Reviwed by D.W. Bostaph
Starring Pep Tosar, Trae Houlihan
Directed by Nacho Cerda
Released by Unearthed Films
"I feel that a movie about death should be silent" -Nacho Cerda
Death. There are many facets to the ever-lingering veil of mystery that clouds all of our futures. This mortal coil has been the bane and muse of all mankind since we first came to realize that we, as humans, are locked in an eternal struggle with death. Sonnets have wondered about that which lays beyond, lyrics screeching out the souls and fears of those who are damned or saved, and the ever immortal silver celluloid, with its garish blend of fact and fiction, movement and voice, has always attempted to show us what it truly means to be as one with the dead.
Never in my life have I seen a movie portray this great mystery with such love and care as I have in Ignacio "Nacho" Cerda’s Death Trilogy. Three short experiments seeking the forbidden knowledge of that which we can never know. The veracity of the manner in which the subject is handled creates an unflinching and, in the end, unnerving look into what dreams may come. How dare a mortal, a man of flesh and blood, look the grim reaper, the great beyond, or the elder gods in the eye and ask them why. Such foolishness begets only the truest forms of beauty but also heeds a heavy warning; as with each gift of this magnitude, there is a price to pay.
The unintended trilogy leads all souls brave enough to chance it down a path of wonder with Awakening, utter horror with Aftermath, and then the resultant redemption with Genesis. The imagination flowing through the mind, body, and soul of this triptych is that of director Nacho Cerda. This dreamscape is a gift for the world to behold. Cerda has a plan for the canvas that he sketches and then fills in with a unique flair. He has an ability in mere manipulation of time and motion, with no dialogue, to create emotional responses that are a hundred times more than what are available in much longer, windier affairs.
Cerda’s evolution is clearly shown in the mosaic mural of the three films. From the basic, flawed beginning to experimental, unbridled fury, delivering us to gentle, painful soul searching, Nacho Cerda holds his audience captive in ways that open the windows and let fresh air into stale rooms for the first time.
The Awakening, the shortest of the bunch, shot in a grainy black and white, is an experimental outing for Cerda and company. The fatal framework at play here is the story of a student who awakens in class to find that time has stopped around him. Truth be told, the piece is much too short to properly display the deep dissolve into terror. Man comes to grips with the ultimate fate that has been called out for him, but as a short and first film it is much more solid than most others
Awakening is a personal, internal view into death. It delves deep into the psyche that lurks beneath all of us. Cerda’s commentary on the disc for Awakening does explain some of his ideas and addictions when it comes to subject matters such as this but keeps the mystery of his own core philosophies a secret. Cerda has a lot to say about this subject. There are religious symbols and icons that he uses in this and in subsequent films, but his reasons for using them are unclear, and his interest in the subject is never really explained. Maybe this is why Cerda felt the need to continue into the next two films.
Aftermath is a deeper look into what disturbs Cerda. It is a clinical look at what happens after death but has not a stitch of spirituality to it, keeping its focus on the physical. It deletes the former question in the mind-body problem, leaving only a defenseless empty shell. Aftermath is a notorious film. Having garnered a reputation as "one of the most vile things to be ever put on film" from festival screenings and bootleg copies, it stands in clear contrast to the other two films. It is intense. It is unflinching. Yet, at its core it is subtle, hauntingly beautiful, and every bit as rich in detail and composition as any other great film has ever been.
The evolution here from student film to this next level is astounding. It is as if natural selection skipped apes and went straight from rats to humans. Awakening stirs the intellect a bit, yet falters by giving away far too little. Aftermath shows a bit too much, but in the most loving way imaginable. Aftermath is Cerda’s own question in a title. It serves to ask: What does happen? It looks into places where we humans fear to tread, and that is why what happens can only be called monstrous.
A violation of the most personal kind is the centerpiece. Like a hideous painting hanging on the wall, too well done to ignore but too grisly to stare at, the cacophony of hell refuses to stop. There is a reason it is called “taboo”. There is a reason this is forbidden. We see horror films dealing with death each and every day of our lives, but how often is the formula turned on its ear? We see the living die and feel for them. Yet, the living in Aftermath are not the victims, and the dead are truly innocent. Maybe this is why people have such an adverse reaction to it. Can you feel for a corpse?
A friend of Cerda’s, Christopher Baffa, is responsible for taking the viewer on a wild visual journey. His photography is dead on. Combined with Cerda’s knack for planning (he uses storyboards for all his films), the two were able to compose each shot as if it were a photograph. Careful attention to space, placement, focus, and color makes the screen come alive in spite of the foul demonstrations portrayed.
A subdued color palette is used, and Cerda’s willingness to utilize it in deep shocking contrast enlivens and titillates the senses. In the commentary Cerda speaks of his fear at helming such a project and the difficulties he faced while doing so. A lot of problems and conscientious dissent went on during different moments of the shoot. Interesting problems and changes went about. All of this seemed, in the end, to only enhance the film.
The choice of classical strands of music could border on pretentiousness, but there is a haunting quality to it, a familiar quality, which portends unease. The music and sound are sumptuous; the film was born with the birthmark of Dolby Digital, the first short film ever to be made in Spain using this technology. Each bone and sinew is heard, and the guttural noises, the closest thing we have to ever hearing the amazing Pep Tosar speak, echo off the clean walls and into our ears, bringing this world all the closer to home.
Pep Tosar is the binding tie between Aftermath and the subsequent Genesis, and his efforts deserve a mention here. His face reminds one of the younger Peter Lorre, and the goblin that he plays in Aftermath recalls Lorre’s character M from Fritz Lang’s masterpiece of the same name. His soulful eyes look about as he dutifully goes about his heinous crime. He is the devil’s basset hound. We want to feel for him, but in the same breath, we are happy he is not looking right at us.
Tosar and Cerda's talents culminate in the deeply affecting Genesis. Ending the series of portraits is the first story, the oldest story: the story of creation. While the first two films looked at the personal and physical side of death, Genesis instead looks at the balance of life and death. As mentioned previously, Cerda has a religious connectivity that cannot be ignored but is never fully explained. Genesis is the heaviest in terms of religious theme of the three. Biblical and theological questions and images abound. The frames are pregnant with the pensive thoughts of a man coming to terms with what it means to be creator and created.
The most lyrical and sensual of the films, Genesis showcases the final stage in Cerda’s evolution. His eye is now greatly refined, filling in each scene with grace and beauty. Cerda is careful in what he shows us. He is not as eager to reach into darkness. He wants to tell a story, the story of a man who has lost someone he loves. In quiet desperation, in lonely art, he finds solace in sculpture; but as his love pours over a single prized piece, a lovely woman, the man gives so much of himself to this creation that he starts to bring it to life. This Pygmalion has effected change in a rock, but what price does Aphrodite demand?
Cerda discusses some of his thoughts and reasoning for the story on the commentary included on the disc. He is careful not to read too much into the story for the viewer. Too often directors just explain what is going on, killing any imaginative interpretations that viewers may be able to come up with on their own. Genesis is visually arresting with another classical score that underlines, but does not make a hyperbole out of, the story -- a Frankensteinian fable finale to the dance macabre Cerda has taken us upon.
Personally, I cannot feel anything but remorse after seeing these films. There is no justifiable reason why Nacho Cerda should repeatedly refer to the fact he is trying to get a feature film off the ground. In a remake wrecked world, where fly-by-night visitors to the genre use it as a stepping stone to attain a certain status, Nacho Cerda has an effective understanding of what makes a great horror film: visual, emotional, and imaginative. Why he has only done these films? His menial involvement in the extras on the Machinist DVD are in their own right a great universal question. [Editor’s Note: Cerda is working on his first feature called Bloodline, which we last mentioned here.]
Hopefully the release of these three films on DVD from Unearthed Films will change all of this. With any amount of luck the right people in the right positions will see the insanity in the rock and attempt to carve it out. There is something to be found here...I know it.
The Unearthed disc is comprehensive and should satisfy those who have not seen the films. It features a menu for each separate film and storyboards that run in real time with the film’s score, an interesting feature to use and watch the development of the visuals that Nacho was going for in each segment. The use of the storyboards is given a lot of credit for the success in achieving the right look of each film. The look is completed on the Unearthed release. No more dark and grainy bootlegs; the new transfer is rich and deep, especially Genesis with its awesome 2:35:1. The panoramic view is just breathtaking.
A Spanish documentary one the making of Aftermath details some of the effects work done on the set as well as some of the filming. It’s an interesting ride with a disturbed crew, unfinished dummies, a dancing naked corpse, and raw necrophilia footage with Pep Tosar that details HOW FAR he went into the role. Chilling.
It is a worthy treatment of the films. Disconcerting is the discussion between Jorg Buttgereit and Cerda as the two films Aftermath and Necromantik are compared, but in the end the two seem to have about as much in common as milk and Marvel Comics. Screwing dead people is not a bond; it is a surface judgment by those who cannot get into the deeper story and the real reason that image is on the screen. Cerda defends this tooth and nail during interviews and commentaries: This is not just gore, not gratuitous. It has a purpose; you just have to have the patience to see it.
Aftermath/Genesis has a place on anyone’s DVD shelf. It is for those who love the world of movies, of questions without answers, of looking into the night sky and searching. It deals with the greatest question of all our lives: What is death? What does it mean? Often people are just too happy in their world to ask this when they have the time to think about it. But every so often someone like Nacho Cerda points to the sky and tells us to look. He thinks he may see some answers. You may not find them, as hard as you look, for the stars are so seldom ever right, but just because you can’t see them, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t look. The answers are there. It is up to us to keep looking.
Thank Heaven or Hell someone is pointing the way.
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