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by Jay Seaver

"Maybe not quite magical, but more than it first appears to be."
4 stars

It's a bit strange when a filmmaker makes waves with something as distinctive as "Blancanieves", Pablo Berger's 2012 silent version of Show White set in the world of 1920s bullfighting and then follows it up with something as superficially mainstream as "Abracadabra", set in present-day Madrid and opening with gags that would seem right at home in much more conventional comedies. Eventually, one does see a similar sort of cock-eyed ambition, and while this follow-up isn't as obviously ambitious, it is quite impressive when looked at in total.

That obvious joke has Carlos Lopez (Antonio de la Torre) animatedly and angrily watching a Cup match between Madrid and Barcelona while his wife Carmen (Maribel Verdú) is putting a lot of effort into looking nice for her nephew's wedding. When they finally arrive, Carlos makes an ass of himself twice, the second time by ruining a hypnosis show put on by Carmen's cousin Pepe (José Mota). But something happens, and the next day, Carlos is making Carmen breakfast in bed, helping their daughter Toñi (Priscilla Delgado) with her geometry homework, and generally being friendly. A consultation with Pepe's mentor Dr. Fumetti (Josep Maria Pou) indicates that Carlos has been possessed, and they'll need to find something belonging to this "Tito" spirit to exorcise him. But, really, based on what we've seen of Carlos and Tito, why would she do that?

It's a clear, potentially-fun premise, one that seems like it should be a little more common than it actually is - it's an easy pitch and some actor gets a potentially fun double role out of it. Making it work as a story is a trickier thing, and Berger winds up waving away a lot of the nuts and bolts. Abracadabra is at its weakest when playing with this as a plot, full of "just because", things that don't quite fit, and things meant to kill time. It's a movie with a question rather than a story, and trips over that repeatedly.

The "how it's about what it's about", though, is often surprisingly good. A forced bit of comedy where Carmen and Pepe are mistaken for a swinging couple makes the film getting genuinely eerie in the next bit something of a surprise, with a peculiar performance by Julián Villagrán and creepy presentation shifting the movie's tone just enough. There's an impressive scene of temptation that works even though Carmen should be resolved by then, and a finale that makes the symbolic literal. It gets weird for what looks like a just slightly unusual comedy, but it does so just as well as you might expect from this director's previous film.

Normally, you'd expect this to be a showcase for Antonio de la Torre, and he does a fine job as Carlos, even if the character is more shown to be legitimately worried despite his abrasiveness than having a decent core to counter it. He's got a good handle on Tito as well, selling both the charm and danger of the guy as seductive. Despite that, the film mostly belongs Maribel Verdú, who is luminous and engaging despite the fact that Carmen often seems to be diligently working toward a goal that's not going to bring her happiness. Verdú often manages to play Carmen as the sane person in the middle of a scene that plays to the weirdos (José Mota and Josep Maria Pou are enjoyably eccentric) while showing her as frazzled and conflicted.

In fact, the whole film works because Verdú and Berger portray Carmen as, beauty aside, kind of ordinary. She's a supportive and loyal friend, mother, and wife, but she's not unusually clever or possessed of some hidden talent so that Carlos has been holding her back, and she's got kind of tacky taste. But she matters despite that, and there's something daring about how the film eventually says that there's no reason for her to choose between the two severely flawed options presented her, or that she's got to prove she deserves better.

In those final moments, a film which often seemed just a bit short of its uncertain ambitions may have become kind of great. I'm not sure yet, and might not be after a couple of days of thinking. But, it's worth thinking about, and that's a victory in itself.

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originally posted: 09/19/17 01:12:07
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  15-Sep-2017 (R)



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