in order to revisit it here within my Reprint series.
The original post (my 200th on the old blog) was written in December 2014 as my contribution to Shadowplay‘s annual event – The Late Show: Late Movie Blogathon – which focuses on films from the twilight of people’s careers. What follows below is a revised version of that piece.

Iván Zulueta’s career as a filmmaker was short – he made only two feature films – but if he is little-known outside of Spain, his influence is nonetheless far-reaching within subsequent generations of Spanish filmmakers. He had spent time in London and New York during the 1960s and 70s, and was strongly influenced by both the Carnaby Street vibe and psychedelia of the former and the underground filmmaking (specifically Warhol) and grubby aesthetic of the latter. His first feature – Un, dos, tres, al escondite inglés (1970) – was a pop musical about a group of music fans attempting to boycott a song contest (one that sounds similar to Eurovision), and is often described as taking inspiration from Richard Lester’s films with The Beatles. He made a multitude of abstract and experimental Super 8 films during the 1960s and 70s: a large proportion of them were either confiscated or lost, but several can be found online (they are all dialogue free – Frank Stein (1972), Masaje (1972), Aquarium (1975), En la ciudad (1976-77), A Malgam A (1976), and Leo es pardo (1976)). From the 1970s onwards he was also a film poster designer for a range of Spanish directors including José Luis Borau (his mentor), Manuel Gutiérrez Aragon, Luis Buñuel (Zulueta’s poster for Viridiana (1961) – a film the Franco regime declared didn’t exist – can be seen on the wall of José’s apartment in Arrebato) and Pedro Almodóvar (including one of my favourites, Entre tinieblas / Dark Habits), and also for the San Sebastián Film Festival (Zulueta’s father had been the Festival Director between 1957 and 1960). Zulueta made two further shorts – some ten years after Arrebato – but when he died in 2009 (at the age of 66), he had spent years in the wilderness in thrall to heroin addiction and a self-imposed exile in San Sebastián (his home city).
Given the emphasis placed on his visual focus by those interviewed in tribute programmes made after his death (almost everyone describes him as incredibly knowledgeable about all aspects of art and design, but someone who never read books), it is perhaps appropriate that my first experience of watching Arrebato was a copy with no subtitles and murky sound (one of El País‘s collection of DVDs): I clung to the images like a life raft.
To summarise the plot: In the present (Madrid in the late 1970s), film director José Sirgado (Eusebio Poncela) returns home to find that his actress ex-girlfriend Ana (Cecilia Roth) – a heroin addict like himself – has returned to his apartment after several weeks of absence. In between arguing with Ana and sliding into a drugged oblivion, José starts listening to a recording – and eventually watching a film – sent by an old acquaintance, Pedro (Will More), a younger man who is obsessed with shooting film. A lot of the film plays out in flashback as the recording causes José to remember his first strange encounter with Pedro, and also their second meeting a year ago (when Ana was also present). In the last section of the film, José goes to Pedro’s apartment to try to solve the mystery contained within the recording and accompanying film.
I can usually get by without subtitles but here I think I would have struggled even with clearer sound because the script is full of gnomic utterances, and More’s delivery is deliberately strange (Pedro’s voice is usually exaggeratedly deep, but rises when he becomes excited or ‘enraptured’ and increasingly childlike) with large parts of the film conveyed via his voiceover. The desire to lose yourself in something (or someone) is a common enough impulse but in Arrebato this ecstasy is tinged with horror, suggesting that both cinema and drugs (the chosen routes into the sublime) are vampiric forces. The film is full of moments of beguiling but unsettling beauty (cinema as enchantment) in conjunction with a building sense of claustrophobia. The latter is generated via the film’s limited locations (José’s apartment during the course of that one night, the country house where he first meets Pedro, or the bedroom of Pedro’s Madrid apartment), the action frequently taking place in the shadows (faces usually illuminated by the flickering lights of projectors), and aurally through certain repetitive elements on the soundtrack (a recurring theme features the sound of children’s toys in an uneasy lullaby, but there’s also the insistent clicking of the timer on Pedro’s camera).
The film’s title refers to a state of being that the central trio – or at least the two men – are seeking. As Pedro explains it, what they are pursuing is that sense of being enraptured in something that we have as a child, when we could spend hours focussed on one thing and in our own little world. That an object is involved is important because for Pedro this state relies upon the act of looking, but all three of them also use drugs as their gateway into rapture. Zulueta described these symbolic items as “an object that condenses a whole series of things that have shaped you” [I’m assuming that this quote comes from one of the documentaries on the subtitled DVD – I didn’t note the source in the original post]. Pedro tests the (rare) people he meets by trying to find a) their special object, and b) how susceptible they are to being enraptured.

José’s object is an album of collectible stickers depicting scenes from King Solomon’s Mines (Compton Bennett and Andrew Marton, 1950) (from Zulueta’s own childhood collection), for Ana it is a Betty Boop doll, but for Pedro it is (or will be) his own Super 8 films. His sharing of his film collection during José’s first visit becomes a performance of grimaces and pained squeals as he hasn’t managed to capture the precise (but ephemeral) thing he is after. By José’s second visit – between which times José has sent the younger man a timer for his camera so that he can record his time-lapse images with more precision – Pedro has accomplished his filmmaking intentions as far as he can at home, and in the aftermath of the visit will set out into the world to capture new images. Much like José and Ana he will slide into a world of sex and drugs (the latter eventually curtailing the former), but Pedro’s dissatisfaction with those experiences leads him back into his cinematic obsession with an even greater intensity. At the point at which he sends the recording and film to José, he has come to believe that his Super 8 camera has taken on a life of its own, and is vampirically taking his life force from him while simultaneously allowing him to reach an ever-heightened state of rapture.
Even during my somewhat incomprehensible first viewing, the charisma and chemistry of the central trio was plain to see. Eusebio Poncela – already associated with nonconformist roles at this point – was the most experienced of the three, with a certain amount of blurring between life and art given his participation in the movida (a cultural phenomena in post-dictatorship Madrid; some of its key figures, including Zulueta, appear in Pedro’s Super 8 film of a party). Despite José’s uncertain disintegration (the vampire film he has just directed is turning into a disaster, his relationship with Ana is mutually-destructive, and he’s in a downward spiral with drugs), Poncela’s stillness is the calm centre around which the more volatile other two circulate. In the reunion documentary (included on the subtitled DVD – filmed in 1998 and therefore doesn’t feature Zulueta, who was in self-exile at that point) both Poncela and Will More state that their character is Zulueta’s alter-ego – more likely the two represent different aspects of the director. More was also part of the same social crowd and had appeared in one of Zulueta’s Super 8 short films; the role of Pedro was written specifically for him. By turns childlike and sinister, More’s performance is unsettling with deliberately exaggerated vocal tics and gestures, and a breathily insinuating style of delivery on the recording. More so than José or Ana, Pedro is someone on the margins by inclination rather than social circumstances (in terms of class and money he seems comfortably off, and unlike the other two he doesn’t work). Arrebato would be More’s only significant role – he accompanied Zulueta into heroin addiction and cuts a ravaged figure in recent footage.

Although the film is undoubtedly ‘about’ the men, Cecilia Roth is nonetheless equally memorable in what was her first substantial film role. She says during the reunion documentary that as the youngest member of the team (she was 23 at the time of filming, whereas her co-stars and director were in their 30s) she was worried about playing a character older than herself – a woman “with a past” as she describes it, whereas she feels that Arrebato was “the beginning of my own past”. Roth (like Poncela) obviously went on to significant roles with Almodóvar, but arguably she has never been as incandescent as she is in the sequence in Arrebato where she dresses as Betty Boop and sings along to the record player. It is an overt and conscious performance by Ana – she stands in front of the projector screen, with the light of the projector acting as a spotlight – and an attempt to win José back (although undercut, as I noticed on my second viewing, by the fact that the song she sings is the one that plays in the scene where he introduces her to heroin). She is so alive that she jolts the camera into movement – in the only travelling shot of the film, and possessing a dynamism that is otherwise only seen in Pedro’s films, the camera follows her as she dances towards José (the original post has a clip of the sequence at this point – I no longer have the file and haven’t been able to replicate it because VLC isn’t working for me). It’s a genuine ‘a star is born’ kind of sequence, in someways at odds with the rest of the film but perhaps all the more effective for that.

Arrebato‘s reputation as a film maudit was established from the outset. It was turned down by both Berlin and Cannes on the basis of its pro-drugs attitude (although that is arguably a matter of perception given that those onscreen are devoured by their addictions) and it had a limited release in Spain, sinking more or less without a trace. In the documentary Iván Z (Andrés Duque, 2003)* – a series of conversations with Zulueta, who by then was on methadone and attempting to reenter the film business (without success) – he says that he was burnt out after Arrebato but had known while he was making it that it would likely be his only chance. He is animated when discussing cinema (and his admiration for David Lynch) and very candid about his addictions, but falters when talking about his then-current situation (he was back living with his mother in the house he was born in and likens it to The Exterminating Angel (Luis Buñuel, 1962) – the sensation of being stuck in the same place but not knowing how to get out). A sense of loss accumulates in the recurring assertions of his former colleagues that he was a genuinely exceptional talent, and a unique figure in Spanish cinema, who could have had an international career.
The influence of his second feature film however has had a far greater reach than one might suppose for a film that never had a proper theatrical release (and belies the ‘cult’ label that is often attached to it). Pedro Almodóvar is the most obvious (and possibly facile) example. He was a near contemporary (his voice appears in Arrebato – he dubbed Helena Fernán Gómez) and his 1980s films share certain aspects of Zulueta’s aesthetic style (and indeed most of Arrebato‘s cast). But there’s a freshness to Arrebato that survives, and its influence lives on more than thirty years later. My first viewing of the film was just a couple of weeks before I saw El Futuro (Luis López Carrasco, 2013) at the Bradford International Film Festival in April 2014, and it’s a clear point of reference for the latter (confirmed by the director in this interview).


Arguably Arrebato‘s current reputation within Spain means that it is now part of the acknowledged pantheon of Spanish cinema; in 2016, when the film magazine Caimán cuadernos de cine surveyed 350 film writers (critics, journalists, festival programmers, film historians, academics – no filmmakers were asked) to create a top 100 Spanish films, Arrebato occupied 5th place (ahead of it were Viridiana (Luis Buñuel, 1961), El espíritu de la colmena / The Spirit of the Beehive (Víctor Erice, 1973), El verdugo / The Executioner (Luis García Berlanga, 1963), and Plácido (Luis García Berlanga, 1961)). Writing in 2002, and arguing that the film deserved better than to be fetishised with the label ‘cult’, critic Ángel Fernández-Santos summarised Zulueta’s film thus:

Arrebato is a dark instance of pessimism. It is intricate cinema, unfathomable at some points of its crooked and tumultuous journey. And it is, above all, cinema in a raw state, disturbing, painful and great, that situates us with rare elegance in front of a vigorous and devastating image of the dissolution of conscience and the search for death. The film was conceived and built – in a long and bumpy creative process – by a complex and refined filmmaker, a one-off, gifted as few are to perceive and express feelings of desolation and despair. [my translation – the original is here]

So not exactly a laugh riot, and it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. But it stayed with me for the seven months between my first viewing and when I tracked down a subtitled version in order to write about it for Shadowplay’s blogathon (the fact that I kept thinking about it was part of the reason I decided to write about it in that context). My second viewing – with the luxury of subtitles to clarify some things (but not everything) – elevated it further in my consideration, and underlined the sense that Zulueta’s subsequent disappearance was a loss for cinema. Arrebato is a haunting film, one that gets under your skin. If you get the opportunity to see it, whether on DVD or at a festival screening, take it.

* Iván Z is also included on the subtitled DVD, but can be found on YouTube with subtitles – I particularly recommend it because aside from showing Zulueta talking lucidly about himself, rather than his being filtered through other people, it also features examples of his paintings, illustrations and film posters (some of them are stunning).

Watched in February

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Plus, Mining Poems or Odes (Callum Rice, 2016) [a short film – free to view on Vimeo].

I’ve decided that I should continue watching films for the Carlos Saura Challenge even if I’m not currently writing (this may mean that I end up reshaping the project, but I’ll cross that bridge later – better to persevere in some form than give it up), hence my watching his two most recent films.

If you’re interested in Spanish language films, Festival Scope is currently showing a selection of films from FICUNAM 2017 (all free to view until 13th March) – expect at least a couple to appear in my equivalent post next month.

Montaña en sombra / Mountain in Shadow (Lois Patiño, 2012)

Mountain in shadow from lois patiño on Vimeo.

One of my favourite short films from the last few years has been put up on Vimeo by its director. I saw Lois Patiño’s Montaña en sombra / Mountain in Shadow on the massive IMAX screen at the Bradford International Film Festival in 2014 where it accompanied Patiño’s feature debut, Costa da Morte / Coast of Death – in my 5-star review of the latter, I mention the short in the last paragraph. I feel privileged to have seen it in an ideal viewing environment originally, but it’s also nice to have the opportunity to watch it again (even on a small screen).

 

Stella Cadente (Lluís Miñarro, 2014)

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Lluís Miñarro’s opulent and riotous Stella Cadente (which means ‘falling star’) is being released on DVD in the UK next week courtesy of Second Run.

On the surface an account of the short reign of King Amadeo I of Spain in the early 1870s – although this is a film where surfaces can be deceptive – Stella Cadente also functions as a metaphor for contemporary Spain and its ongoing state of crisis. But this is far from being a fossilised heritage drama – the afore-mentioned deceptive surfaces are manifested via a state of Wonderland-like limbo within the walls of the palace, and Miñarro laces the film with perverse humour and surreal juxtapositions (if I recall correctly, Àlex Brendemühl’s Amadeo is dancing to the anachronistic sound of 1970s French chanson in the above image). I was rather bemused by the ‘busy-ness’ of the film when I saw it at EIFF in 2014 (my Eye for Film review can be found here) but liked it sufficiently to import the Spanish DVD the following year – its chief pleasures are sparky performances by Brendemühl and Bárbara Lennie (who plays Amadeo’s wife, María Victoria), and the sense of reality being challenged by illusion in the layered theatricality created by Miñarro (for me, this confusion of reality versus illusion – in combination with the royal milieu – brought Calderón de la Barca’s La vida es sueño / Life is a Dream to mind, although the director didn’t seem overly keen on the comparison when I asked about it during the Q&A). As I noted in my review, the film also includes my favourite subtitle of that year: “Set these rabbits free!”

Second Run’s presentation also includes one of Miñarro’s documentaries, Familystrip (2009) – while his parents have their portrait painted, the director converses with them about their lives, respective childhoods, raising a family in post-War Spain, and the social changes undergone by the country during their lifetimes. It combines oral history with a deeply affectionate cine-portrait of his family. You can buy the DVD directly from Second Run (it is also available from other retailers).

10,000 Km (Carlos Marques-Marcet, 2014)

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Carlos Marques-Marcet’s feature debut, 10,000 Km (also known as Long Distance), won him the ‘Best New Director’ award at the Goyas in 2015 – the film is available to view on Mubi UK for the next month. The use of social media and new technology onscreen is often cringeworthy but Marques-Marcet and co-writer Clara Roquet on the whole manage to utilise familiar forms of online interaction in a naturalistic way, and create an immersive experience – technology becomes both a point of connection and something that heightens different kinds of distance when a couple (Natalia Tena and David Verdaguer) try to maintain a relationship over the course of a year apart. The film is essentially a two-hander, and I wrote in my review from 2014 that:

Tena and Verdaguer make what could have been an inert series of monologues (we often see them as the other character would, meaning that they are talking direct to screen) into conversations with dramatic and emotional heft. […] That we see neither of them outside of their respective domestic spaces illustrates both the hermetically-sealed nature of Alex and Sergi’s relationship (they are each other’s world) and the limits of their interactions when they are so far apart. The time difference means that their communications are rarely spontaneous, instead becoming a rote series of appointments that make the lack of physical contact glaringly apparent – it is difficult to slow dance with a laptop (although they do try).

The rest of my review can be found at Eye for Film. Take advantage of the film’s appearance on Mubi because a) it’s a well-made romantic drama that is imbued with emotional veracity, and b) there is no UK DVD (although the Spanish DVD has optional English subtitles).

Reprint: Tren de sombras / Train of Shadows (José Luis Guerin, 1997)

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I originally wrote about Guerin’s Tren de sombras / Train of Shadows on the old blog in February 2014. I am substantially revising that post for this entry in my Reprint series because I have partially rewatched the film this evening (I watched the opening 10 minutes or so and then the last 40 minutes) and subsequently reconsidered at least one element of my earlier piece.

I originally watched Guerin’s film because it had been mentioned multiple times in relation to El Futuro / The Future (Luis López Carrasco, 2013), in Spanish coverage at least, and having not seen the film I wasn’t sure what was being referenced. But it could also stand as a companion piece with Aita (José María de Orbe, 2010) – which I watched for the first time shortly before watching Tren de sombras – focusing as it does on a combination of (apparent) archival footage and a grand house. The connection to El Futuro is the recreation of an era, not simply representing the past but constructing a film that looks as if it was made in the era depicted. Guerin’s film is almost wordless and the only contextualisation for what we see are the opening intertitles explaining that in 1930, amateur filmmaker Gérard Fleury made a home movie in the grounds of his house, a film that would be his last as he died a few months later in mysterious circumstances while filming on a nearby lake. The intertitles also tell us that film had been in such a fragile condition that it was in no state be projected but that it has now been restored.

Back in 2014, I thought that I had misunderstood the French intertitles (there were no English subtitles on the format that I watched) precisely because I initially thought that they had managed to reassemble the 1930s family film when in actual fact Guerin recreated it (something that becomes apparent as the film progresses – so after a certain point I thought that I had confused ‘restored’ and ‘recreated’). As it happens, my French was better than I thought and the opening intertitles are a deliberate piece of misdirection on Guerin’s part. Conceived when the centenary of cinema was approaching, Tren de sombras was a manifestation of Guerin’s desire to explore the origins of filmmaking and a kind of cinematic immersion. The film’s title is a reference to a line from Maxim Gorky’s essay ‘The Kingdom of Shadows’ about his experience of watching moving pictures (by the Lumière brothers) for the first time in 1896 (there is an English translation of that text, here). It might be more accurate to say that Guerin created – as opposed to recreated (because I’m not sure that there is any Fleury family film other than the one shot by Guerin) – a realistic representation of 1930s filmmaking. It’s a testament to the quality of this reconstruction that it is perfectly believable as a 1930s film – indeed a number of reviewers have taken it at face value and refer to the film as making use of ‘found footage’.
The film opens with this 20 minute ‘home movie’, showing Fleury’s extended family at play in the grounds of their home and the surrounding countryside in the summer of 1930. We then switch to ‘the present’ and the nearby town (now in colour), before moving into the grounds of the Fleury home and then the house itself (the interior of which is not seen in the 1930s segment). It is at this point that Guerin’s film foreshadows aspects of Aita; although this house is evidently inhabited, the attention to textures, patterns, reflections – as well as the use of doorways and mirrors to frame our view and the ‘layering’ of the image (by which I mean that the depth of field alters, allowing us deeper into an image) – reminded me of the later film. This sequence is extraordinarily lush with rich colours and patterns in the interior of the house and verdant greenery outside – in conjunction with the music on the soundtrack, it put me in mind of the kind of magical otherness that I associate with Powell and Pressburger productions. The detailed layering and framing hints at what is yet to come, as Guerin and his camera turn detective and revisit the 1930s footage to peel away its layers and reveal secrets within.

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In almost a cross between Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966) and the kind of analysis that the Zapruder film has been subjected to, Guerin slows, replays, freeze frames, and enlarges different sequences of the film to follow the sightlines of those on camera. This gives new emphasis to the play of shadow and light at the back of the image and brings hidden connections and relationships to the surface. Guerin effectively plays with the language and form of cinema on the screen. The film is broken down to its constituent parts and then put back together with the grain of the image acting as a ‘witness’ to the supposed veracity of what we’re presented with, when in fact it is another layer of the show constructed by the director (the film was degraded by hand during the post-production and editing stages). The sequences that ‘reveal’ the most (shadows of simmering passions and traces of a possible love triangle) are then performed in front of us anew in colour, which is quite jarring. The use of colour in the recreation is the point at which the fakery seems apparent – I am slightly confused that those reviewers who take the 1930s footage as genuine don’t notice that it is the same actors (namely Juliette Gautier and Ivon Orvain) who appear in colour, although with some deliberately exaggerated elements of costume and make-up. In the colour section the camera moves between the different fields of view within the image, illustrating the layering of the image (and again demonstrating the importance of depth of field). As with Aita, at the end of the film I felt like I had just watched a magic show.

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There is a French boxset (this one) containing Guerin’s Innisfree (1990), Tren de sombras, and Unos fotos en la cuidad de Sylvia / Some Photos in the City of Sylvia (2007) with optional English subtitles on all of the films.

Update: Carlos Saura Challenge

Carlos Saura Challenge

I am changing my tactics in relation to working my way through Carlos Saura’s filmography. I ground to a halt more than a year ago having originally started in 2013 but only having watched 10 of his films (around 25% of his entire career). I have since watched a couple more but haven’t written about them – I think I need to have a time constraint involved in order to keep going but not one so rigid that it becomes a routine chore. I also think that what I’ve done to date has been written over such an elongated period of time that I would be better to start again from the beginning with a different format. What I have in mind is similar to the Almodóvarthon I had on the old blog in August 2011 with something published on each of the films in a concentrated time frame – but, given that Saura has made almost twice as many films as Almodóvar, realistically it will need to be spread over longer than one month (maybe 5 – 6 weeks). It will take me several months to watch all of the films and write something about each of them so that they can be posted sequentially within the designated weeks. Longtime readers will know that my place of employment goes through some sort of managerial disruption virtually every summer, so – taking that into consideration – November seems like a reasonable month to aim for (all other non-blog circumstances permitting). [UPDATE: events referred to in this post mean that November will not be possible – so it will likely be in early 2017 instead]

Review: Beautiful Youth (Jaime Rosales, 2014)

Hermosa juventud

Desistfilm‘s 10th issue – titled ‘From the Pixel to the Glitch: Foundation, materiality and fictions’ – has arrived online today. It’s an exploration of the use of digital media in experimental film or how digital media is used by filmmakers to experiment with different textures and formats. Mónica Delgado (editor of desistfilm) writes that:

In this issue we want to explore about digital media and its variations in experimental cinema as variations of this media. How can digital texture open new paths in cinema opposed to analog cinema? How are the so called internet artists working the digital media? How about the glitch art or impressionist digital art? But we’re also interested to explore films about certain technologies and their expressions: glitch, memes, gifs, which circulate in Twitter or Facebook… how are they material to talk about youth sensibility in the new century? From intimate drama to wacky horror cinema, digital media from its materiality and virtuality in fiction.

I haven’t had the chance to take a proper look yet but there are four central articles in the dossier and an assortment of other related articles, profiles and interviews throughout the site. There is also a reviews section, which is where my own small contribution can be found. I have reviewed Hermosa juventud / Beautiful Youth (Jaime Rosales, 2014), which doesn’t initially have much to overtly connect it with desistfilm‘s thematic focus but the film undergoes a dramatic stylistic shift about halfway through wherein Rosales adopts an innovative approach to depicting the ‘digital generation’. My review is here.

 

Reprint: La madre muerta / The Dead Mother (Juanma Bajo Ulloa, 1993)

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This is another in what will be a series of ‘reprints’ of posts that were on the old blog. I have edited / partially rewritten this one (and played around with the images) but the original from March 2011 can be found here. I wrote two posts about La madre muerta on the old blog, and the other one – an ‘anatomy of a scene’ post that looks very closely at a specific set piece from early in the film – is also likely to be revisited on here at some point.

Director: Juanma Bajo Ulloa
Screenplay: Juanma and Eduardo Bajo Ulloa
Cast: Karra Elejalde, Ana Álvarez, Lio, Silvia Marsó
Synopsis: During a burglary, Ismael (Elejalde) casually murders a woman and shoots her young daughter, Leire. Fifteen years later, Leire (Álvarez) is mute and has the mental age of a three-year-old. By chance Ismael sees Leire in the street and becomes convinced that she can recognise him. He decides to kidnap her…

‘La madre muerta is the story of a killer without scruples who steals chocolate from a little girl, and of how the little girl takes back the chocolate from her (now) victim years later’ –Juanma Bajo Ulloa (DVD booklet [my translation])

I first watched La madre muerta more than fifteen years ago on a Tartan Video VHS*. The scenes / aspects that I remembered most strongly before I revisited the film were: the prologue (the burglary); the scene in which Ismael tries to kidnap Leire and knocks himself out with the chloroform he has prepared for her grandmother (this is the set piece that forms the basis of the other post mentioned above); the ‘Aguadilu’ scene where Ismael pretends to be a clown to try to make Leire laugh; the intrepid investigating nurse hiding down the side of the wardrobe; and the image of Leire chained to the bed with a dog collar. Watching the DVD, I was surprised that I had no memory whatsoever of the early scene in the bar, which is incredibly violent and nasty (leaving us in no doubt, if we had any after the prologue, that Ismael is capable of anything). But perhaps the other scenes stuck in my mind because they are unsettling in a subtler fashion.

From the beginning of the film director Juanma Bajo Ulloa plays with both genre conventions and perspectives – i.e. the (physical) angle from which we view events is used to radically alter our perception of what we have seen – to continually wrongfoot the viewer. As Mark Allinson observes, the prologue has all the hallmarks of a thriller and the viewer’s ‘generic expectations’ (2003: 147) initially cause us to think that the woman we see being woken up by the intruder’s noise will be the protagonist of the film. But we barely have time to register the woman’s presence in the same room as the intruder – we hear her, rather than see her (she says “No hay dinero” [“There is no money”]) – before the intruder raises and fires the shotgun, and the woman (and mother of the title) drops to the floor (Ismael steps over her with barely a glance). Allinson suggests that our assumptions then turn to the possibilities of the investigative crime thriller, but that is also not to be – and the character who later thinks that she is in a detective film (Blanca – played by Silvia Marsó) does not triumph in her endeavours (Bajo Ulloa chirpily comments on the audio-commentary at the ‘end’ of that narrative strand that “in real life, the good don’t win” [my translation]).

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In Sight & Sound, Leslie Felperin pointed out that ‘throughout the film, an edit or a camera angle obscures a view’ (1996: 46) with the intention of making events and motivations ambiguous; there are several sequences in the film where the camera takes on a character’s POV in such a way that the viewer is misled. The most infamous of these is the sequence where Blanca – the nurse who cares for Leire at the medical daycare clinic – breaks into the house to rescue Leire but then finds herself trapped. She hides down the side of the wardrobe in the room where Leire is chained to the bed. When Ismael enters the room, the camera continually returns to Blanca’s POV. Initially she cannot see him but leans forward when she hears a zip being undone and sees Ismael’s back as he stands alongside the bed, with Leire kneeling on the bed in front of him: from Blanca’s POV it looks as if Ismael is forcing Leire to perform oral sex on him. The camera then cuts to what is effectively Leire’s POV (in front of Ismael) and – in a darkly comic ‘reveal’ – the audience sees that he has been surreptitiously feeding her a bar of chocolate (both of them have a sweet tooth) that is hidden in the front of his jacket (the source of the zip noise). As Leire sits back on the bed and Ismael takes a seat, we then see a shot of Maite’s (Ismael’s girlfriend, played by Lio) eye at the doorframe – she is seeing the same scene in a mirror angle to Blanca (she is also behind Ismael but on his other side). Both women then clearly see Leire eating chocolate and come to the same conclusion as to what has transpired out of their line of sight (they take the chocolate to be a ‘reward’ – both mutter “hijo de puta”, although for slightly different reasons).

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That sequence not only misleads the viewer for a comic payoff but also plays on the deep unease felt by the audience on account of the ambiguous ‘attraction’ that Leire holds for Ismael. When he goes in search of her (after his accidental sighting), his initial perspective is through a hedge and the above shot encapsulates how Ismael treats Leire as something to be looked at and watched – the framing through the gap in the hedge gives the image a peep show quality. Likewise, Maite also finds the manner in which Ismael watches Leire to be disquieting – she becomes increasingly jealous and questions Ismael’s feelings for the girl when she discovers him asleep in a chair opposite Leire’s bed. His excuse (he was worried Leire might escape) leads Maite to suggest chaining her up, which only increases the tension: as Nigel Floyd said in his review, ‘the fact that Leire, a helpless child trapped in a woman’s body, is fetishistically manacled to a bed lends a dangerous, almost perverse erotic edge to some scenes’. This comes to a head in the ‘Aguadilu’ scene where Ismael tries to make Leire laugh – he is preoccupied throughout the film by the fact that she does not smile or laugh – by putting on silly voices, making noises and painting his face like a clown. In a somewhat desperate final attempt, he decides to tickle her during which he grabs her breast, an action that was innocently intended (consciously, at least) but which visibly shocks him because he is confronted by the fact that Leire may have the mind of a child – and Álvarez’s performance of wide-eyed wonderment during the sequence is brilliantly observed – but she has the body of a woman. Although she has previously shocked him by returning his gaze – in a second sequence where he looks at her through the hedge at the clinic, a noise attracts her attention and she looks straight at him (in response, he runs off) – this scene is the first time that he acknowledges to himself that he views her as something more than a child (he furtively looks over his shoulder after he touches her breast, as if someone might catch him in the act – also an acknowledgement that what he’s doing is wrong) and also as something more than a hostage. He looks at her sadly, and then moves away from her: he is unable to look at his own reflection when he sits back down in his normal chair / observation post, and he slams the mirrored wardrobe door shut.

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That he is given a moment of self-awareness is an illustration of the film’s humane treatment of its characters; although Ismael is not allowed off the hook, he is offered the chance of redemption. The film has a fairytale quality – something that it shares with two of Bajo Ulloa’s other films (Alas de mariposa / Butterfly Wings (1991) and Frágil / Fragile (2004)) – but Ismael is allowed to be something other than just a monster. Karra Elejalde’s performance is central to this. In an introductory piece in the DVD booklet, director Nacho Vigalondo – who cast Elejalde in his directorial debut, Los cronocrímenes / Timecrimes (2007) – describes the actor and his performance as “creating a character that, like the rest of the film, is a balancing act between ‘costumbrismo’ [something very specifically local] and impossible cliché, summed up in the red painted face that is as much circus-like as it is demonic. Your father’s friend, and an extraterrestrial. At the same time” (my translation). Bajo Ulloa says on the audio-commentary that his main problem after writing the script was finding the right actors to play the two central roles. Álvarez is outstanding as Leire, and utterly believable as the child trapped in a woman’s body (you do not see her ‘acting’ at any point), but Elejalde has to walk a tightrope of charm and menace while also carrying off some darkly comic sequences. The film was not warmly received by Spanish critics (the El País review – here – is so scathing that it will make you wince), but the English reviews that I have found (in Sight & Sound [not available online – but in the March 1996 issue], Time Out and Empire) took a more positive view of the unsettling combination of the tender and the twisted that the film manages to pull together through plot, character, and performance.

*There is no UK DVD but the re-mastered 3-disc ‘edición coleccionista’ – released in Spain in 2008 – has optional English subtitles for the film.

Reprint: Aita (José María de Orbe, 2010)

As I mentioned last week, over the course of the next month or so I’m planning to (re)post some pieces that were written for the original Nobody Knows Anybody blog. It was only really in late 2013 that I started to be happier with my writing – almost all of the pieces that I’m planning to reuse were written in 2014 or later. I will be rewriting/editing some of them, but this one is actually untouched (it was originally published in February 2014) apart from the fact that I’ve taken the opportunity to learn how to make GIFs and have replaced some of the original images accordingly. The only thing that I’ve changed my mind about in relation to Aita is in the penultimate paragraph – I don’t think that the bedroom within the footage is necessarily the room that the image is projected in, but because the way in which one image flickers over the top of the other that was how it seemed to me on first viewing.

The film relates to my recurring fascination with architectural spaces that are presented as repositories for memories, or that otherwise have their history written into the fabric of their construction (a theme that will reappear in a couple of the other posts that I’m planning to revisit), but its play of light and shadow also results in a magical and slightly otherworldly film (and one of my favourites that I’ve seen in the course of writing the blog).

 

Aita (José María de Orbe, 2010)

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This film casts a spell as a once grand, still-impressive house is depicted as a repository of memories that sporadically flicker into life on its faded and peeling walls.
Aside from a group of schoolchildren being shown the house part way through the film, we learn little of its history or the specifics of the people who once lived within it. It is old and has been expanded at various junctures with different historical tastes and styles being integrated into what nonetheless feels like a coherent space. That said, we do not really gain a sense of the geography of the house; rooms are shown in isolation and it is difficult to work out where they are in relation to each other. Likewise, the film is made up of a series of windows, mirrors, and doorways that frame the interiors but reveal little: they frame what we see inside but offer no outer view (we only see the grounds from the outside, although they are sometimes half glimpsed through shutters or net curtains), and the sense grows of the house as an enclosed, hermetically-sealed, entity. The passing of time has marked its surface, as nature has reclaimed every nook and cranny, vines like veins that take life rather than sustain it (and add to the sense of the house being sealed); a scene where the caretaker (Luís Pescador) starts to remove them from the facade seems like it is breathing life into a suffocated surface even while bits of cement audibly crumble and fall away. Renewal and death. Death and renewal.

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Little by little we work our way into the inner life of the house. The film starts outside with a discussion between two archaeological workers about the neglected state of the house and garden, which ends with the observation that there are signs of someone trying to take on nature and reclaim the house from its grasp. The rest of the film follows this caretaker as he commences a concerted effort to bring the house back to life (to what end, or why now, is not something we discover). It is a film with many textures as almost every wall we see is peeling or is in some way marked, the remnants of lives and previous incarnations left on the surface: the house is littered with tactile reminders of times past. Director José María de Orbe unfurls the house for the spectator, utilising layered spaces within single shots that are revealed or concealed by light and shadows (the use of light is beautiful) via the very deliberate opening and closing of doors and windows as the caretaker makes his way around the building.

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The film largely unfolds in silence apart from the diegetic sound of the local environment and the physical actions of those onscreen, and a series of short conversations between the caretaker and the local priest (Mikel Goenaga). Those conversations – about bones found in an archaeological dig in the grounds of the house (which is next door to the church), the senses that last longest after death, and a terrible white light (unseen by us) that starts to plague the caretaker – point to what the house will reveal as its layers are peeled back and raise the issue of whether some things are better left undisturbed. To begin with, it seems that ‘breathing life’ in to the house just involves repairs and sprucing it up, but about halfway through the running time something unexpected happens and the house becomes a living entity in and of itself, a repository of memories (of the house, its inhabitants, and the locale). As a storm lashes the house in the dark, and the rain running down the window ripples down a tiled wall in shadow form, making it seem as though the wall is trembling, the house suddenly flickers into life (the sound of the rain still on the soundtrack).

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The images projected onto surfaces of the house – mainly the wall of the grand hallway and that of a small bedroom – are history of the house (which can be seen within the footage) and its locale. Blending archival footage of the Basque Country (which is where the house is although only the archaeologists at the start speak in Basque; the caretaker and the priest converse in Castilian Spanish) with film of the house and the eponymous Aita (the Basque word for ‘father’) (Pedro Mayor) shot in the same style, the deliberately degraded and manipulated film stock (Antoni Pinent has the credit ‘manipulación de 35mm’) recounts sadness, suppression and the hidden, and the forgotten ghosts that populate the interstices of history. In the booklet that accompanies the DVD, the director says that they wished to create a new dialogue between the fragments of archival film and the house. Images that you would expect from early cinema (people enjoying themselves – we see a beach and later men dancing) are interspersed with sights that have a sinister undertone (priests and men in white coats seeming to torment children and young people in different contexts) and those of destruction. Looking at the end credits, the sequence showing men consumed by smoke (which finds an echo of the sequence where the caretaker smokes the woodwork of a grand fireplace) as they vainly attempt to tackle an enormous fire, may be footage from the bombing of Guernica (the town is named but there is no date given – if the fragments are listed in the order in which they appear, then ‘Guernica’ matches this section); if it is footage of the aftermath of the bombing, the deliberate degradation of the celluloid (the warping of which ripples, tremulously, across the surface of the image), with the effect of seemingly layering fire over fire, obliterating the past, is an eloquent and elegant indictment of the act.

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But the footage that specifically relates to the house is both mysterious (we are given no context) and threatening (the small bedroom, which already generates a sense of foreboding, is seen within the footage); the spectral beings that appear in those ‘memories’ seem to relate to the white light seen by the caretaker (who sleeps in that bedroom when he stays at the house). In one sequence the ‘light’ obscures a girl’s face, rendering her anonymous and denying her an identity (again, a suppression), but in the sequence relating to the bedroom, it passes from the spectre to the man in bed, engulfing his head (an attack). The lack of contextualisation lends the images an almost stream-of-consciousness poetry: vestiges of the past witnessed by the house are replayed on its walls without an obvious narrative structure. The related short film (50 minutes) Aita, carta al hijo (2011) is essentially a reworking of the feature but shorn of all conversation scenes and adding a voiceover (as well as some additional shots such as rooms viewed from a different angle and a few more inserts of archival footage). The voiceover (performed by the director himself) is that of the current owner of the house, who has been sent the papers found by the caretaker in the aftermath of a break-in, and takes the form of a letter written from a father (the father / aita we see in the fragmented archival footage?) to his son asking that he try to break from the cycle of violence and hate propagated in the region as if it is a tradition to be handed down through the generations. The lack of human interaction in the short (although it does include the footage of the atheist caretaker apparently finding some solace in listening to the harmonies of the church choir) adds an additional layer of melancholy.

But the mystery and melancholy are not affectation and neither is the poetry of the film. It is rare that a film feels utterly original, but that was how Aita felt to me. I recommend watching it in darkness because the play of light and shadow is magical.

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