Abracadabra is screening as part of the 21st Spanish Film Festival in Australia, which is looking to be a fantastic event, with a variety of interesting films to showcase, an opening night gala and afterparty with Torres wines, tapas and live entertainment, and closing with Oscar winner Guillermo Del Toro’s Spanish masterpiece, Pan’s Labyrinth (2006).
I watched an advanced screening of Abracadabra, a film nominated for the Spanish Academy Awards, which was directed by Pablo Berger. I was pleasantly surprised by this quirky and occasionally dark comedy, and would highly recommend it for those looking for something a little unusual and outside of the box.
The story focuses on Carmen, a charming housewife, as portrayed by Maribel Verdú, who lives a mildly dissatisfying life with her grumpy football loving husband Carlos (Antonio de la Torre) and their daughter Toni (Priscilla Delgado). The family’s small, drab flat in Madrid is lethargic with angst and sexual staleness until, a strange spark of magic changes the entire situation – for worse or for better? That remains ambiguous.
The drastic change in fortune occurs at Carmen’s cousin’s wedding, when her cousin Pepe (José Mota), a practicing magician, puts on a hypnotist show and brash and arrogant Carlos volunteers for the trick, hoping to show up Pepe for a fraud. What happens instead is, during hypnosis, Carlos is possessed by an evil spirit lurking around the disco ball of the dance floor.
From here, the audience is driven wildly through bizarre terrain. At first Carlos seems somewhat improved, helping around the house and being an attentive father. However, as strange things start to occur, Carmen and the audience begin to unravel the truth, that Carlos has been possessed by a serial killer named Tito, who went on a rampage at the same wedding venue in 1983.
The film starts quite light with a family style of comedy, as the rude Carlos (who is annoyed that their nephew’s wedding is on at the same time as an important football match) sneaks in a device to watch the game, ruining the ceremony by screaming ‘Nooooo’ during the ‘if anyone objects’ speech. These hilarious moments, having being compared to the comedic style of Alex De La Iglesia, offer much joviality. There are many of these side splitting events, such as the minister asking Carlos who won the game after the ceremony, or the betrothed wincing – expecting rice to be thrown at them, only to find that Carlos, who was supposed to bring the confetti has also neglected this duty.
Later, the dark turn in the plot will surprise many, almost jumping to full blown horror at various intervals.
Abracadabra is a strange ride of mystical chicanery, with the plot moving somewhere between that of a Dennis Wheatley novel (with the slow and accidental evocation of dark forces), and one of Woody Allen’s occult themed comedies, not unlike Magic in the Moonlight (2014).
The plot draws from various elements of popular culture, utilising theme songs from Hollywood classics like the Excorcist theme (during the hypnotism scenes), and ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’, the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). The effect this has, is to present an apparent Spanish interpretation of mainstream cinema over the previous century, even having shades of references to classics like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), particularly in the personality of Dr. Fumetti, played boldly and menacingly by Josep Maria Pou. Fumetti helps Carmen to realise how the dangerous, yet alluring Tito, has possessed her husband.
The drama of this revelation is especially intense when Carmen and Pepe track down the house where Tito and his mother lived, before he brutally murdered her with an electric carving knife. This scene contains a spellbinding performance, as the inappropriate real estate agent mimes the tragic scene of the schizophrenic Tito killing his mother with the electronic knife. The suggested violence is highly evocative and may shock audiences, and later scenes of gore are also extremely alarming, slightly unexpected in the midst of this seemingly light comedy. But the laughs are many, and the shock is welcome for fans of horror.
Other curious reflections on popular culture by Berger include a scene where we see that Tito owned an old Donkey Kong video-game console, and Pac-Man cartridge, which seem to mimic Carlos’ later schizophrenic hallucinations of a monkey chasing him around a construction site, and Tito’s ghostly purgatory, becoming then, more of a psychological account of the tragic circumstances which brought him to become a murderer – a sort of Guy De Maupassant-style twist on the supernatural genre.
The romantic heart of the story plays out in the revisiting of the love story between Carlos and Carmen, who, possessed on the dance floor, dance to songs like Steve Miller Band’s “Abracadabra” and 10cc’s “I’m not in love”. The difficulty of love and struggling tragedies of long term relationships are highly relatable in the portrayals, and there are many such touching moments.
The core message of the film, nonetheless, is at times confusing, but given that it doesn’t take itself too seriously, the weirdness is thoroughly enjoyable.
I can’t recommend enough, for readers to go out and support the Spanish Film Festival this year, and see a film or two. The festival is running from the 19th of April to the 6th of May, and if you want something a little out of the ordinary, you certainly can’t go wrong with Abracadabra!
Pablo Berger directed his first film Mama in 1998 with Alex de la Iglesia as artistic director, so comparisons in style are certainly fair.