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DIRECTED BY: Iván Zulueta
FEATURING: , Will More, Cecilia Roth
PLOT: A horror director whose work and relationships are in decline due to his heroin addiction receives a package from an eccentric acquaintance containing a mysterious short film.
WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: The Spaniards in our audience would never forgive us if we simply disregarded this one.
COMMENTS: As we learn from Mike White’s informative commentary track to Arrebato, director Iván Zulueta was an experimental filmmaker (with one prior feature to his name)—and, at the time he made this movie, a functional heroin addict. This background may explain why the two main characters in Zuleta’s sophomore feature are a filmmaker who is working on his sophomore feature, but seeing his work sabotaged by his growing drug problem, and a younger experimental filmmaker who appears to seek advice from the established director, but actually has more to teach than his mentor. In Arrebato the “raptures” of filmmaking and of opiates become entwined to the point where it’s impossible to decide which serves a metaphor for the other. An oblique version of the Christian sense of “rapture”—being snatched from earthly existence and spirited away to paradise—may also be at play, further complicating matters.
The film’s structure is unusual. It begins with Pedro sending a mysterious audiotape and film strip to José; the tape will supply a running narration throughout the film that explains much of the backstory. Listening to the tape induces two flashbacks describing the characters’ previous encounters. We meet Pedro in the flesh in these flashbacks, and his portrayal by Will More is… curious. On tape, his voice affects an unnaturally raspy delivery; in person, it’s high-pitched, like a kid’s. We first meet him in his child-man persona, throwing a childish fit when an experiment in filming a tree is briefly interrupted. He then hangs around in the background silently, with a bug-eyed stare, or shows up holding a creepy doll. When he takes cocaine, however, the drug paradoxically slows him down and turns him into a coherent, if heavy-lidded, adult; his hairstyle even changes from an unkempt bushy mop to a slicked back greaser ‘do. Later, the script will give Pedro the chance to act in a parody of a motorcycle fetish film, and to languish as a strung-out junkie (in withdrawal not from heroin, but from the ecstasy of film). More’s crazy performance is sort of like a Spanish operating under a heavy dose of barbiturates. Some will find it adds pleasantly to the weirdness; I thought it was distractingly goofy.
It’s not always clear, without paying attention to contextual clues (i.e. the progression of José’s addiction), what time period we’re in; still, the movie’s reputation as “confusing” is greatly overblown. The narrative, in fact, is simple to follow; the real confusion is thematic. This is one of those movies that has too many ideas, and might have done better to focus on just one or two. To the central idea of a merger between drug and filmic rapture states, we have a series of inserts of Pedro’s experimental short films (mostly in the herky-jerky time-lapse style); philosophical excursions revolving around notions of rhythm and pause; coded homoeroticism (Pedro and José lounging together in bed); inconsistent references to vampirism; Pedro’s oscillations between childhood and adulthood; a female character voiced by a pre-fame Pedro Almódovar; the suggestion of Pedro and José as a split personality; a Betty Boop-themed seduction; and all of the various senses of “rapture” constantly crowding each other out. These colliding ideas and gambits harmonize inconsistently: the exploration of José and Ana’s disintegrating relationship works well as a subplot, but some bits, like Pedro’s detour into depravity through a punk rock-scored rough-trade threesome in an elevator, don’t make much sense. It almost goes without saying that there’s no rational explanation for the ending. Arrebato is a mostly delightful, sometimes frustrating mess, best seen as Zulueta’s onscreen self-psychoanalysis, performed in a post-Franco atmosphere of loosened censorship that encouraged ecstatic excess. Any meaning the tale suggests disappears into the spaces between frames.
Arrebato was beloved by many Spaniards (and championed by Almódovar), but was unavailable outside of Spain for many years— and rarely screened even there. That changed in 2021 with the release of a restored version of the film to U.S. theaters, followed by a DVD and Blu-ray from weird/queer distributor Altered Innocence, via their arty “Anus Films” (groan) imprint. Visually, the print is grainy rather than pristine, appropriate for a movie in which the physicality of celluloid is immanent: the shooting, editing and processing of film is central to the plot. The experimental soundtrack (by Zulueta, with a contemporary punk anthem thrown in) is exceptional. The only special feature is the aforementioned Mike White commentary track, which gives important background information assisting viewers in appreciating this odd and sometimes difficult film.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Arrebato is a blighted, frightened piece of work. You may want to back away from it sometimes, but its weird, nodding, incantatory pull keeps you hanging around for another fix.”–Nick Pinkerton, 4 Columns (2021 re-release)
(This movie was nominated for review by “squater,” who raved “I’m sure any weird movie lover will recognise Arrebato as one of the weirdest movies in the world.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)