José Luis Guerín’s The Academy of Muses requires patience to detect its emotional climate. The film opens with a designation—“An educational experience…filmed by J.L. Guerin”—that downplays directorial solicitation, as though the proceeding events are merely recorded by an impartial filmmaker for the purposes of posterity. And frankly, that’s how the film feels when committing its attention to philology lectures run by real-life University of Barcelona poetry professor Raffaele Pinto. The scholar’s course is on musedom is classical Italian literature, and the film cultivates a steady visual back and forth between the male teacher and the largely female student body that’s dictated by the cadence of the heady discourse more than anything. That said, the more-or-less 180-degree cutting axis established by Guerín does imply a certain intellectual competitiveness that will gradually grow in relevance as the film expands beyond the lecture hall to observe the place of academic philosophy in personal life.
It turns out that Pinto, a stubbly, humorless bookworm with rather romantic ideas on female agency that tend to register as condescending, values his students so highly that he fervently resumes his conversations with them off campus. He also has sex with them. The film’s scant and slowly blossoming melodramatic narrative involves the realization of Pinto’s wife, Rosa (Rosa Delor Muns), to this fact, though the drama that ensues stays well out of the realm of histrionics and grounded in the increasingly knotty terrain of dialectical discussion. Guerín’s conjuration of complex, naturalistic performances in delivering such highfalutin’ verbiage (from non-actors, no less) shouldn’t go uncelebrated, as the film’s interest derives largely from parsing the motivating rationale behind obfuscating language, such as identifying the behemoth of self-interest belied by Pinto’s claim that his adulterous pursuits are part of “my research.”
It’s a shame, however, that The Academy of Muses’s verbal qualities far outpace its formal attributes, especially given the sophisticated use of point of view, camera movement, and reflective surfaces found in Guerín’s last fiction feature, the great In the City of Sylvia. The latter aesthetic trope is brought to bear here in a multitude of scenes viewed from the far side of a pane of glass, albeit in such a repetitive manner that the implications of the pictorial technique—the duality of human existence, the splintering of perception—nearly overwhelm the nuances playing out through the interaction between the actors. Meanwhile, the film’s low budget and digital cinematography have been cited routinely in explaining its shoddy look, but it’s hard to work up excuses for some of Guerín’s lazy staging, arbitrary cuts to black leader, and jerky camerawork.