Dead But Dreaming
REVIEWED BY CHARLES LONBERGER
The cinema of Bolivian cineaste Jac Avila is a monolith of personality and thought and fashions grand, epic statements that, at best, summarize entire genres (as in Maleficarum, the final word in Inquisition cinema.).
His work has also evolved into commercial products that portray enduring fetishes that cannily transcend specific cultures in their reach. The upshot of this is that it introduces his films into broader markets than might otherwise be presumed possible.
But this being said, Avila’s intent is confrontational and finds expression in his fictional alignment with revolutionaries, be it through scenes or features. He has appeared as a guerrilla, and a serf and sympathetically portrays creatures reviled by the social order (witches, and, here, vampires). He attacks Roman Catholicism as a repressive, hypocritical organ, while accepting it as the exclusive representative of Christianity. His central conceits, concepts and iconography are themselves, curiously, Catholic.
Avila’s subversive cinematic intent is not unlike Bunuel’s, although different. In this, the latest co-production from Pachamama Films and Decadent Cinema, vampirism is revolutionary, aligned with indigenous “rebels”, sketched in Avila’s own screenplay as a lifestyle, a cult that grows into an “army of the Undead.” Although his concept is rooted in traditional vampiric lore, Avila’s vampires are not content with merely surviving, but multiplying, turning their victims into one of their own.
Accordingly, the production features vampires feasting on each others blood. Consequently, they resemble, more than anything else, an alternate lifestyle; Avila’s logic is classically Sadean, deliciously incorporating Mayan/Aztec-style human sacrifices into the mix (“You are the priest and I am the sacrifice!”),betraying a core Romanticism in observations like “We speak the language of another world”and “We all carry demons inside us.”
Avila’s dialogue includes far-reaching musings on Lilith’s fate (punishment for her “independence”) and the “sad choices” women must make between serving a man or serving Christ, as they must “live in accordance with (their) womanly condition.” Interestingly, though observations such as these would seem to be critical, the same female characters whose conditions he implicitly criticizes, later, once Undead, completely submit to his own character, Asar, something which, as director, Avila glorifies. Again, in true revolutionary fashion, Avila attacks the established order, and sets his own fictional self-portrait above or outside the Law.
The dialogue is also starkly philosophic at times, making a passing, if subtle, nod to Liberation Theology by observing that “liberty and verity are sisters.” though he has a priest assert that death “is God’s privilege.” All this, alongside musings on the nature of love.. Heady stuff, indeed, for a “Vampire Film”
Regardless, the script ultimately succeeds due to the economy of its technique and its ability to merge different storylines entertainingly and engagingly. For a film with such revolutionary sympathies, it is actually stylistically quite conservative, as it adheres to the conventional Film as Storytelling aesthetic. The title state of being “dead…but dreaming,” is a brilliant conceit which references an existence suspended between life and death.
The production itself, by Amy Hesketh and Avila himself, is richly handsome, and makes full use of the Bolivian landscape and, as always, Mestizo Baroque architecture, particularly its desolate, rocky terrain and its curving, winding, if abruptly foggy, streets.
The production accents Avila employs are impeccable, from offbeat props, like a cane with a shrunken head of “an enemy” on it, and underemphasized, knife like fingernails that are long enough to slice right through you. The soundtrack, by Brad Cantor, moody, spooky and liturgical, is a brilliant mix of the acoustic and the indigenous, its trumpets and bells, borrowed from yet another genre, the Western, flavoring, and individualizing, his score.
A special note must be made of the costume design of producer Hesketh, whose vibrant color schemes are shorthand for character and, in designs with gypsy leitmotifs, define ethnicity with style.
Avila’s sensibilities are, contrary to this genre’s tradition, Baroque, not Gothic. As director, he builds his drama from within his frame, using superimpositions only fleetingly, and is most powerful in his ritualistic stagings (as in his registrations of human sacrifice and the enchained confinement of the vampire, Nahara, at the film’s conclusion). Given the vastness of his historical tapestry in this production, the fact that Avila’s directorial approach has much more in common with the spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone than the mock operatic aesthetic of Visconti, establishes his cinematic pedigree as rooted in popular culture.
Particularly of note in this production is the outstanding cinematography of Miguel Inti Canedo, which registers grand vistas in a wide screen format. Whether registering welts on human flesh or movement at dusk, his lighting design is vaguely derived from Eurotrash; Canedo unforgettably renders Moira’s flesh as if it were a form of marble, creating a perverse Pieta out of the scene in which she is turned.
The editing of Avila himself is a master class not only in cross cutting parallelism, but, most crucially, of time management, establishing and maintaining the film’s smooth narrative flow and forward momentum, which is crucial, given its divergent subplots.
The casting is flawless. In the lead role of Nahara, Veronica Paintoux appears perpetually ravenous. She is sacrificed, then feasts, practices mesmerism, “feels your pain” and reassures us that “you have me inside you.”
As Aphrodisia, sultry Mila Joya, a street walking vampire on the prowl, “is hungry,” gets crucified before getting turned, and ends up being, literally, belted but good.
As Asar, Jac Avila is suitably creepy and on the hunt, and remembers “days when I was a God.” His screen persona is referenced when his character acknowledges that “they made me their Lord,” and, demanding as always, he exults that “It feels good to be a God!.” , Intent on becoming all powerful,he thoroughly enjoys his megalomaniacal pursuit of Nahara.
In other roles, Roberto Lopez fashions a fastidious sadist out of Don Jose Manuel, while Jorge Ortiz, as Ferenc, worries a lot about his niece, Varna…and with good reason, as, as played by Claudia Moscoso, her character rejects a cloistered life and prefers to emulate the doomed (in more ways than one) Moira.
As Moira, Amy Hesketh jolts the drama with electrifying scenes. Particularly unnerving is the scene in which she is garroted, a textbook example of how the unreal can be so convincingly and chillingly portrayed, that we do not for one minute doubt the veracity of what we are witnessing. It is a triumph of the art of acting, miraculously transforming it into a form of illusionism (and, speaking of illusion, it does not go unnoticed that for this part, Hesketh carefully kept up the appearance of being a natural blonde).
Subtle touches, like her fetal recoiling following her gang rape, which conveys internal damage, ring unnervingly true. In a performance hallmarked by moments of panache, she is publicly flogged and executed, only to be reborn as a vampire. The revolutionary perspective of the film is reinforced by having the sympathetic Moira, a victim of mistaken identity, be a spy and a gun runner for the indigenous rebels, obliquely referencing the future Irish revolution by her fictional nationality.
While Avila’s output reflects his darkly erotic obsessions, which reoccur like dreams in each proceeding production, they are here strictly justified by his narrative and placed within a carefully constructed dramatic context.
Beginning with his very first feature, Avila has been uncompromising in his dark obsessions, his erotic fantasies and his imagination. This has resulted, even in the recent past, in his films being censored by the Cinemateca Boliviana in his own home country, but, with the embrace of this production by local authorities, and its commercial success, he has emerged victorious in the struggle with censors.
An exercise in extroversion, calculatingly designed to have broad appeal, this production, the first segment in an intended franchise, succeeds on all levels, entertaining the general public while remaining true to itself. Accessibly and enjoyably idiosyncratic, it is available internationally exclusively through Vermeerworks.com.
(This review will be published in Beverly Hills Outlook in the September 16 issue. It appears here by kind permission of Charles Longberger)