Terry and Joe review the 4K restoration of Iván Zulueta’s previously unavailable queer Spanish classic, Arrebato.
Synopsis: Horror movie director José is adrift in a sea of doubt and drugs. As his belated second feature nears completion, his reclusive bubble is popped by two events: a sudden reappearance from an ex-girlfriend and a package from past acquaintance Pedro: a reel of Super-8 film, an audiotape, and a door key. From there, the boundaries of time, space, and sexuality are erased as José is once more sucked into Pedro’s vampiric orbit. Together, they attempt the ultimate hallucinogenic catharsis through a moebius strip of filming and being filmed.
Hold onto your hat, Terry, because we are hitting the hallucinatory art cinema hard with Spanish writer/director Iván Zulueta’s 1979 film, Arrebato. The English language title translates to Rapture, which makes sense in the context of the film’s plot – both the way drugs, relationships and, ultimately, cinema become focal points within which to get lost or extremely high.
This is an odd film for sure, if only because Zulueta is using a relatively bare bones narrative as an opportunity to play with non-linear storytelling, voice-over narration and an exceptionally unusual soundtrack filled with carnival music and laughing. It’s formalistically daring, and frequently captivating; even when the pacing slows and the action is basically confined to two locations in the film’s back half, Arrebato is gorgeous, compelling and mysterious.
Let’s tackle that straight forward plot: the film takes place across multiple time frames as genre director José Sirgado (Eusebio Poncela) receives a package from amateur filmmaker Pedro (Will More), the cousin of José’s one time girlfriend, Marta (Marta Fernández Muro). Inside the package is a cassette of Pedro narrating the two times he met José, and the young man’s startling discovery of an escalating vampiric “rapture” wherein his camera records him sleeping and feasts on his energy. The proof of Pedro’s high concept belief are reels of film that José and his tumultuous on again, off again girlfriend Ana Turner (Cecilia Roth) watch while high.
That last point is relevant because the drug use throughout the film is rampant. This could lend itself to a boring, milquetoast interpretation that the whole film is a fantasy/hallucination of several addicts. Time lapses are prevalent throughout the film and nearly all of the characters experience a phenomenon wherein an inanimate object moves or turns on, seemingly by itself.
Sure, this could be the drugs, but Arrebato is far more interesting if you buy into the peculiar events that the characters are experiencing. The concept of a “rapture” is fascinating because Pedro describes it in ways that speak both to the high of a drug, as well as a religious experience. This aligns with what happens to him and Marta (and possibly José at film’s end): they are literally raptured away by the clicking aperture of Pedro’s supernatural camera to a place where film unspools without a projector and their images (or souls?) interact with living people from the screen.
Taken allegorically, Arrebato perfectly captures the experience of being swept away by cinema. Not only is Pedro so invested in his own work that it makes him cry, but as soon as José begins watching Pedro’s movie, he becomes transfixed by it – to the point that when Ana distracts him by trying to initiate sex, he barks at her to leave. Sure it’s a testament to their volatile, unhealthy relationship, but Arrebato is very clearly a love letter to film and its otherworldly ability to (en)rapture audiences.
It’s no surprise that the film is so beloved by Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar, who claims it is his favourite horror film. Anyone familiar with Almodóvar’s work will see some very obvious narrative and technical connections to his wor, including the casual – and non-judgmental – depiction of drugs and fluid sexuality, as well as a non-linear narrative, the use of epistolary-style voice-over and, finally, the use of extended flashbacks to unpack character backstories and fill in story gaps. It’s fascinating because as I was watching I had to continually remind myself that this wasn’t, in fact, an early entry in Almodóvar’s oeuvre!
Terry, I’ll turn it over to you for your first impressions. I know you’re not terribly familiar with Almodóvar, so I’m curious to hear your thoughts on how successful those elements were for you? Do you have a different take on the titular “rapture”? And what did you make of the performances, particularly More’s eccentric, child-like Pedro?
This was quite an experience for me, Joe, because I’m unfamiliar with Almodóvar’s work, as you mentioned. But even without much knowledge of Almodóvar, Arrebato feels like the kind of film that would influence a director like him. It feels both small and epic, quaint yet erotic. And even though nothing overtly queer happens between the two men, it feels like it’s a deeply queer film.
Pedro has the effervescence of a young filmmaker, willing and excited to learn. The way he keeps hounding José about how to steady the camera or learn other filmmaking techniques makes him seem like an excitable puppy. José, meanwhile, is world-weary and forced to tend to a real world that wants inane things like title changes (Wolf Men to The Curse of the Wolf Men) and editing choices that annoy him. In some ways, the two of them feel two sides of one coin and Pedro’s youthful flamboyance reminded me of imaginary friend storylines, such as Drop Dead Fred. That sort of hyper-real exploration of youthful invigoration that’s coupled with the soured adulthood that José represents.
I do wonder if Pedro is more of a metaphor than a real person. Or a personification of the art of filmmaking. Hints are dropped throughout the first half of the film that he might be somewhat supernatural. He talks about how he must “enrapture” Ana, when she shows up with José. He even stages a goth Betty Boop doll, one that is the exact same doll that she had as a kid, including a tear. “Isn’t that strange?” she asks José. Meanwhile, Pedro mentions that he’s been creating the same images for centuries. It’s such a bizarre statement that a viewer could take as an exaggeration; that the art of discovering new techniques or perfecting one’s filmmaking skills feels like centuries. But his supernatural knowledge of people and ways to “enrapt” them makes me wonder.
I’m sure you could look at Arrebato under a multitude of lenses to pick at and analyze what the film is trying to say (if that’s even possible), but one refrain kept coming back to me while watching it. Zulueta imagines filmmaking as an extended form of lovemaking; one that might have no release. After telling José that he’s been making the same images for centuries and apologizing for “all that build-up just to watch that junk,” he compares the creation of film almost as a long, protracted and endless jerk-off session: “one long wank without cumming.” But as he learns from José, he creates a time-lapse camera and learns about staging and other techniques, his descriptors turn more orgasmic.
Pedro later describes filmmaking as an enraptrous experience, mentioning how he’s been seized by a “mad feeling of euphoria.” Even still, he’s left wondering where the ecstasy, magic and rapture has gone. Once the ending of the film brings this idea of being raptured into focus, it’s the orgasm at the end of filmmaking: that final release that’s been pent up the entire time.
At least that was my take on Arrebato’s title.
As for whether the film is completely successful for me, I’m honestly not sure. Arrebato feels like a kitchen-sink approach to thematic devices that flits from one idea to the next, without much interest in telling a cohesive story. That’s obviously purposeful, but it’s not always successful for me, particularly because of the slow pacing and lackadaisical plotting (however intentional).
What did strike me was how it was playing with narrative and visual motifs that would grow popular twenty to thirty years later. The somewhat muted and naturalistic elements of José’s life away from Pedro take on a similar cadence that mumblecore would explore in the early 2000s. Pedro’s films, on the other hand, establish tropes and build tension in the same way that found footage would popularize. These tapes are literally found footage that José, and the viewer, comb through to find some greater meaning and little motions, such as a camera turning on its own or the suspicious red frames that seep into the film.
I feel like we’ve only skimmed the surface of this somewhat confounding film, Joe. I’m curious if you have any thoughts on the queer subtext/text and how that might have influenced Almodóvar’s career? Earlier, you mentioned the vampiric nature of the story, but what do you think Zulueta is trying to explore? Is the act of filmmaking one that can drain like a vampire or is there a more supernatural element to the film? And, finally, how successful do you think the film is and what is your rating?
I totally love your reading of the sexual release (or lack thereof) inherent in the discussions around film and filmmaking! That aspect definitely supports my queer reading of the film, which – you’re right – are definitely there. I read Pedro’s fascination with José as something more than a professional interest and there’s the obvious use of the Betty Boop doll as a ruse to distract Ana long enough for the two men to sleep together.
But it is something more. Long after Pedro and José have parted ways, the younger man continues to reach out to him; he’s clearly infatuated with José in a way that evokes young queer men attaching themselves to an older mentor/father figure when they first come out. Arrebato is very clearly interested in exploring Pedro and José’s relationship through multiple, interweaving lenses – one of them is their respective roles as (different types of) filmmakers and another is as queer lovers.
Using your prompt Zulueta’s influence on Almodóvar’s career, I found out that the the latter actually delivered the eulogy for the former when he died (you can read it here), but there’s actually an inference of a master/apprentice relationship not so subtly woven into Almodóvar’s words. More than that, it’s clear that Almodóvar was himself enraptured with Zulueta’s ability to craft “aesthetic meaning” in his images, which is indisputably one of the lessons he applied in his own films, which frequently rely on richly detailed mise-en-scene (often more than dialogue and narrative).
As for the vampiric piece…it could go in a number of ways. As I teased before, it could be cinema’s ability to whisk us away, or the way that making movies literally consumes filmmakers’ lives (which would align with your observations about José’s frustrations about titles and editing from early in the film). Or it may not be something so literal; after all, Arrebato is a very dreamy film with lapses in logic and time. It feels deliberately constructed to appeal to an unlimited number of readings, which means all answers are right and wrong!
For some, that will also limit its appeal. I can’t see average audiences embracing Arrebato, which at times feels like a lost artifact; we don’t often see movies made this way anymore. For that reason, I enjoyed my time watching this, but I’ll likely be selective in who I recommend it to! It’s a 3/5 for me, though that doesn’t accurately reflect how frequently my mind has wandered back to scenes and More’s performance since I watched it.
What about you, Terry? Do you have any insight into José and Ana’s relationship? And what are your final thoughts and score?
I’m glad you shared that eulogy, Joe, because that was an insightful read that also ties into something I was thinking about.
While we never see the work that José creates, the title tells us it’s probably more mainstream or commercial than the work Pedro has created. The bits and pieces we see of Pedro’s filmmaking showcase more esoteric and moody pieces (art pieces come to mind).
Conversely, José’s work is being edited and changed by the production company, which suggests a commercial film. In some way, I think one (of the many) themes Arrebato explores is that disconnect between commercial art and more, for lack of a better word, artistic art. It makes me wonder if Zulueta sees himself in Pedro: a young feeling of exploratory cinema that will never be agreeable to mass market consumption…much in the same way that Arrebato probably isn’t for everyone.
I don’t really have much to say about Ana and José’s relationship, except that it feels loveless. It’s almost as if there is a part of José that’s using Ana for some form of companionship, while his heart remains with Pedro. Consider that Arrebato ends with José telling Ana to “stay if you want” because it doesn’t matter anymore…even as he’s heading off to Pedro’s place. It’s as if he’s embracing Pedro’s eccentric ways and wants to be a part of his life, however he can. And so the cycle seems to possibly start again. But I’m unsure because, as you said, Joe, Arrebato appeals to many different interpretations and that’s what’s so fascinating and frustrating about art.
I’ll be honest, Arrebato isn’t the kind of cinema I typically enjoy because it tends to be languorous in execution. But there’s something about Zulueta’s film that has lingered in my head since I watched it. I keep thinking back to specific scenes or a particular staging (like the turning camera). It’s also probably a 3/5 for me, but I can completely understand why it’d be a masterpiece to some and why it influenced Almodóvar.
It’s a haunting piece of queer cinema.
Arrebato is playing in limited capacity on Oct 1 in NYC at Anthology Film Archive, and Oct 8 in LA at Landmark’s Nuart Theatre