A technically impressive mix of the commercial and the personal, Pablo Berger’s breathless wild ride Abracadabra daringly goes out on several limbs at once. Full-on Spanishness, elements of noir, gothic horror and social commentary fuse into a brightly colored, eye-catching dark comedy that’s inevitably hit-or-miss but never, ever dull — like a more cerebral Alex de la Iglesia, in whose spirit of controlled delirium the film has been made. Indeed, Abracadabra ends up looking very much like a cinephile’s homage to those bits of Spanish film — starting with dirty realism before spinning out into thrillers, gore and the occult — that Berger has enjoyed over the years.
His last, Snow White, won awards beyond Spain and Europe, creating international buzz around a director who with Abracadabra has delivered a very Spanish item. This may explain its vacation-time release in Spain, while the at-home competition is low — but despite its flaws, it retains enough brio and style to suggest that Euro and Latin American territories may follow. For the record, Abracadabra is on Spain’s three-film submission shortlist for the best foreign-language film Academy Award.
The cast list is a compendium of serious Spanish talent, though in most cases this is not their finest hour. Carmen (the reliable Maribel Verdu), by some distance the film’s most complex and winsome character, is a suffering Almodovarian housewife living in a working-class neighborhood of Madrid. She is married to the unreconstructedly sexist, soccer-obsessed Carlos, (Antonio de la Torre, key to the success of several of Spain’s most critically acclaimed movies in recent years), who’s too foul to be credible and feels patronized by the script. Neither Carmen nor her daughter Toni (Priscilla Delgado) are particularly made fun of, but their heavy makeup, loud, cheap attire and the nametag necklace that Carmen wears suggest that Berger is having some rather non-PC fun at their expense.
The early scenes deliver some sharply observed satire and social crit along with some deliciously observed comic moments; for example, a wedding couple ducking out of the way of rice which is non-existent, because, typically, Carlos has forgotten to bring it. (Abracadabra is funnier in its moments of fleeting observation than in its multiple, carefully contrived set pieces, which sometimes feel like overblown TV sketches.)
At this wedding, Carmen’s cousin Pepe (comedian Jose Mota) performs a hypnotist act on Carlos. It fails, but soon it emerges that Carlos, somehow appropriately, has instead been possessed by the spirit of Tito (Quim Gutierrez), a waiter who stabbed seven people to death at the wedding venue in 1983 and then killed himself. Carlos seems to have undergone a suspiciously favorable change in his attitude to Carmen, so at the instigation of Pepe’s mentor Dr Fumetti (the seedily majestic Jose Maria Pou), Carmen and Pepe set about trying to locate a personal item belonging to Tito to set matters right.
Their search takes us through several carefully tailored scenarios, some memorable, some instantly forgettable — scenarios which seem to have been hung on Berger’s out-there plotline rather than arising naturally from it. At the bottom of the scale, we have a scene involving the removal of the underwear of a dying, elderly man, presumably conceived as Berger’s concession to the common belief that all Spanish comedies must include at least one scene built entirely around a genitalia gag. A mistaken identity scene where Carmen and Pepe accidentally get involved in a wife swap is likewise unforgivably retro and surplus to requirements.
Another scene, featuring a builder’s crane and a (yes, possibly symbolic) chimpanzee which Carlos/Toni start to see, is shot with brio. More striking are a joyful, wonderfully shot scene featuring an 1980s disco which borders on the lyrical (music includes 10cc’s “I’m Not in Love” and — too inevitably — Steve Miller’s “Abracadabra”) and the genuinely disturbing, REC-like wedding-venue found-footage slaughter, perfect down to every tech detail. (Music is well chosen throughout, and features a fair smattering of ‘80s Spanish aural cheese.)
Given the nature of things, on a little reflection the plot hangs together better than might be expected. Camerawork is busy and showy, falling into line with the film’s wish to hold nothing back on the style front, but Berger’s ability to deliver a visual gag seems to have suffered since the silent movie pleasures of Snow White.
As straight-up eye candy, though, visuals are impeccable, whether Berger is sending up the Spanish national obsession with a well-known Swedish furniture brand in intense pastel shades or parodying in dark tones the attempts of real estate salesmen to market the unsellable, in this case the house of a serial killer which has remained untouched since the early ‘80s (and which features a nice little homage to Farrah Fawcett). Both of these scenes involved lovingly detailed work of which both DP Kiko de la Rica (a Berger and de la Iglesia stalwart) and production designer Alain Bainee can feel proud.
Production companies: Arcadia Motion Pictures, Atresmedia Cine, Persefone Films
Cast: Maribel Verdu, Antonio de la Torre, Jose Mota, Quim Gutierrez, Josep Maria Pou
Director, screenwriter: Pablo Berger
Producers: Ibon Cormenzana, Ignasi Estape
Executive producers: Sandra Tapia, Jerome Vidal
Director of photography: Kiko de la Rica
Production designer: Alain Bainee
Art director: Anna Pujol
Costume designer: Paco Delgado
Editor: David Gallart
Composer: Alfonso de Vilallonga
Casting director: Rosa Estevez
Sales: Film Distribution Sales