The Soul of Flies (Jonathan Cenzual Burley, 2010)

October 22, 2012

Review written for Subtitled Online

The debut feature of director Jonathan Cenzual Burley, El alma de las moscas (The Soul Of Flies) is a self-funded and initially self-distributed picture. Made for less than €1000, the feature is an inspiration for all aspiring young filmmakers, especially as, in a DIY approach, Burley was also behind the film’s script, its editing and its cinematography, as well as being a producer. Although it shows a great deal of promise and has that inspiring back-story regarding its production, a successful, compelling whole is, unfortunately, not the end result.

The film is set in present-day rural Spain, and opens with a voiceover from Evaristo de la Sierra (Feliz Cenzual). A restless man, he has wandered and philandered throughout his whole life, frequently running from any sort of commitment. In this prologue section, he, as an old man, browses an album of photographs and writes to two sons of his that he has never met, each born from relations with separate women, and invites them to his forthcoming funeral.

This sepia-hued prologue then ends, and the film cuts to the two brothers meeting for the first time at a train station, both on their way to the funeral. Miguel (Javier Sáez) is trapped in a failing marriage, and is an uptight, cynical individual. Nero (Andrea Calabrese), meanwhile, is a more free-spirited man who celebrates the opportunity to get to know his sibling. When the train station turns out to be abandoned, the brothers are forced to make their way to the funeral’s hillside chapel location through any means they can; Nero seeing the drawn-out nature of their travels as a sign that their bonding is part of a foretold destiny…

While on the road, the two have a variety of eccentric encounters, the film taking on a magic-realist approach where common logic and narrative plausibility have a minimal presence. One encounter involves meeting a suicidal narcoleptic, boosting the man’s confidence and encouraging him to confront a local bully. Others involve confrontation with a musical band of thieves, observing a girl determined to liven up the countryside’s appearance by splattering watermelons across it, and meeting the ghost of their dead father. Along the way, the two brothers also come to terms with their own pressing issues and bond through discussions. One such discussion concerns the film’s title, in which Nero speculates as to whether dogs have souls, arguing that souls must be of a certain size that something as small as a fly could surely not house.

The barren landscapes of the film offer one of its key aesthetic highlights. Punctuated by hallucinogenic, sun-baked colours, the golden fields of the Castilian Meseta are transformed into what can best be described as a countryside version of the Oz series’ yellow brick road. The cinematography, as a whole, is particularly impressive given the budget, lean production team and the use of just one high-definition camera. Especially memorable are moments where Nero dreams of a girl with sunflowers in her hair, a vision that becomes a motivational tool of sorts in the admittedly loose narrative; the scenes are memorably hued by a grainy haze and bolstered by eccentric movements and prop elements, such as the girl spinning as she is showered with what appears to be hundreds of post-it notes.

Being a Spanish production, with both surreal and magic-realist leanings, some understandable comparisons may be drawn between El alma de las moscas and the works of directors Luis Buñuel and Victor Erice (The Spirit of the Beehive). Regarding non-Spanish directors, there is also a cute, blatant visual reference to Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, replicating the movements of the silhouetted dance of death from that film’s finale, although replacing the doomed with a merry band. The most obvious points of comparison throughout the film, however, are playwrights Samuel Beckett and Tom Stoppard; the film, as scattershot as it is, being based around two characters trying to find a meaning to their existence while caught in a series of absurd situations.

Despite a very grating, long-lasting guitar piece that plays over it, the film’s early stretches are where it is most successful on an interest level, with an engaging brand of kookiness and one of the film’s more amusing encounters, that with the watermelon-chucking girl and her father. Gradually, however, the film’s offbeat vignettes lose appeal. In regards to its comedy, the hit-rate is quite low and prone to an annoying, forced type of slapstick. On the drama front, everything feels very inconsequential, partially fuelled by a complete lack of any conflict. Despite the time spent with the two brothers, they fail to provoke much interest in their journey of self-discovery. As such, despite all the big philosophical questions that arise in the screenplay’s conversations, the film, ultimately, feels like an empty, unfulfilling exercise.

Each vignette is so packed with discussions of abstract topics that any narrative or emotional focus becomes lost. Furthermore, while addressing various topics like family and conquering inner demons, no central theme is fully pinned down; nothing is explored in nearly enough detail to leave a lasting impact. With some refining of its screenplay and structure, the film’s absurdist touches, like the encounter with the father’s ghost, might have provoked charm rather than tedium.

While Burley and his production team should be commended for what they have managed to achieve with the film’s limited resources, El alma de las moscas is, unfortunately, a slog to watch even at a short, less than 80 minute length. Still, there is some promise here that could prove prosperous with some honing.


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