'They Are All Dead' ('Todos estan muertos'): Film Review

Courtesy of Avalon
A challengingly offbeat but persuasively imagined “what if” bid to talk about well-worn family themes in an adventurous new way.

This magical realist debut from Beatriz Sanchis stars high-profile Spanish actress Elena Anaya, who took the best actress award at Malaga for her performance here.

What if you were an agoraphobic 1980s Spanish rock star living with your Mexican mother, and your brother returned from the dead to visit you? Maybe not the most pressing of questions, but the answer to it, in the form of They Are All Dead, is quietly engrossing and unsettling. Featuring a nicely-judged balance between magic and realism, memorable atmospherics and a typically bravura performance from Elena Anaya (best known to non-Spanish viewers from Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In), Beatriz Sanchis’ debut has plenty of first-timer flaws but also a contagious bravery and freshness that makes her one to watch in the sadly limited field of Spanish women directors.

VIDEO The Most Anticipated Summer Blockbusters of 2014

They Are All Dead harks back 30 years to a time when Spain was a more exciting place than it is now - to Madrid’s movida, the cultural movement which spawned Almodovar and, more significantly to this film, Ivan Zulueta’s 1980 cult classic, the Gothic Arrebato. Faux TV clips of the period featuring Lupe (Anaya) and brother Diego (Nahuel Perez Biscayart) playing in their pop band reveal the punky excitement (and the sartorial horror) of the period before coming forward into the 90s when Lupe, now a house-bound introvert, her mother Paquita (Angelica Aragon) and her timid, boy scout son Pancho (Cristian Bernal) make up a peculiar household dominated by Lupe’s fear of leaving the house.

Following a celebration of the Day of the Dead at the house of Dona Rosario (magnificent Mexican vet Patricia Reyes Spindola) and her assistant Nadia (a minor role for the star of Pablo Berger’s Snow White), Lupe is standing in the kitchen one day when Diego, who’s supposedly been dead for fifteen years, walks in. (Perez Biscayart looks suitably Goth-wasted, one of the walking dead in death, just as he was when he was performing live.)

Most of the time, Lupe is pretty disconnected anyway for reasons later explained, so it’s not hard for her to accept that there’s a ghost in her life -- and it’s not hard for the viewer, either: one of the film’s strengths is its easy way with the supernatural. Diego, unseen by the others, takes up residence in the bathroom: in this blend of real and paranormal, there are shades of Let the Right One In, minus the creepiness. Meanwhile, the terminally uncool Pancho befriends the terminally cool guitarist Victor (Patrick Criado), a fan of Lupe’s old band who’ll effectively become part of the family.

PHOTOS If the World Cup Were a Movie: Christian Bale as Lionel Messi, and 11 Other Casting Ideas

For a film about the death of a loved one, They Are All Dead lacks depth and emotion, despite the valiant attempts of the always committed Anaya to work things up. (The actress’s natural radiance doesn’t seem to have diminished in the 18 years since her feature debut in Alfonso Ungria’s Africa.) The film’s interest is in other areas: basically, in finding new ways to explore old themes, particularly the neat way it naturalizes Lupe’s struggle to come to terms with her past. Inspired by Diego, she emerges from her mother’s shadow to a kind of reconciliation.

Tonally the film is either a total mess or creatively explorative, depending on your point of view. Humor (Paquita urging the already dead Diego to wear his seatbelt) is blended with family tragedy: the realistic portrayal of  a family’s day to day is mixed with supernatural shenanigans involving the continued existence of the soul after death and liberation from the weight of the past. A strong directorial persona is necessary to ensure that these strands tie together properly together, and -- though the film does feel underachieved through stretches -- Sanchis seems to have it.

PHOTOS 'The Fault in Our Stars' and 8 Other Tragic Tearjerkers With Kids and Teens

Despite these flaws -- a tendency to overstretch scenes and a reliance on dark comedy which is at time too obvious --  Sanchis and her script show that they have satisfyingly inhabited the bizarre little world she has created. This is particularly true in the film’s woozy, off-kilter atmospherics, with D.p. Alvaro Gutierrez elegantly playing off the cramped interior of Lupe’s home (and head) against the threatening sunlight that continually invades it.

Production companies: Avalon, Animal de Luz Films, Integral Film
Cast: Elena Anaya, Angelica Aragon, Nahuel Perez Biscayart, Cristian Bernal, Patrick Criado, Macarena Garcia, Patricia Reyes Spindola
Director, screenwriter: Beatriz Sanchis
Producers: Maria Zamora, Stefan Schmitz, Alfred Hurmer, Inna Payan
Director of photography: Alvaro Gutierrez
Production designer: Patrick Salvador
Costume designer: Teresa Goikoechea
Editor: Nacho Ruiz Capillas
No rating, 91 minutes