Angel Eyes


Adolpho Arrietta, Imitación del Ángel (Imitation of the Angel), 1966, still from a black-and-white film in 16 mm, 22 minutes.

LITTLE KNOWN OR SCREENED in the United States, the work of Spanish experimental filmmaker Adolpho Arrietta is more than ready for discovery and appreciation. An upcoming Arrietta retrospective at Anthology Film Archives will hopefully encourage both.

Arrietta was born in Madrid in 1942 and began shooting movies as a teenager. A trio of short, thematically linked 16-mm black-and-white films called the “Angel Trilogy” garnered him his first recognition in the 1960s and continues to be his most highly regarded work. The first in the series, The Crime of the Spinning Top (1965), consists of an elliptical, oneiric narrative about a sexually frustrated adolescent boy bursting with homicidal urges against an older brother who undeservingly courts his object of desire. The daydreams and flaneurlike wanderings of the protagonist, as well as a glissando-heavy piano score, lure the viewer into a reverie eventually disturbed by fratricide and a disarmingly happy denouement.

Imitation of the Angel (1966) and The Criminal Toy (1969) play even more oblique variations on the themes and motifs of the first film. In Imitation of the Angel, a stifled bourgeois woman enlists a lover to kill her husband, and then—in a bizarre act of metaphysical transformation—herself. (“You must strangle me until I disappear,” she pleads. “Until I become something else.”) To complicate matters further, the young man brings along an accomplice, or possibly two—the level of reality at which a tunic-covered angel operates remains purposefully obscure. In The Criminal Toy, a middle-aged man stalks his former wife even as another couple—who might be dreaming about the first one—wrestle with marital problems occasioned by the seductive intrusion of a handsome angel. Throughout both films, poetic images—of wings cut from cheap paper, of spinning globes, of angels floating and dressing in reverse motion—comment on and enter into the dialogue-minimal stories.

Arrietta’s work has been frequently likened to Cocteau’s, a connection made all the more obvious by the presence in The Criminal Toy of Cocteau actor and muse Jean Marais. While the comparison is apt, it’s also worth pointing out the possible influence on the “Angel Trilogy” by the American avant-garde of the ’40s and ’50s and the various European new waves of the ’60s: The films’ amateur production values and psychodrama narratives recall Maya Deren and Kenneth Anger, while the violence instigated by ennui-plagued youth is reminiscent of the kinds of transgressions Jean-Luc Godard and Marco Bellocchio were committing contemporaneous to Arrietta.

This isn’t to say the “Angel Trilogy” is a mere amalgam of historic cinematic trends. A unique understanding of Catholic sin and salvation informs these films. Arrietta’s angels offer neither grace nor messages from God, but instead haunt their human charges as agents of unfulfilled longing and dark desire. And Arrietta’s complex and challenging narrative strategies—which often involve the blurring of separate characters’ identities and aims—creates a troubling confusion of good and evil, love and fear, provoking the question of whether the divine order might not itself be divided and corrupted.

Michael Joshua Rowin

Adolpho Arrietta’s “Angel Trilogy” screens Thursday, September 15–Sunday, September 18 at Anthology Film Archives in New York.