The many facets of the meaning conveyed make Umbracle an unclassifiable, heterogeneous, unfathomable creation. It is both a reflection on the mechanics of film representation (perhaps like all Portabella's incomprehensibly occult work) and a film that branches out at each step it takes. But while some films think of cinema in a museographic sense, simply repeating a number of stereotyped poses, Umbracle doubles the bet and becomes a cry out loud with delay effect for a live, palpitating cinema. Its aesthetic radicalism is stressed not only through its formal choices, but also -if I may use a football metaphor- through its skill at putting the other players into the game, changing its register and speed like a good number 5, swinging from pure avant-garde to political denunciation against the methods of Franco's regime and the current state (the 1970s) of Spanish cinema. It is thus impossible to talk of a theme or a structure. Portabella would rather seem to be thinking of a succession of independent pictures which, through abrupt changes in direction (not dramatic effect), deploys one proposal after another, equidistant from fondness and distancing. This is done by using an excluding figure at the heart of the matter, one that does not add any understanding to the proposal, but gives it an estrangement which we, as spectators, cannot disregard: Christopher Lee. If we were to seek some particular code for interpreting this, there are three ingredients in Portabella's film centrifuge which foil the whole attempt. Firstly, a character, Dracula (famously played by Lee), who has been retired since the early 1970s (we should remember that a new horror film genre was born with Romero's Night of the Living Dead and other counter-culture films emerging between the decades). Secondly, an actor of international renown lost in the periphery of the world`s film production centres (not forgetting that they have just filmed, in a few weeks practically, Jesús Franco's El Conde Drácula, precisely a melancholic view of the character). Finally, an unknown space with incomprehensible rules (just look at the use of estrangement that Portabella makes by smuggling in the representation of a kidnapping by paramilitary forces in the centre of the street). Rossellini talked of modernity as the approach that could turn its gaze to rubble, to the remains of a building, of a dream.
As an itinerant protagonist in an unknown Barcelona, Lee refers us to this Italian director and his lost look of the world -that disconnected look that Gilles Deleuze calls an optical image and pure sound; a look that responds to the fracture of all contiguity and pragmatics. A neo-flaneurism but without the productive shock stemming from modern cities, instead coming from the disillusionment of the post-war period, the disillusionment of the depression of the studio system and former myths and codes of horror films.
A little like the Chris Marker of La Jette or El espigón, in its version in Spanish, the central character wanders around a natural science museum, where collections of synthetically reconstructed stuffed animals are kept. Portabella adds to all this a (de)construction of the soundtrack in respect of the contiguity with the picture track, using the sound counterpoint as a precision weapon. This "breaking of meaning" from what we know and encode as classic is also a sort of denouncement and uneasiness. The impossibility of merging the recording of the soundtrack with the images is a plunge into the conflict created by the dictatorship in Spain. The formalist avant-garde lunges are a response to censorship and a devastating criticism of the dowdy conventionalisms of an official cinema not prepared to take any risks. Even Portabella himself uses his own body to clearly establish what the period's rules of the game are: if this is criticising censorship, self-censorship, the indiscriminate control of the means of production, distribution and showing, and the widespread fear of creative searching. But Portabella does not limit himself to denunciation, but also proposes the need to multiply the circuits of production-distribution-showing, to the extent that his films are not only political but that politics and the fact of filming go together for this director. In this context, Lee's apparent strolls take on a new meaning in each step. Demolished by the dictatorship, and only a few years from the dictator's imminent death, the Spain that our hero is walking through is none less than that of disillusionment.
The tyrant would have to fall before Spain could believe in dreams again, regrettably without having learned its lesson and soon being dragged along by the economic miracle and uncontrolled consumption (whose social criticism Portabella is clearly made in Pont de Varsòvia, a fierce farewell from his post as director, at least until today).
Umbracle grows in spirals and almost never heads back on its tracks. It subjects us as spectators to a radical experience of an unusual aridity, at the same time as hurling its protagonist into broken spaces, spaces that will never be places. And that melancholy still endures with the evidence of the artifice and the space behind the camera (Portabella's tracking shots are a characteristic feature of the author: he starts out from a diegetic space to occasionally leave the representation, as if the film editor had forgotten to cut out the fragment where everything becomes a stenography). Or perhaps Portabella thinks of the place of his films in the world as a representation set in the abyss, unending, fascinating and critical at the same time. For that reason his view may perhaps seem desperate; on the other hand his love for artifice is only a Nietzschean love for the flight of the story, for the vital power of images from a world of images which can be happy and sad at the same time.