February 13, 2012

Efpeum (1965)

The decade of the 1960s was a decade of many social changes across the globe, as a new generation was rising to find its place in history. Inevitably, such changes would be reflected in the arts, and in the case of cinema, in many places it meant the closure of an era, such as the decline of the American studio system or the end of the so-called Mexican "Golden Age". But it also meant the beginning of a new one. A renewal of ideas of sorts, reflected in the New Hollywood and the French Nouvelle Vague. In the South American country of Venezuela it meant the arrival of a new generation of filmmakers eager to break with the realist tradition of Venezuelan cinema. Amongst this new generation of filmmakers was Mauricio Odremán, a writer who had been working at several production companies and whose first produced screenplay was the 1964 film "Isla de Sal". Deeply interested in surrealism and metaphysics, Odremán reflected his ideas in a short film written and directed by him: Venezuela's first science fiction movie, "Efpeum".

"Efpeum", which actually stands for "Estructura Funcional para Encontrarse uno Mismo" (literally, "Functional Structure to Find Oneself"), begins at the University, where an Architect (Samuel Roldán) is giving a lecture about his new idea: a building, or better said, a structure that more than serving as a housing project could actually help its inhabitants to transcend this dimension. The audience explodes in laughter and the Architect is humiliated and leaves the University. He wanders around, until he is told that there's a man who can help him, an Alchemist (Carlos Guerrero). The Architect meets the Alchemist and explains his project, and proposes him to combine their knowledge in order to create EFPEUM. The Alchemist agrees somewhat reluctantly, and the two begin their work. The two of them have differences, but soon the Architect begins to learn the way of the Alchemist, who begins to consider the Architect as his equal. The arrival of the Alchemist's partner Andreina (Bertha Mantilla) will make them become one.

As can be imagined by the plot, Mauricio Odremán (who wrote the screenplay) uses the conceptions of science fiction in "Efpeum" as the way to express his metaphysical and philosophical beliefs. Basically, "Efpeum" is to the science fiction genre what Jodorowsky's "El Topo" is to the Western. In fact, while in terms of style there is no apparent influence from the Chilean filmmaker, thematically Odremán's "Efpeum" covers topics that are pretty similar to the ones explored by the director of "The Holy Mountain". In "Efpeum", Odremán implies the search for a higher state of mind, and represents two viewpoints in the film's two main characters. The Architect, symbol of reason, pursues knowledge and has the willpower to achieve the project, though his view is narrow due to what society has taught to him. The Alchemist, represents a knowledge closer to nature, a freedom the Architect lacks. However, both are needed to transcend, and the catalyst for this is the female figure, Andreina, and in sexual union the three of them become one.

Visually, Mauricio Odremán's film is a very symbolic work, in which the imagery captured by cinematographer Tony Rodríguez is of a quite allegoric nature. The world of Odremán is a desolated land, in which the human figures seem to be alone looking for meaning, while the University has an oppressive architecture, reminiscent of the German Expressionist style. In his vision of future, Odremán contrasts nature and science, echoing the themes of his screenplay, and this duality is played through the film in its many different set pieces. The narrative is disjointed, though not incoherent, and it follows several stages in the relationship between the Architect and the Alchemist as EFPEUM is being constructed and Andreina appears in their lives. Through the film, Odremán uses sound in pretty interesting and strange ways, aiming to disconcert and disturb in some way. However, the most bizarre of this is his use of romantic ballads to narrate passages of the story (for example, a love song to EFPEUM opens the film), which is quite odd to say the least.

The performances by the cast are a bit stagy, though given the allegorical nature of "EFPEUM", it's probably meant to be this way. Still, it's perhaps the film's weakest element, as the work is unfortunately of a mediocre quality. The only saving grace is Samuel Roldán, who plays the Architect, carrying the story with a natural charm and a certain dignity that makes the outlandish film a tad more believable. Sadly, it can't be said the same about fellow cast-members Carlos Guerrero and Bertha Mantilla. Guerrero, who plays the Alchemist, is too hammy in his role, and even given the nature of the film his work looks out of place. As the mystic Alchemist, Guerrero unfortunately makes more a parody of his role and diminishes the power of the film. However, even worse is Bertha Mantillo, who plays the Alchemist's partner Andreina. While Andreina is meant to represent the sensuous being, an unleashed magic in pure form, her performance is too wooden to be taken seriously, and sadly feels more like a robot than like the wild force of nature she should be.

As can be seen by now, Mauricio Odremán's "Efpeum" is not exactly the typical science fiction tale, it's more a full expression of its maker's metaphysical ideas. An allegoric exploration of themes in which the message between lines is far more important than the actual story. As written above, given its surreal take on philosophical themes, the cinema of Alejandro Jodorowsky could be a considered a close relative to Odremán's film, and as such, this 30 minutes short film is equally as cryptic. However, "Efpeum" suffers of several problems that somewhat difficult its enjoyment. Not only the afore mentioned low quality of the performances is off putting, what's perhaps the greatest problem in Odremán's film is how badly it has aged. And this is not about any technical issue, but about Odremán's abuse of distorted pop culture elements, particularly his use of very 60s romantic ballads, which with time has stopped from being daring or avant-garde and has become pure kitsch.

Certainly a product of its time, "Efpeum" belongs to the most reactionary style of filmmaking of the 1960s. Completely beyond of any classification (certainly, the science fiction genre is only the one that seems to describe it best), Mauricio Odremán's film is one that despite not having aged that well, still can be a fascinating glimpse to the mind of its maker and the topics that interested him. Of great historical importance, this first Venezuelan science fiction film can be difficult to appreciate given its allegorical nature and crude style, though it's still a fascinating example of Latin American surrealism.


No comments: