Berlinale 2023 review: Almamula (Juan Sebastián Torales)

Almamula teems with the promise of a first-time feature, its exploration of the moral and mystic uneven but distinctive in genre interpretation.”

The tug of war between sexuality and spirituality is a generous thematic field in film, ripened over the last century into a subgenre of its own. The path is well-worn but splinters into multiple perspectives, and given the metaphysical characteristics of religious faith, it is frequently travelled with supernatural markers along the way. From the canonical works of Carl Theodor Dreyer to modern classics like The Exorcist and First Reformed, the subject can make for otherworldly cinema, and this is true on a modest scale in Juan Sebastián Torales’ coming-of-age debut feature, Almamula.

When twelve-year-old Nino (Nicolás Díaz) is victimized by homophobic attacks (but blamed by neighbourhood parents as the bad influence), his family relocates from the city to the countryside. His distant, older father oversees a farm on the edge of the wilderness while his younger, religious mother Elsa (María Soldi) manages the household, including Nino and his irritated teenage sister Natalia (Martina Grimaldi). At their arrival, the rural community is humming with the disappearance of a child into the forest. The lost boy’s grandmother Maria is employed on the farm, and apprehension moves into the homestead with Nino and family, fear unpacked but never completely unwrapped. As his mother rushes him into Confirmation in the local parish, the sacrament of maturity in Christ obscures more carnal rites in the Argentine hinterlands.

There is a monster in the woods, the almamula of folklore, a mythological creature hellbent on destroying the sexually impure. Director and writer Torales builds tension through dreamlike ambiguity in these introductory scenes, accenting discord between the providential tenets of Catholicism and the provincial stories of legend. With the pointed use of whirring sounds and hard cuts, the film hints at horror. The filmmaker has stated his intent to explore the dynamics between conservatism and superstition in Almamula, and this friction permeates the boy’s exploration of self-actualization and sanctity–the real terror here. As Elsa grapples with loneliness and Natalia stokes her own budding sexuality, Nino begins to feel elusive, however, cast along the periphery of his own story.

Elsa gazes at a handyman above her fixing a ceiling fan, his torso in foreground, shirt rising as he reaches overhead. Natalia dares two girlfriends to kiss as the three teenagers lounge, tempting the almamula somewhere in the darkness, beyond the safety of her home. Torales frames the isolation and despair of Nino in the context of those in the small world around him, simmering with longing. Almamula approaches the edge of suspenseful desire, then pulls back. When his passions become more pronounced, Nino’s adolescent discoveries veering in uneasy confusion between the ecclesiastical and the occult, the film begins to smoulder less and attempts to shock more. The revelations are contextually realized and avoid gratuitousness but are nonetheless more superficial than anticipated. Nino begins to feel like little more than an abstract, as dimensional as the painting of the she-beast he finds in the church. Still, Almamula teems with the promise of a first-time feature, its exploration of the moral and mystic uneven but distinctive in genre interpretation.

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