This review is written from a screening at Cambridge Film Festival 2012 Forget the ludicrously low rating, definitely the weak-point with The Night Elvis Died (2010) is the title, which would not matter, but, when it comes to people choosing whether to watch film X or Y or Z that are on at a convenient time this evening, they do not pay much attention to detail, and this one just sounds like a documentary about burgers, Gracelands and The King of Rock'n'Roll before anyone gets to read something saying otherwise - so film X or Z will fight it out as to which gets viewed.
Now, I don't say that it's right, but, particularly with a foreign-language film and translating its title into English, something judged dead right, like Holy Motors (2012), which - whatever it is - sounds swish and appealing, will get an audience, whereas this much better film didn't close the festival (in Screen 1), but was in Screen 3 one evening.
The comparison with Motors is not just incidental, as this review may go on to make clear, but Motors is on release, and, when I last noticed, showing twice per day locally, whereas those of us that night with Toni Espinosa for a screening and Q&A were the lucky few to be seeing it at all. Forgetting the investment of money, talent and time in making a film, the purpose of any creative act is for it to be seen.
What, then, is Elvis? Well, in a sort of Hitchcockian way, we have a character (Aureli Mercader, hauntingly played by Blai Llopis) with certain experiences, and we know - as the film goes on, but early on that he has issues with anxiety and that something has happened to him
that he had a breakdown. So his credibility is automatically if not
written off, then in doubt, because that goes with the territory, which is often a filmic struggle for the person who had ill-health, to amass enough evidence to overcome the weight of the sceptical standard of proof. Classic Hitchcock, too, he has amnesia about what happened on the crucial night, although he knows the outcome and why that night was significant.
Alongside Hitchcock, though, there is also a feeling of Chinatown, because part of seeking for the answer, the breakthrough, is to visit a woman who might be unfairly treated as if she has dementia, when she seems reasonably coherent. Are people pretending to be mentally ill to protect themselves, have others drugged them to make them unwell for their own protection, or was there a real trauma? The film has us play with all three ideas, and when (as in Spellbound) a visual stimulus unlocks Aureli's memory, there is a psychologically convincing remorse that has him put the blame on himself for a death.
Part of the unfolding, where supernatural elements take over, and Aureli can wander into the behind-the-scenes part of a theatre and emerge from vegetation comprising props into a real wild space, is the working out of that assumed guilt. Aureli is in the theatre at all because the historic amateur passion play that has its home there is at risk, and his amnesia and the forces that threaten the play's existence are bound up together. There is a patchiness in the extent to which these hints at dimensions beyond our habitual ones feature, and they seem to go silent at one point when the machinery of a murder and clearing up after it are under way, but, in the final development, although rather mysteriously and highly symbolically at times, the floodgates open of worlds beyond possibility.
The guilt reaches an obvious conclusion with Elvis, so called because he had played Jesus in the passion play (and so was The King), seen on the cross and Aureli at the foot of it. He asks Elvis to forgive him, and so is literally both beseeching the crucified Christ, as one of the thieves does in one gospel account, and his supposed victim.
Maybe not an easy film to follow, especially in the closing scenes, but there was no doubt that something was being worked out, understanding which might be repaid by a second viewing. Producer Tony Espinosa is to be thanked for coming to the festival with his film, and also the programmer of the Catalan strand (Ramon Lamarca) for inviting him to come. (He did answer questions, but my recollection of that session is not clear enough just now to try to record the main points discussed,although I do recall that, when I asked about the Hitchcock parallels, there had not been any deliberate reference.)
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