The idea that art should be taken from life is taken all too literally by a protagonist with no imagination whatsoever in “The Motive.” This adaptation of prominent Spanish scribe Javier Cercas’ short novel revolves around a would-be author who begins manipulating people in his apartment building to provide fodder for the fiction he’s always wanted to write.
There’s an undeniable lurid pull to this premise and its increasingly odd progress. But director Manuel Martin Cuena’s neutral tone does little to maximize the black comedy or suspense in the story, making for a film with a great hook that plays as just a mildly outré divertissement. Nonetheless, it won the Fipresci critics’ prize at Toronto in the Special Presentations category.
Alvaro (Javier Gutierrez) is a 40-ish notary who toils daily in a particularly irksome law office, yet has always dreamed of being an author. It’s more annoying, then, that his pretty wife Amanda (Maria Leon) really is one — in fact, she’s just won a prize for her admittedly populist funny tome, ominously titled “Men’s Secrets.” When Alvaro discovers her in the act of infidelity, he moves out, staying in Seville but finding a flat of his own. There, he tells her, after he’s been suspended from his job for being excessively distracted, he will at last write real “literature,” not “a mere sub-genre novel” like her own current success.
Trouble is, Alvaro hasn’t an original idea in his head. Heeding the advice of his rather overpowering writing-class instructor (Antonio de la Torre), he begins to find inspiration directly from life — although not exactly his own life. Realizing his bathroom window is within easy eavesdropping distance of a young immigrant couple (Adriana Paz, Tenoch Huerta) facing serious financial woes, he pumps building concierge Lola (Adelfa Calvo) for intel on them and other tenants, including gruff old fascist Don Felipe (Rafael Tellez). Willing to do just about anything for his “art,” our protagonist even commences an affair of sorts with the married but antsy (and ample) Lola to gain her assistance in infiltrating others’ lives.
This duly has the effect of enlivening his prose, which hitherto had the airlessness of writing that imitated other, better writers. But Alvaro isn’t content to use his neighbors’ personalities as raw material. Instead, he actively, deceitfully prods them into conflicts and actions he can then use — most appallingly, telling the immigrants that their plight (i.e. the husband’s job loss) is a lost cause in legal terms, when he knows precisely the opposite is true. Things escalate to the point where Alvaro is encouraging a crime to happen.
All this is intriguing enough, though only the business with Lola — who, once her passions are aroused and then ignored, proves a formidable woman scorned — ascends to an inspired level of grotesque absurdism. Elsewhere, Cuena and collaborators strike a muted tone that feels almost indifferent, in everything from the blah visual presentation to a lack of any real tension arising around the potentially disastrous consequences of Alvaro’s meddling. A late twist that should come as a shock carries little punch (or plausibility), followed by a coda that likewise ought to deliver more ghastly hilarity.
As the human void in the center of these goings-on, Gutierrez is aptly blank, but one wishes he and the film had found a way to imbue a fatal lack of personality with more personality — particularly in the realm of satirical zest. The support players contribute more energy, notably de la Torre and the terrifically game Calvo.
Perhaps Cercas’ ironical sensibility is difficult to translate to the screen, but “The Motive” doesn’t try very hard with the tools at its disposal: It too often looks nondescript, failing, for instance, to get any real visual mileage out of Alvaro’s inability to personalize his environment (he barely furnishes his empty white-walled apartment). Likewise, pacing and musical choices are disconcertingly bland. Whatever attracted Cuenca (“Cannibal”) to this material is seldom evident in his handling of it. Yet the material itself still lends the film its genuine if all-too-modest pleasures.