Director: Juan Pablo Arroyo Abraham
Writer: Juan Pablo Arroyo Abraham
Cast: Raúl Méndez, Andrés Montiel, Daniela Zavala, Arantxa Servín, Francisco Rubio
Running time: 1hr 38mins
It takes some audacity for a director to morph two of their lead characters into one combined persona, and to go on to provide the audience with alternative outcomes to a key part of the film’s plot development. It takes courage but, also – to be able to do so without disturbing the organic development of the narrative and without hitting us over the head with the realisation that we are watching an exercise in experimental cinema – it requires a tremendous amount of ability.
Such is the measure of Juan Pablo Arroyo Abraham’s achievement in their second feature film, Almas Rotas (English translation: Broken Souls). I have stuck with the original Spanish title as there is an unrelated English language indy film currently making the rounds, also titled Broken Souls.
Almas Rotas has a powerful opening sequence. Abraham gives us an extended close-up of the face of a young man, Javier (Francisco Rubio) staring into a bathroom mirror. Rubio has an unsettling gaze – the eyes do not blink during the entire scene. Javier mutters to himself that he is an imbecile. With a wonderful piece of trompe-l’œil which will astonish the viewer, we are given another face staring into the same mirror – that of Santiago (Andrés Montiel).
Again, we have the character calling himself an imbecile but, on this occasion, Santiago acts out his self-mortification by smashing the mirror with his fist – queue lacerations and blood swirling around the handbasin. Abraham has deftly insinuated that there is some kind of conceptual link between the two characters Javier and Santiago.
We then see a rural landscape with a road leading to a dramatic mountain range – the film was shot on location in the central Mexican state of Michoacán. A bus comes into focus and stops for a passenger to alight. The camera shows us the passenger’s boot stepping on to the ground – with a thud it seems almost to be claiming ownership of this patch of earth. The camera moves up to show us a young man, Julian (Raúl Méndez) carrying a travel bag. Julian makes his way across the fields to a run-down hacienda which he enters.
Julian opens the shutters to the main room and settles down to play the piano that is the room’s centrepiece. Julian is disturbed by Santiago who apparently lives there and quite reasonably demands to know what the fuck Julian is up to. Santiago is joined by the other occupant of the house, Maria (Daniela Zavala). Julian convinces Santiago of his good intentions and, despite Maria’s unconcealed hostility, asks Julian to stay for a while to help work on the house and farm. The scene ends with Julian bandaging Santiago’s hand which is bleeding – Abraham has linked us back in time to the opening sequence.
Abraham’s scriptwriting is telling and economic. As the movie unfolds, we learn that Maria, currently Santiago’s lover, was once in a relationship with Julian, and we see flashbacks of their life in the past. Julian appears stronger and self-realised as opposed to the more needy Santiago who, one might have guessed, is a writer struggling to finish their latest novel. No matter, the men bond and Maria overcomes her opposition to having her former partner to stay. However, Abraham conjures up an atmosphere of such foreboding that we gain the impression that this is unlikely to end well for all concerned.
Parallel to the development of the triad at the rural hacienda, we are shown Javier’s life in a nearby city. Javier has a real Hamlet issue – his artist father has died, and his mother is in a relationship with one of the father’s male friends. Javier’s response to the situation is somewhat dramatic – he starts plotting to kill his mother’s lover. Such is the persuasiveness of the filmmaking on show, and the power of Rubio’s portrayal of Javier’s all-consuming obsession that it draws out an audience response of – hey we’ll go with that. Javier and his partner, Daniela (Arantxa Servín), then run through various possible scenarios as to how to carry out the killing.
We are shown each imagined scenario – the sequence is a stunning piece of cinema. The editing by Juan Pablo Arroyo and Rocío Ortiz Aguilar is well achieved throughout Almas Rotas but in this passage it is sublime. Abraham then proceeds to skilfully weave together the parallel narratives to produce a tragic resolution on a grand scale – the scene with the bathtub will stay with the viewer for a considerable time.
There is so much to enjoy in Almas Rotas. The cinematography led by Anna Soler Cepria is monumental – characters, landscapes, and interiors exquisitely caught. The ensemble playing is excellent and the lead actors put in strong and convincing performances. I have touched on Abraham’s script but there is one aspect I particularly liked – the female leads are the drivers for action whilst the male roles are passive and very much let life go on as it has – a pleasing and accurate estimation of many social situations. In darkly comic terms, I loved the idea that Daniela wholeheartedly took over the planning of the murder of Javier’s step-father. Daniela has one of the best lines in the movie – this is a woman who is actually about to try to kill a human being – when she says to Javier – we have to think like killers.
The soundtrack, by several musicians, works well. It includes some evocative piano sonatas, including a crafty use of the first part of Mozart’s Requiem (the good bit), which makes an appearance when Santiago is having a bad moment on his computer keyboard. There is a minor issue I had with some of the diegetic music – when Julian launches into a histrionic virtuoso performance of great skill and dexterity. The camera only shows close ups of the pianist’s hands: a device I detest, as through the pretence of giving their actor a musical ability that they do not possess, filmmakers attempt to instil an aura of depth and gravitas for their character. The stratagem invariable fails and simply comes across as needless artifice. That’s a small point, though, and it did not affect my rating of what, otherwise, was an immaculate piece of work.
Elsewhere, an uncredited star of the film is the hacienda itself – a tremendous call by the production team. In great cinema, a building can shape the atmosphere of the whole movie and provide a powerful sensory feeling in the viewer’s memory – think the Casa Malaparte in Godard’s Le Mépris. So too, with the hacienda in Almas Rotas. A crumbling wreck on the outside – a wooden balustrade gives way at a key moment in the plot. A decaying ocean liner beached amongst the fields with its weird watchtower – presumably to survey the peons toiling in the fields. The interior, where most of the action is set, is all pre-Cárdenas era gentry elegant pretention – the faded dreams of the landowning class. The place casts one hell of a spell – as though The Cherry Orchard had been set in Michoacán.
Yet, among the dark tones, Abraham paints a rumbustious thirst for life. The physical intimacy between the characters is beautifully portrayed. There is a stand-out scene where Maria, Julian, and Santiago get ridiculously hammered on weed and alcohol which is just so sensuous – pure Dionysian. After an aeon of the pandemic and its immanent fore fronting of health concerns, it was refreshing, particularly for an ex-professional smoker like myself, to see on screen so many of the characters enjoying the act of cigarette smoking with such gusto. At least, enjoy your addiction.
Almas Rotas is a profound meditation on the human condition – do try and catch this movie. Beyond this work, meanwhile, according to the film’s publicity material, Juan Pablo Arroyo Abraham has also put together a thriving film school and production centre based in Morelia, the Michoacán state capital. The school is named, Solaris, after Tarkovsky’s sci-fi classic. Solaris has produced a great number of short films. On the evidence of Almas Rotas, it has a rich pool of talent. Keep an eye out for any future releases – Morelia could well be on its way to becoming a powerhouse of indy film production.