Movie Review: “Arrebato (Rapture),” a beloved Spanish cult film is restored for re-release

The thing about cult cinema is that it requires a buy-in, an “enlistment” in the cult that often requires a different sort of suspension of disbelief.

You have to believe the film is all that others say it is, and be willing to probe and plumb its mysteries to get at what they assure you should be gotten from the effort.

It’s no surprise that Pedro Almodovar is quoted as calling the 1970s Spanish horror experiment “Arrebato” or “Rapture” his favorite horror film. It was made when he was but an aspiring filmmaker himself, a daring, sexual (not erotic) Spanish film in a country that had never seen that. But should that alone account for the movie’s rapturous embrace by the horror cognoscenti?

It’s a self-consciously arty, indulgent and obscurant essay on the “addiction” of cinema, and the horrors of “possession” by that addiction made by a one-off filmmaker back when Spain was in the giddy throes of hedonism following the death of the dictator Franco.

“Arrebato” has time capsule appeal, a film that reminds us — especially filmmakers — of the tactile, delayed pleasures of shooting, processing, editing and projecting movies filmed on celluloid. It gives us a taste of the Spain of the pre-EU era, and of the drugs and sex and artistic opportunities the consumed the country in those heady disco-laced decade of blowback against forty years of Catholo/fascist repression.

But is it deserving of its reputation and the rubber-stamped approval others are contorting themselves into writing as it earns a re-release? I think not.

Slow, of limited shock and equally-limited intellectual and aesthetic appeal, “Rapture” is a grind to sit through. It subjects us to almost two hours of fervid, hoarsely-whispered voice-over narration, recorded on audio cassette, of an experimental (8mm) amateur filmmaker’s discoveries and fate as his addiction grows greater with every reel (cassette) of Kodachrome he exposes and drops off to be developed.

It delivers its payoff, which is…interesting — but hardly worth what we sit through to get to it, drugs and sex and vampire movie subtext included.

Jose Sirgado (Eusebio Ponsela) is finishing the editing of his latest, a vampire thriller. We’ve seen him working and bickering with the editor on its last scene. It’s a vampire being tucked into a coffin, and turning to give the viewer her best deadpan stare.

Pedro Almodovar’s first feature (“Pepi, Luci, Bom”) was filmed under conditions similar to those depicted here, shot on 16mm and released (blown up to 35mm) a year after “Arrebato” came out.

The filmmaker lives in a cinema-decorated apartment with a junkie leading lady (Cecilia Roth) he’d love to ditch. He gets loud with her, and even a little rough. Passed out from her latest heroin fix, she’s not going anywhere.

That’s why he unwraps the film package that was delivered in the day’s mail. He plays the audio cassette that came with it, and in between fights with Ana, he’s invited to remember his connection to the narrator on that cassette, Pedro (Will More), a highly-strung, effeminate and camera-obsessed experimenter who lived in a house and estate that Jose once visited on a location scout.

Pedro mesmerized the director who came looking for a place to film his “Wolf Man,” but left with a fixation on the amateurish, random 8mm reels Pedro showed him. Pedro is a fellow whose obsession only grew when he discovered how to film time-lapse on his Canon Autofocus 1014.

Pedro eventually moves on from scenery, time-lapse shots of crowds and such and onto filming himself, single-frame-by-frame. And that’s why he’s sent this director his next to last reel of processed film. The last reel, he fears, he won’t be able to deliver in person. Jose will have to come for it. What does Pedro expect to happen?

Ivan Zuleta, who only made one feature film and whose name was superseded long ago by a more famous accordionist, makes this a character study of Jose’s addictions, which he is trying to shake by the time he gets this mysterious reel of film from a fellow he only met “one or two times.”

That’s the source of his rows with Ana. She’s still deep into the coke and heroin and pills, although she vamps a mean lip-sync cover of Elvis’s “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You” in her more lucid moments.

Is Pedro trying to warn Jose on an addiction even more insidious? What is it that he is discovering in his relationship to cinema/the camera that is showing him the “Rapture” of which he speaks?

Beats me.

After a lurid, promising start, Zuleta’s movie staggers into the presence of the pre-fanboy fanboy Pedro, who takes it over and is meant to, I guess, transfix us. He’s got old comics and trading cards from the ‘1950s adventure epic “King Solomon’s Mines,” a Betty Boop doll he kind of freaks a stoned Ana out with. I found him a bit boring after a few exposures, a serious of a drag after that.

He’s a quirky character, given to “perching” rather than sitting, wild-eyed and long LONG-winded, he insists that “cinema and I were up to something special together.” But if you’ve ever seen old “discover the camera” first-year film student super 8mm films, there’s nothing “special” to any of it.

We are going to get to a point where Jose (in Spanish, with English subtitles) rues the day he cracks, “It’s not me that loves cinema, it’s cinema that loves me.” We will get our payoff, which is as chilling as it is primitive.

But all due respect to Almodovar, who’s made the odd stinker himself, there’s a reason this other chap never made another movie. And as I can’t find an obituary for him, I’m guessing “death” wasn’t it.

Rating: Unrated, violence, nudity, sex, drug abuse

Cast: Eusebio Ponsela, Cecilia Roth, Will More

Credits: Scripted and directed by Ivan Zulueta. An Altered Innocence release.

Running time: 1:55

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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