Dir. Iván Zulueta; Eusebio Poncela, Cecilia Roth, Will More
[3.5 out of 4 stars]
Film distribution can be so fickle, especially when it comes to stateside theatrical releases for international films. American theaters have such an obsession with playing English-language features shot in the United States that gems from all over the world are often denied their due in their time, only to be appreciated years after the fact when a filmmaker or studio champions a revival. Such is the case for Iván Zulueta’s Arrebato (1979), which is currently in the midst of its premier American theatrical run with a stunning 4K restoration. Over the decades it has gained a cult following, helped along by Pedro Almodóvar decreeing it “an absolute modern classic,” and now audiences have the chance to experience Zulueta’s captivating and demanding vision.
The plot of Arrebato follows José (Eusebio Poncela), Ana (Cecilia Roth), and Pedro (Will More), all three of whom are involved in filmmaking in some capacity. José is a horror director in a rut, Ana is an actress as well as José’s on-again-off-again lover and heroin pal, and Pedro is, well, a recluse of sorts in pursuit of the perfect “rhythm” of filmmaking. The film’s narrative centers on José receiving a package from Pedro which contains a key, a cassette tape, and a roll of film. When José plays the cassette, he discovers it is a recording of Pedro recounting their time together and the mysterious experiences with filmmaking he has had since they last saw one another, and the roll of film shows off the extent to which Pedro has gone to find his “raptures,” an amorphously defined high that he finds through his filmmaking. As José and Ana listen to the tape and watch the film, it becomes apparent that all may not be well with Pedro, leading them, and the audience, into a surreal journey through Pedro’s mind.
For Arrebato, theme is inseparable from style. José, Ana, and Pedro all rely on heroin and cocaine throughout the film, and so the parallel is directly drawn from drug addiction to Pedro’s filmmaking pursuits by emphasizing the ways that both create social and professional rifts. José and Ana are in a combative relationship as a result of heroin use, and both are unable to capture their previous professional magic. Pedro shuts himself away, only interacting with other people when he has to in order to get new filmed material. The more time we spend with all of them, the closer their afflictions seem. All three are desperate to feel “rapturous,” a repeated word that is also the English translation of the film’s title. Zulueta’s style blends Pedro’s filmmaking with the real-time events in José’s apartment, visually breaking down the separation between past, present, and cinema. At one point, while José is nominally watching the film, we abruptly transition to a memory he has of first visiting Pedro, which in turn melds with Pedro’s point-of-view and a sequence from his new film reel. Such a circumstance repeats over and over so that memories, film, and contemporary experiences blur, crafting narrative disorientation evoking a hallucinatory experience. Resultantly, we are transported into the addictive space of the characters through style, forced to consider their experiences just by deciphering the film.
Zulueta, who also illustrated movie posters, had a fascinating sense of framing and color. One of the final revelations is a stretch of Pedro’s last film reel, which focuses on a peculiar red imperfection on his film stock, one that coincides with his sleeping “raptures.” While the particulars are never explained, the suggestion is that there is some supernatural force acting through the camera. I note this because once the importance of the red frames was introduced, I realized how many times Zulueta had foregrounded red in his compositions. When José first returns to the apartment, he enters into a mudroom bathed in red light. A chair in the living room is a velvety red, mostly hidden by a purple sheet, but in a shot framed so that our eyes are drawn by shadow to the fabric sticking out. It is only one component of a hazy color palette that suggests delirium, especially favoring shadowy greens and grays. Zulueta adds to this sensation with a steady supply of medium-close-ups that bring us eye-to-eye with the characters as they watch various films. This technique underscores the action we are undertaking as audience members watching the film. As a result, the separation between us and cinema breaks down alongside the sense of time in the story, the film, therefore, existing in that liminal space usually reserved for dreams. In this way, Zulueta forces the audience to consider their act of watching, something that had me repeatedly wondering if he watched Peeping Tom (1960) before making this film.
For Zulueta’s particular approach to work, Arrebato requires actors who are committed to the distinct technique at play, and all three leads commit. More’s work as Pedro is distinctively unnerving. His mop of black hair gives way to a drawn, almost skeletal, face, which More expands by keeping his eyes wide and mostly unblinking. He seems strung out in each scene, every bit the junkie he literally and thematically embodies. He oscillates between the manic excitement of capturing what he dreams of on film and the paralyzation of an addict crumpled without his fix. I spent much of the film wondering where the hell his story was going, and it’s a testament to More’s unhinged performance that I would have bought just about any direction. Poncela and Roth are equally committed, but their storylines left me wishing for more. While there are a handful of explosive fights and quirky asides (Roth performs a song dressed as Betty Boop at one point, which somehow works), these characters are mostly left to respond to Pedro’s material. They both do emotive work with that set-up, but Zulueta’s script may have benefitted from a touch more meat for each of them to play with.
Since finishing Arrebato, I keep coming back to the thought that it would make a bewitching double-bill with Cinema Paradiso (1988), a markedly different film that is nonetheless obsessed with examining the emotional relationship that we have with, you guessed it, cinema. Both films are comfortably in the pantheon of features that use their medium to interrogate what exactly it is we look for when turning on a screen. While I won’t spoil exactly how Arrebato chooses to finish that line of thought, the totality of the film amounts to an unsettling study of what happens when our relationship to the screen blots out our very sense of humanity.