By Thomas Puhr.
Altered Innocence’s reissue will hopefully not only satiate fans, but also seduce more viewers into joining the Zulueta fold.”
On paper, José (Eusebio Poncela) has a life many aspiring filmmakers would happily take. A director of B-level horror movies with titles like The Curse of the Wolfman, he travels the world and is dating a starlet, Ana (Cecilia Roth).
This surface success, however, is a façade. Riding the elevator up to his apartment after a shoot abroad, he rehearses breaking up with Ana (“You’re out of here right now, I don’t care!). But when he finds her passed out on their bed (they’re both addicts, he having introduced her to heroin) he quickly gives up, sinks into a couch, and opens a package left for him. It’s from Pedro (Will More), an amateur artist José had met years before while scouting a location. Inside is a Super-8 film and an audio recording. “If what I imagine turns out to be true…no one will send you the last film,” Pedro croaks on tape. “You’ll have to come and get it.”
Thus begins Iván Zulueta’s beguiling Arrebato (Rapture, 1979), which hopscotches between a strung-out José in his apartment and his memories – prompted by Pedro’s cryptic narration – of past encounters with the strange man. Though Zulueta’s frame narrative suggests something of a plot (all of which culminates, naturally, with a tense visit to Pedro’s apartment), he’s clearly more interested in character, mood, and all manner of audiovisual trickery. Like Pedro – whose short films, cheesy though they may be, exert a hypnotic, life-draining pull over their viewers – the writer-director seems obsessed with cinema’s power to manipulate (or even replace) our understanding of reality.
The mysteriousness of the medium itself haunts Pedro, who bemoans his futile quest to comprehend “the meaning, the purpose, the role, the game that ‘making movies’ represented.” If such dialogue sounds unbearably pretentious to you, never fear. The movie doesn’t get bogged down in self-seriousness; preceding the above quote by a few seconds is Pedro’s observation that directing is akin to “one long wank without coming.” So, those who like their high-minded philosophical ramblings spiked with a dash of ribald humor will find much to love here.
The narrative’s underlying metaphor (cinema as drug; or, alternately, as vampiric entity) allows for some eye-popping visuals. Consider the fetishistic joy with which Zulueta frames Ana in closeup, her pale face and vibrant red lipstick given a heavenly aura by the staticky television behind her; or a striking jump-cut which juxtaposes a shrinking penis with a cigarette’s shriveling ash; or a Betty Boop-inspired dance number to Cecilia Roth’s “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You.” Committing your life to cinema may suck you dry in the end, but it’s never boring. No wonder Pedro Almodóvar – a close friend of Zulueta’s – has called Arrebato “an absolute modern classic.”
This endorsement appears on the cover of Altered Innocence’s gorgeous 2021 restoration – now available on Blu-ray – as does the claim that Arrebato “is Pedro Almodóvar’s favorite horror film!” Though it certainly flirts with horror (Pedro semi-earnestly claims to have been gathering footage for centuries, like a starving-artist version of Nosferatu; later, his camera assumes a predatory life of its own over those it records), Zulueta’s film is more of a self-reflective paean to the genre than anything else. His depiction of a weaponized camera and its ability to simultaneously destroy and create had me thinking, oddly enough, of Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960). But whatever Arrebato is – and this is wonderfully difficult to pin down – it is undoubtedly one-of-a-kind, the type of curio for which VHS hounds would obsessively search in thrift stores.
Altered Innocence’s reissue will hopefully not only satiate fans, but also seduce more viewers into joining the Zulueta fold. Of the special features – which include audio commentary by podcaster Mike White, who so clearly adores the film – Andrés Duque’s Ivan Z is particularly illuminating (and unabashedly lo-fi; it seems to have been recorded on an old JVC camcorder). In it, Zulueta – wearing a half-open bathrobe – gives a tour of his home and introduces us to his mother, who asks when he’s going to get around to fixing a broken window. Far from being affected or precious, the short is a charming portrait of a true cinephile, one who still enjoys drawing posters (we learn, via White’s commentary, that he later designed the one-sheet for Almodóvar’s Dark Habits, 1983) when inspiration strikes.
One striking scene from the documentary shows Zulueta – who died a few years later – observing a wall covered with climbing plants. “Look!” he says, pointing excitedly. “I think it’s amazing. It leaves me speechless. Just look at it! A square…Like some sort of shelter. Some sort of isolation or ozone layer.” It’s a wonderful moment, one which illustrates his poet’s eye. Earlier, he muses about making a new movie on the fly, using just camcorders and family members. If only.
Thomas Puhr lives in Chicago, where he teaches English and language arts. A regular contributor to Bright Lights Film Journal, he has published “‘Mysterious Appearances’ in Jonathan Glazer’s Identity Trilogy: Sexy Beast, Birth and Under the Skin” in issue 15.2 of Film International.