Sunday, February 12, 2023

Atrapados (1981)

... aka: Trapped

Directed by:
Matthew Patrick

Sometimes a movie ends up falling between the cracks not because it's not interesting or good but because it's of limited appeal almost from inception. Case in point is this difficult-to-pigeonhole indie film. While still a student at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, director Patrick won a Student Academy Award (in the experimental film category) for his short Triptych (1978). After completing studies at the American Film Institute, he'd get some more attention for Graffiti (1985), which was also nominated for an Oscar in the short films category. In between those, he made this feature with partial funding provided by the National Endowment of the Arts and AFI. Though it was shot entirely in the U.S. in Amherst and New York City, and presumably is also set in the U.S., the characters all speak Spanish. That likely has a lot to do with the film also receiving private funding from Puerto Rican sources. The male star and story / screenplay writer, Julio Torresoto, was born in Puerto Rico, as were some of the production designers, one of the producers and others in the crew. The female star, Sonia Vivas, was born in Venezuela and is Torresoto's real-life wife.

What we end up with here is a low budget post-apocalyptic movie with fantasy, drama, horror, philosophy, romance, surrealism and spiritual, mystical and esoteric themes that mostly centers around two principal characters on one cramped, dimly-lit set talking about a variety of things. It's really out there in both its ideas and how it chooses to present them. Though it may be an extremely difficult film to categorize, it's creative, personal, unique and ultimately a rewarding one to watch.

Overweight plumber Carlos (Torresoto) goes to a luxury highrise basement apartment occupied by a married academic couple to fix a leak. Only the wife, Alba (Vivas), happens to be home at the time. Before he can get to work, the building suddenly collapses around them and the until-now-color film suddenly turns to monochrome. Now trapped in a pocket surrounded by debris and rubble, the two immediately set into survival mode. He has a flashlight, but she finds candles to use so they can save the battery. A hole is located, but it leads to a dead end. Their screams for help go unheard. Attempts to remove the rubble could potentially cause tons of stone, wood and metal to cave in and crush them, so they have to be extremely careful about what they move. They're trapped and there may be no one else even around to save them.

Just what happened to the building, or perhaps to the city in general, is a complete mystery. Was the highrise the victim of faulty construction? Was there a devastating earthquake? Was there some kind of bomb dropped? Not knowing exactly what has happened only compounds the problem as each scenario would require a completely different strategy for survival. If the building simply collapsed due to a construction issue, they'd hear crews at work above, could communicate with them and be rescued fairly soon. Yet there's nothing but silence. If an earthquake leveled the entire city, there would be help, maybe not immediately but eventually, coming as the military, firefighters and volunteers go around looking for survivors. As for a potential bomb / war scenario, that's a little trickier. Judging by the opening shots of space, even things like a comet or an alien invasion or perhaps even something otherworldly or supernatural aren't even off the table. Perhaps this is why Carlos' watch suddenly stops working around the exact moment of the building collapse.

Luckily, a couple of things seem to be working in their favor. Alba's astronomy professor husband, Marcos (Mark Massi), was something of a doomsday planner paranoid about political unrest, war and economic downturns, so he's stockpiled loads of canned goods, which means they at least have enough food to last them awhile. Remember that leaky pipe? Well, it's still leaking, so they still have access to water. They're even provided with a steady supply of fresh air coming in from a crack somewhere, though that wouldn't necessarily be a good thing in the case of nuclear attack.

Forced into a situation they may not even be able to escape, Carlos and Alba have little choice but to get to know one another. He's a military vet who lives for the simple pleasures in life like drinking, sex and eating. He's also bitter, short-tempered, hot-headed, impulsive and has a difficult time keeping his emotions in check. Alba, on the other hand, is calm, composed and rational, perhaps to a fault. She has a master's degree in education, taught at a private school and claims to have invented a brand new science she calls "macro-micrology," which mixes astrology, biology and philosophy. Her theory is that, while living beings may "die" physically, they - we - are actually chemically immortal and just another part of a series of contained universes. These universes range from the giant to the microscopic and are in a constant state of change and motion. In other words, beginnings and endings only exist in our minds. We will continue on indefinitely, just in altered forms a la the first law of thermodynamics.

Carlos interestingly points out that she, living the life of upper class privilege that she does, can afford to spend most of her time leisurely studying, thinking and pondering our very existence while he, a member of the working class, has too many other tangible things to worry about like merely getting by. The two also face other conflicts. Her spiritual beliefs involve vegetarianism and feeling that plants have souls, while he's a meat-eating carnivore who grows sick of sustaining himself on small portions from her seemingly-endless canned veggie stockpile. He's eventually able to capture a few rats that wander by, but their appearances are sporadic, almost as if they're growing wise about the dangers lurking in the building.

It's revealed that both Carlos and Alba were in involved in unhappy, loveless relationships. He was in an open marriage to nymphomaniac Sophie (Charlene Koh), who had a regular lover on the side but was pretty much open to sleeping around with whoever, whenever, wherever. She also flaunted her infidelities all around town, leading neighbors to constantly berate Carlos for being a "cuckold." Feeling dehumanized and depressed, he took to the bottle.

While Carlos' marital woes became the subject of gossip, Alba's were hidden behind the veneer of social status and outward respectability. Her professor husband actually paid little attention to her, her passions or her theories as he was entirely devoted to his job and own academic pursuits. For the same reason, he refused to even consider having children despite her desire for them. Considering how they were existing before the current catastrophe, it's no surprise that Carlos and Alba also become involved on an intimate level. A child is eventually conceived, but food supplies start running dangerously low, an exit has yet to be found despite endless tunneling and things look grim.

While sometimes messy as first features almost always are, this is still fascinating both for its visual presentation and its themes. There's a peculiar yet nice balancing act going on here between the aesthetics and the writing. Both teeter dangerously close to the point of being overblown or pretentious, yet one aspect always seems to regain prominence over the other at just the right time to stabilize the tone.

The bleak, colorless present day predicament the characters find themselves in is shown in monochrome tinted various colors (blue, red, brown), which is frequently interrupted by full color flashbacks, distorted memories, fantasies and nightmares, often with a surrealist bent, which are in full color, along with vivid space shots. While some of the fantasy bits feels excessive and /or unnecessary, the interesting and thought-provoking ideas being bandied about in the script make up for them. The two leads not only give affecting performances but also make major physical transformations. Filmed over the course of a year, Vivas dropped 30 pounds and Torresoto dropped an astonishing 80 pounds to capture the impoverished state of the characters during the later portions of the film.

How or why this has mostly sunk from view since its initial release may be an interesting story to hear, so hopefully the director sheds some light on it one day. In a way, I can understand why some American distributors wouldn't have taken a gamble on it during the VHS era (it's weird, hard to categorize and subtitled), but I fail to see why no one has picked it up since then. I couldn't find evidence of a single legitimate home video release for this anywhere in the world. The copy online is one the director himself has uploaded to his Youtube channel. He would later go on to make Hider in the House (1989) with Gary Busey, a couple of TV movies - Tainted Blood (1993), for the USA Network, and Night Owl (1993), for Lifetime, and a bunch of shorts.

Though the nonexistent home video availability has limited the audience for this, it occasionally still screens at film festivals. At the beginning of 2017, and on the eve of Donald Trump's inauguration, it played in San Francisco as part of an end of the world-themed series titled "A Crack in the World: Cinema of Chaos and Transcendence." During that screening it shared company with certified classics like F. W. Murnau's Sunrise (1925), Luis Buñuel's The Exterminating Angel (1962), George Romero's DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978) and Elem Klimov's Come and See (1985), which is perhaps the highest complement the film has received to date. However, that was also six long years ago and the film still hasn't made its way to Blu-ray or DVD.

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