Pere Portabella (b. 1929, Barcelona) is a veteran Spanish filmmaker whose narrative features—rich in interludes, plot diversions, atmosphere, and unexpected synchronies between sight and sound—limn the avant-garde and expand the expressive potential of cinema. Portabella, who began his cinematic career as a producer of fiction films implicitly critical of General Francisco Franco, had his passport revoked when Luis Buñuel’s Viridiana (1961), which he helped to make, “embarrassed” Spain at the Cannes Film Festival in 1962. When democracy returned to Spain, Portabella served as a senator in the Catalan government. However, throughout his various careers, Portabella continued to make cinema, investigating meaning in the moving image and flexing the notion of genre—particularly for horror films, fantasy films, and thrillers.
– by J. Rosenbaum (Village Voice and Time Out 1972)-.
“For the second year in a row, the boldest new work I saw at Cannes was by Pedro Portabella. `UMBRACLE,’ a multi-faceted statement of political despair from Franco Spain, is far more ambitious and open-ended than last year’s “Vampyr”, and even harder to encapsulate. The eerie, spectral imagery of “Vampyr”—-slightly over-exposed footage with bleeding whites and grays, where the light almost seems to come from another age, or planet—-persists in parts of the new film, when Christopher Lee takes hallucinatory trips across Barcelona, or visits a museum of stuffed birds in glass cages.
The progression shown by Pedro Portabella’s three features from Nocturno 29 (1968) to Vampyr (1970) to Umbracle (1972) reveals the birth and refinement of one of the most personal styles in the modern cinema. How do you classify these films? Are they horror movies, political statements, formal studies of sound affecting image, homages to the silent cinema, private reveries, or laconic portraits of contemporary Spain? To some extent each of Portabella’s features is all of these things.
Umbracle’ how ever, is Portabella’s most powerful and achieved film to date. Here we fins a synthesis of much of the best in both previous films, joining the freedom and variety of Nocturne 29 (of which this is, in many respects a superior remake) with the rigor and simplicity of Vampyr. Yet if it is the most provocative of his films, it is also the one that most resisted analysis or paraphrase. The witty dichotomy and dialectic between sound and image in Vampyr is pushed much further, until it becomes an aggressive assault on the spectator’s unconscious narrative expectation.
Umbracle. 1972. Spain. Directed by Pere Portabella. In Umbracle, an aleatory horror film that paints a critical image of Francoist Spain, Portabella continues his exploration of the language of experimental cinema and develops his aesthetic of combining documentary with reenactment. He worked with Christopher Lee to produce an “ideal and predetermined cliché[d]” image of an actor: “Lee offered to perform my ideas with pleasure. I even managed to get him to do the hardest thing an actor can do: nothing.”
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