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The Motive

San Sebastián 2017 Review


Independent; 112 minutes

Director: Manuel Martín Cuenca


Written by Ed Frankl on September 27, 2017 




Writer’s block as a theme has given us subversive movies like Barton Fink and Adaptation, films that visualize creative impasse through contorted narratives and stylized cinema. The Motive (El Autor), a smart Spanish comedy from director Manuel Martín Cuenca, doesn’t get close in quality to those stand-out films, but in echoing Deconstructing Harry or Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York, it deftly shows that the dividing line between fact and fiction has always been blurred.

Javier Gutiérrez is Álvaro, a notary in the southern Spanish city of Seville and a wannabe novelist who elevates his hum-drum life for years at a creative writing evening class where his amateurish writing is given short shrift by his irascible tutor (a great Antonio de la Torre).

His life is quickly overturned when his wife Amanda’s (Maríá León) debut novel becomes an overnight hit on the best-seller lists, and his ambitions are humiliated by his wife’s talent. This is made worse when Álvaro discovers Amanda – glamoured-up since the book’s success, making him seem even more ordinary – is having an affair.

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Álvaro moves out and rents a new place in an apartment block. Taking time off work, he tries to start writing great “literature,” not the for-the-masses “sub-genre” he dismisses his wife’s work as. And this high literature comes from the people around him, as his writer’s block ends when he discovers he can listen in on his neighbors through his bathroom window. “Inspiration doesn’t come from books, but from real life,” comes to be his Hemingway-like mantra. Spying from his apartment, there’s echoes of Rear Window, and Cuenca certainly riffs on cinema as a voyeuristic pursuit as Alvaro plunders his neighbor’s lives for prose.

His people-watching is an intoxication, and his addiction leads him to a path more than observing and reporting. He starts introducing himself into their lives, leading his characters to more extreme scenarios. He first sleeps with the married apartment concierge to extract information about residents. Then he makes sure the breadwinner of an immigrant family, struggling to make ends meet, loses his job, and acquaints a former fascist Franquista general (“democracy is a sickness”) who has a safe full of money in his room. Things don’t go to his plan, but that only gives Álvaro kicks.

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Director Manuel Martín Cuenca has a talented cast, with Gutiérrez particularly strong in balancing whether his envy of his wife is a reasonable accusation of lack of effort or, perhaps more likely, a symptom of his self-righteous nature and pettiness. Cuenca has history with antihero protagonists, as his previous film made considerable effort in making a cannibal likeable. It’s worth wondering, however, whether Cuenca could have done more to eke out the comedy from some more of the absurd moments, mostly involving the excellent Adelfa Calvo as the boisterous, unstable apartment concierge.

The best thing about The Motive (surely better translated from its Spanish title, The Author) is a genuinely funny script from Alejandro Hernández, who wrote Cuenca’s previous film Caníbal. He understands the curious link between fact and fiction, and that fiction often makes for a better interpretation of real life. There’s more than a whiff of Woody Allen’s aforementioned Deconstructing Harry, which also weaves reality and fiction into a story of writer’s block. The Motive, too, takes interest in the Allenesque idea of whether fate is predetermined just as much as fiction is decided by a writer playing God. With Alvaro recording his neighbors’ conversations on his phone, his script also makes a case for the changes in how we’ve recorded reality since the age of the smartphone, and that we can easily rewind, repeat, and manipulate our pasts in our current Instagram age.

The Motive screened at the San Sebastián International Film Festival.


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