A young man’s grief over the death of his girlfriend leads to an intriguing if inconclusive variation on a vision quest in Ruben Imaz’s “Cephalopod.” Less developed and assured than his striking debut feature, “Turtle Family,” this is an odyssey that lacks the intended emotional weight but nevertheless conjures a mysterious, even mystical mood, and reveals Imaz as a filmmaker with an interesting perspective on Mexican realities and mindsets. Buyers looking for a personal art film with strong locales may be attracted, though fests are likely to be the friendliest outlet.
Speaking in generous chunks of voiceover to his Mexican g.f., Maite, as if she were still alive, visibly upset Spanish painter Sebastian (Unax Ugalde) flies to Mexico City. Once in a sprawling city he barely knows, he begins to obsess over the creature that most concerned Maite’s oceanography research: the giant squid, which Sebastian describes in a subsequent party scene as a creature capable of “turning energy into the material.”
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Hanging out at his relatives’ home, Sebastian appears to shut down emotionally even as he becomes more uncomfortable in his own skin. The uneasy domestic situation directly recalls a similarly woozy environment in “Turtle Family,” though here Imaz’s camera remains tied to Sebastian’s perspective rather than that of an ensemble. It’s a refreshing difference, but there’s a lingering sense that Sebastian lacks the substance to singlehandedly carry the subdued narrative.
While Ugalde is directly in touch with Sebastian’s various stages of sadness and loss, much of the character’s inner being comes through the voiceovers, which best indicate his still-passionate love for Maite. He determines that the best way to express his love is to go on the research trip which Maite never completed before her demise: a field trip to study cephalopods in the Gulf of California. Neighbor Roberta (Flor Edwarda Gurrola) is attracted to Sebastian, but as in the clever first shot in which she appears, she remains in the background of Sebastian’s awareness.
Imaz likes to catch the viewer off-guard. Suddenly, while making a phone call, Sebastian switches to Basque, revealing his cultural identity and outsider status. A party scene turns startlingly violent for a moment, then stops. A starkly condensed chain of action takes Sebastian from a city market to Guaymas, then on a boat trip across the gulf to a deserted coastline.
“Cephalopod” could have been a richer experience, even as it seriously embraces its most direct cinematic influences, such as Antonioni, when Sebastian ventures off into the Baja desert. The voiceover unfortunately explains what’s already clear from the highly symbolic action: By walking in what he imagines would be Maite’s footsteps, Sebastian is trying to bring her essence back from the dead. While the film stops short of its mystical or existential potential, it suggests a filmmaker on a vision quest of his own.
Gerardo Barroso’s exterior lensing excels in thoroughly vivid settings in Mexico City, Guaymas and the gulf, yet is technically less proficient in interiors. Sound mix by Pablo Lach is superb.