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Drugs, Sex, and Cinema: Michael Frost on his Re-Translation of Ivan Zulueta’s forgotten cult classic, “Arrebato”

Tuesday, October 26, 2021 | Interviews


When the reign of Francisco Franco—the Spanish dictator who kept his country bound in a straightjacket of chauvinist cultural conservatism, enforced Catholicism, and militant nationalism for four decades—finally came to an end in 1975, Spain’s filmmakers rose up with breathtaking speed to usher in a new era of artistic expression. The subversive, color-splattered sex-comedies of Pedro Almodovar have come to be synonymous with that movement, called La Movida Madrileña, which swept across Spain like a wave in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, radicalizing the youth and terrifying the old guard.

A new 4K restoration of a film from that period by Altered Innocence shines a light on a divergent view of post-Franco Spain—haunted where Almodovar is campy, and driven to death where Almodovar is driven to life. Ivan Zulueta’s ARREBATO, or Rapture, has been a cult classic in Spain ever since its 1979 premiere, but has never been released in North America. The film tracks the trippy dissolution of a trio of characters—José (Eusebio Poncela), Ana (Cecilia Roth), and Pedro (Will More). José is a heroin-addicted director slogging it out at a B studio, making schlocky monster movies and living in sex-addled semi-misery with Ana, his on-again off-again girlfriend. Pedro is an extremely bizarre, and extremely sensitive, fancy boy who lives at his mother’s country estate and shoots shaky, hyper-fixated short films of rustling leaves and passing clouds all day. As Pedro tunnels further and further into his obsession with film, he vanishes, leaving behind only a cryptic, diary-like reel that José must decode, lest he too be swallowed by cinema.

Film historian and professor Michael Frost performed a complete retranslation for the American release of this stunning new restoration of the film. He sat down with Rue Morgue to discuss the cultural and linguistic nuances often lost in translation, the power of Spanish cinema, and the dark, magic world of Ivan Zulueta.

Before I ask you about your work translating ARREBATO, why don’t we start with an open-ended question. Who was Ivan Zulueta? To you and to cinema.

Zulueta was a master graphic designer. He was a master of super 8. He was a master editor. And he was just a spoiled rich kid who made two great movies before drugs ruined his life. He was fucked up on heroin, and it just spoiled him. It fucked his life up. I can only imagine the impact he would have had if he made more movies. Like, holy shit. But it just destroyed him. You know in ARREBATO, to give you a sense of who Zulueta was in life—Jose and Anna go to Pedro’s summer home, his family home. That was Zulueta’s actual family home. That massive country estate.

Do you see any similarity between Zulueta and Pedro, the privileged, child prodigy filmmaker? Or more with Jose, the junkie filmmaker?

He’s totally Pedro. But yeah, actually, he was also Jose. Zulueta was having a fling with Cecilia Roth at the time. Have you seen Pain and Glory by Almodovar? The director is obviously Almodovar, but the actor, played by Antonio Banderas, is Eusebio Poncela. That’s the friend that he didn’t speak to for many years. The guy from Law of Desire and Matador, both of which Banderas is also in.

That does make sense. Poncela has a very, very potent screen presence.

Yeah, he does. He’s very striking. He actually looks so much like one of Almodovar’s great actresses, Marisa Paredes. They have very similar eyes. And they’ve been in movies together. He looks like Marisa Paredes in boy drag. But back to ARREBATO. Like Pedro kinda just wastes away in front of the camera, ARREBATO is a film that captures a really promising career that just went by the wayside, because of apathy and addiction.

What did you do for this new restoration of the film?

I did a complete re-translation of all of the dialogue and re-did all the subtitles. Everything was incorrect.

What was the original translation like?

That translation was obviously done by somebody whose native language was Spain-Spanish, and their second language was English. I’m Spanish by birth. I was born and raised in Sevilla, and also raised in upstate New York. Awkward combo. But even though English is my primary language, Spanish being my secondary language allowed me to translate all of the slang, all of the nuances, all of the stuff that that other person could not get. I was able to really give a full correct retranslation of everything.

What kind of things were missing in the original translation?

It’s nothing really with the language itself. It’s certain sayings, certain slang, and especially certain ways of saying things. Whoever translated originally into the English did as literal a translation as you can get. It really made no sense. There’s lots of idioms and aphorisms in the film. I went in there and I just stripped it down and redid it beat by beat by beat. I got a lot of meaning and a lot of context that was lost, [that] was just not there at all initially. I think it makes more sense to viewers who are native English speakers.

Let me give you an example. Most of Pedro Almodovar’s movies’ titles don’t translate well, because the titles are more than just the literal words that make them up. There’s more meaning. You know his film High Heels from 1991? The Spanish title for that is Tacones Lejanos. That does not mean “high heels.” That means “The distant sound of heels.” Or there’s another twist to it, it means like, super high, high heels. Like “lejaaanos.” It really moves the sound. Almodovar does that all the time. Broken Embraces is another example. Los Abrazos Rotos. That means “the broken arms.” It does in one sense mean broken embraces, but the double meaning of broken arms makes it sound more brutal.

Whereas “Broken Embraces” sounds kind of like a melodrama.

It’s little details like that that make all the difference. Directors like Almodovar and Zulueta live in their own universe. They’re like authors that way. Almodovar is such a literary freak, he just reads reads and reads, the guy’s a fucking genius, he lives in a world that’s more literary. Literary in the way that it’s cinematic. He is cinema. And Zulueta is the same way. Zulueta and Almodovar were good friends. You know the scene where they’re doing poppers in the elevator? And the woman’s going “Pedro, Pedro”—that’s Almodovar. That’s not the actresses’ voice. Zulueta dubbed her.

No way!

Yes. That is Almodovar speaking. They were just having fun with it. That the movie is actually like a little Pandora’s box, because there’s so much in there. It’s deceptively subtle.

 It sounds like the social scene being depicted in ARREBATO really was Zulueta’s own.

Yes the film is a story, it’s surreal, but it’s also just documenting the life Zulueta and his friends were living. It was maybe not as dark for them as it was for him, though. The thing you have to keep in mind is that this was only four years after Franco died. Franco died in November of ’75. People were fucking sick of it and finally, when he died, could do whatever they wanted. They were fucking out in the street, basically. I don’t mean that literally. I mean, they were just like, “Screw this. We’re doing whatever we want. We’re busting out of the closet.”

Was Zulueta working during Franco-era Spain, or did he emerge after?

He was working right at the end of Franco. He was young, just like another director from that period, Bigas Luna, it was the same thing. Those guys started learning their shit in the ‘70s, early ’70s before Franco died in ’75. But the thing is that Zulueta, because he came from money, he was traveling back and forth to England, for work. He knew how to speak English. He made these video treatments for the Beatles. He was under the radar, and he was so fucked up on smack that he just ended up designing movie posters for Almodovar.

That original poster for Pepi, Luci, Bom is Zulueta, right?

No, that one’s Ceesepe, who also did the poster for Almodovar’s Labyrinth of Passion. Zulueta designed that awesome poster for Dark Habits, the one with the tiger in the nun’s habit. He designed the poster ARREBATO, it’s a maquette he drew. He also designed the poster for Viridiana, by Buñuel. He would hand draw, etch, and screenprint the images that would become these posters. The guy was a genius, and had the best taste, in clothes and design. He was super sexy and very hip.

ARREBATO is so original, so kind of extreme in its way, it’s funny that it’s coming out around the same time as the new restoration of Possession.

The Żuławski film, yeah. Żuławski, Zulueta…

They have a similar energy. Possession has this reputation for being so extreme, so high energy, so chaotic, and it is, but there’s lots of weird, ponderous silence, long, transitional scenes. And ARREBATO is full of those. There are these bursts of horror and sexuality…but it’s nothing like an Almodovar film, which would be overloaded sensory detail and so much to engage with.

This movie is heroin, and Almodovar films are cocaine. That’s what it is. It’s a slow film. A slow burn. It drags on, but it’s not at all an uninteresting film. It’s a really, really special film.

The 4K restoration of ARREBATO from Altered Innocence is currently enjoying a U.S. theatrical run. Click here for dates.

Ryan Coleman
Ryan Coleman is a writer on film from the San Gabriel Valley.