Whenever the subject of death is addressed in film, it is often couched in the most inoffensive cinematic language possible. After all, no one likes to contemplate their own raging mortality, so why would we want our entertainment, our ESCAPE, to do it for us. Instead, we want visions of angelic hosts proclaiming our property rights in Heaven, or ghosts guaranteeing us that there really is no such thing as Hell, just a life spent among the Earth's shadows until you can "cross over" into that everpresent clichéd "light". We don't need the uncertainty of death, the messy physicality of it, or the horrible, heart wrenching loss that almost always accompanies it. Yet, in many ways, this is what makes the subject so fascinating. Death is not just the end of life - indeed, it's an event that causes existence to be rewound and reconfigured in another, more meaningful way.
It is the brave filmmaker then that takes on the challenge of fatality, to move beyond the act and address the deeper notions surrounding the end of existence. Who then would have thought such a courageous filmic mind would come from the world of horror films - and short horror films at that. Yet Ignacio "Nacho" Cerdà is such a viable visionary. Over the last decade and a half as a moviemaker, Cerdà has been responsible for two of the most telling looks at the meaning of mortality ever conceived. The works have been celebrated as breathtaking, and condemned as pornographic. There has been as much consternation and controversy over one title in particular than perhaps for any other film in history. Yet there is more to his methodology than the desire to distress. Thanks to Unearthed Films, we get a chance to see for ourselves what makes Aftermath, and its companion piece Genesis, so special...and so inflammatory.
Making up what the director refers to as his "death" trilogy, the three short films that form this DVD offer different, distinct takes on the issues surrounding the end of life. Two are professional productions, while the third was part of a class the director took while attending the University of Southern California. In Cerdà's mind, The Awakening (1990) deals with spirituality, Aftermath (1994) deals with physicality, and Genesis (1998) centers around those left behind and the grieving process. It is important to keep these themes in mind when watching the films. Since some of the imagery is very disturbing, it is occasionally difficult to see the symbolism for the shocks. Let's begin an individual examination with:
The Awakening: Score - 2.5 out of 5
Plot - a bored high school student finds himself drifting off to sleep in class. When he wakes up, all time has stopped.
At eight minutes, and with no dialogue (something Cerdà does in all his films), The Awakening feels very slight. There is no real mystery to what is happening to our hero, since the entire space/time element appears geared toward a tragic end, not an epiphany. So basically, we are sitting around waiting for Cerdà to deliver the payoff. When it comes, it's rather weak, nothing more than a combination of Jacob's Ladder and Ghost. That being said, this is a truly remarkable looking film. Cerdà's (who co-created the work with two other USC Classmates) sense of the cinematic is very strong, and he uses the monochrome canvas of black and white to create wonderful textures and atmosphere. Several shots are epic, while a few do fail to draw our attention. In the end, this can be viewed for what it is - a student film that fails to flesh out what is probably a pretty poor narrative concept to begin with. But it does signify future greatness from its creator.
Aftermath: Score - 4.5 out of 5
Plot - a coroner in the local morgue spends the evening "entertaining" the dead body of a young woman.
How you approach this 30 minute short will definitely dictate your level of enjoyment once Aftermath ends. If you go in hoping for gore galore, the closest thing to seeing real dead bodies defiled this side of a snuff film, you've actually come to the right place. While Cerdà's control of his camera is excellent, the F/X are out of this world. Corpses tend to be difficult sells on film. They usually come across as mannequins or non-pliable piles of foam rubber and latex. But the work here is top notch. These cadavers have weight, and resistance, a true sense of their former human physicality. The filmmaker makes the most of this, allowing the lens to view the disgusting, nauseating nature of a coroner's post-mortem work.
If you have heard that Aftermath is the Spanish Nekromantik, another slice of perverted pleasure about sex with the dead, you'll probably be disappointed. There is none of the lunatic relish of Jörg Buttgereit's blasphemous little film. Instead, Cerdà is shooting for the serial killer side of the coin, to emphasize the normalcy in his protagonist's professionalism while simultaneously proving how truly sick he really is. The necrophilia in this movie is very disturbing. It is not just carnal; it is filled with volatility and extreme violence. While nothing is shown outright (our doctor defiles the corpse's privates with a knife before 'mounting' her), the implication is repellent enough. Indeed, one could argue that Cerdà is making a larger point about defying death. But it's a hard sell. Treating the departed as nothing more than a plaything for the fulfillment of one's most twisted desires almost erases any grander theme. While the ending is quite unnerving, the rest of Aftermath is an equally uneasy ordeal. You may see nothing more in it than fetishism gone foul, however. Or you may see something very insightful.
Genesis: Score - 4.5 out of 5
Plot - an artist, mourning the death of his partner in a car accident, creates a statue of her. Somehow, it begins to come to life.
If there is such a thing as a beautiful geek show, Genesis would be it. The approach is nothing new or novel (artist recreates a dearly departed loved one - the canvas/creation comes to life), but the way Cerdà's sells the narrative is. Once again, our director designs this wordless film as a feast of telling imagery. From the initial home movie footage to the final tableau, he provides a complete narrative. We learn who these characters are, what they meant to each other, what happened in the interim, and how the grief has altered at least one of their existences. The shots in the studio are stunning, filled with evocative statues that add their own emotional emphasis by their gestures, their physical arrangement, and the looks on their frozen faces. Even the overall stylized dream sequence where we witness the aftermath of the actual loss has its own important facets. It helps us to understand the bond between the parties, and helps to sell the supernatural situations that are going to occur.
That being said, Genesis does get a little derivative after a while. Once we learn what is happening (to avoid spoilers, lets just say is has something to do with trading places) Cerdà doesn't give us enough scenes of the transformation. Instead, everything happens gradually, in obvious hope that such slowness equates with seriousness and gravitas. And for the most part, the director is right. We begin to feel the heartache and the hope, welcoming the possible promise but fearing the price to be paid as well. By the end, when fates have been sealed and inevitabilities have played out, we do sense some emotional resonance. But with some further development of the material, Cerdà could have really grabbed us by our own inherent fears. After all, anyone whose ever lost a loved one would easily see themselves in the heroes place, and make the same metaphysical deal to bring said person back. While it is technically perfect, Genesis does suffer from a minor misstep when it comes to content. Fleshed out a little more fully and this would be one of the best short films in the often misunderstood medium.
After viewing the three films in this collection, it's shocking to learn that Cerdà has yet to helm an actual feature film (at least according to the IMDb, though his filmography on the DVD lists a possible project). He made a documentary entitled Coffins of Light in 2002, and helmed the "Las Olas" segment for a 2003 film entitled Europe 99euro-films2. Here is someone so skilled with a camera, able to evoke emotion without words or wasted moments that his name should be connected to every new, PG-13 brand of eerie horror film under development. He can deliver ambient, gruesome and spellbinding even when not relying on buckets of blood. But better yet, Cerdà realizes that horror is about creeps and context. He manages to make his spook shows utterly authentic by never once skimpy on the reasons and rationales for his character's actions. Instead of just giving us the glorification of violence or vice, this director digs down into the true heart of death's darkness. And he delivers the goods with surprisingly sensational skill.
As noted before, Cerdà has said that these films make up a trilogy, and it is easy to impose a kind of connective logic to all three offerings. Indeed, we can see a linear track from dying, to death, and then to the afterlife. It is also possible to envision the menacing morgue with its vile sexual secret at the center of each film. That indirect notion makes each movie that much more eerie. Indeed, we could focus fully on the corrupt coroner and argue that this is really his tale, told in three distinct versions. In The Awakening, we view how opportunity arrives at his soiled steel slab, and in Genesis, we can see how his actions create problems even for those who've passed on. Certainly Aftermath is all modus, but also it's meant as a challenge. If death is so strong, it should be able to survive even the most horrifying abuses. How we view the acts of our prurient pervert speaks to how successful the blow against mortality truly is.
The Awakening is a simple black and white student effort. It is presented in a scratchy, faded 1.33:1 full frame print that still looks highly professional. The whites are very hot in this short, and they can cause some minor washout in a couple of sequences. Still, the image is filled with visual finesse, which more than makes up for the frequent dirt and defects. Once we get to Aftermath, Cerdà is working in a properly budgeted celluloid format. The results are spectacular. The transfer of this film's 1.85:1 widescreen image is anamorphic and exceptional. The colors are true to life (all the better to accentuate the nastiness) and the contrasts leave no detail unexplored. The same can be said for Genesis as well. The 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen picture is flawless, and has as much ambiance, or more, than Aftermath's cold clinical tone.
Each film here is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 sound. Since he does not offer dialogue, Cerdà is very careful about the auditory design of his work. Aftermath and Genesis in particular reveal an amazingly dense and atmospheric attention to sonic detail. These amazingly moody films are made even more intense by the well-balanced mixture of music and foley. Most mainstream Hollywood titles don't sound as good as these - and thanks to this DVD, Cerdà's aural ambitions are fully realized.
Hats off to newcomer Unearthed Films. This is an amazing digital package, with each film fully fleshed out by commentaries, behind the scenes featurettes, special added content and DVD-Rom material from the director's own stockpile. This is a company that understands the desire of film buffs to get as much contextual information on heretofore unknown projects as possible. Thanks to their efforts, this disc becomes a classroom on Cerdà and his style of cinema.
On all three alternate narratives, the director comes across as genial, well educated, personable and highly literate. He never once talks down to his home theater audience, but instead invites them into his world, allowing them to come metaphysically face to face with the issues Cerdà wants to discuss. He doesn't apologize for The Awakening's more amateurish aspects. He gives us a wonderful overview of the preparation, and the massive controversy, that came with the making and the marketing of Aftermath. He walks us through the art elements of Genesis, and how he views the ending. Indeed, Cerdà basically delivers the dialogue that his movies do not, acting as narrator to share personal memories and interesting anecdotes that help us understand his motives and core concepts.
The rest of the bonus features are equally enlightening. On The Awakening and Genesis, we get a selection of storyboards, while the latter includes a photo gallery of Behind the Scenes stills. Aftermath has the most material, and all of it is fabulous. First up is a 45-minute audio interview with Cerdà that really gets into the heart of his career, and his concerns with making a movie about necrophilia. Next, we are treated to a 30-minute Making-Of that highlights the obstacles the director, his cast and crew had to overcome while filming in an actual morgue. Especially interesting is the detailed look at the creation of "realistic" corpses. Finally, Nekromantik fans will rejoice in seeing director Jörg Buttgereit interviewing Cerdà for a conversation and Q&A about death and defilement (an obvious attempt by Spanish TV to make some sense out of both their fetish-filled films). These kindred spirits get on incredibly well, and we learn a lot about both men and their inspiration. Together with more storyboards, stills, and DVD-Rom access to scripts and production notes, you couldn't ask for a better all around title presentation.
As a director, Nacho Cerdà does not make death easy. It is slimy and sickening, sudden and unsympathetic. It leaves scars that run deeper than any real physical malady, and drives even the most sound of minds to acts of unspeakable atrocity. And still, the mystery remains. It is safe to say that we learn no more about the process of dying from The Awakening, the reality of post-mortem medicine from Aftermath, or the true nature of the grieving process from Genesis than we knew before going in. Instead, Cerdà seems to be setting us up for the ultimate confrontation, to ask us to toss aside all phobic fictions regarding our mortality and stare the visceral and inviolable certainty of our own existence square in the soul. In Cerdà's world, religion won't save you, science can't cure you, and love won't heal you. You have to accept death, and all the horrible, heartless elements that come with it. It is safe to say that this director's cinema is one of a kind, and Aftermath and Genesis are works of complicated greatness. Not everyone will see it this way, but then again, not everyone enjoys thinking that, one day, this materialistic joy ride will eventually end.
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