The Motive, or El Autor, by Spanish director Manuel Martín Cuenca, has a lot of things going for it. It’s darkly funny, built around a killer premise, and has a unique, slightly alien sense of style that keeps it entertaining and watchable. But it’s also strangely indifferent, never quite building the right amount of tension or ascending into the expected levels of absurdist fantasy.
The premise, adapted from a short novel penned by noted Spanish scribe Javier Cercas, revolves around a sad-sack notary who attempts to fulfil his literary ambitions by chronicling the lives of people in his apartment building. But Alvaro, played very well by Javier Gutierrez, is a terrible writer, and so begins to manipulate his subjects in order to enliven his prose.
Alvaro is well-aware of his shortcomings; he’s reminded of them constantly by his foul-mouthed creative writing teacher, Juan (Antonio de la Torre), and his best-selling novelist wife, Amanda (Maria Leon), whom he leaves after discovering she’s having an affair. The latter isn’t in the original text and adds very little to The Motive besides a clear resentment for Alvaro, who wants to write real literature rather than her brand of populist genre fiction.
Alvaro pumps the unhappily-married building concierge, Lola (Adelfa Calvo), both physically and for information about the various tenants, who include an elderly fascistic former soldier (Rafael Tellez) and a Mexican immigrant couple, Irene (Adriana Paz) and Enrique (Tenoch Huerta), whose conversations he begins to eavesdrop on and record from his bathroom. These are the characters and situations that will form the raw material of Alvaro’s novel, but his inability to write means he can’t help but deceitfully provoke them into conflicts — some quite despicable — that he can use for dramatic effect.
Gutierrez is dependable as Alvaro, but there are so many restrictions placed on him that it’s difficult for the audience to become invested in what he’s doing. Implausibly devoid of any actual personality, which is the point but also undesirable for a protagonist, and often breathtakingly stupid, he’s a pitiable figure in The Motive, which requires more of him than that. And because of the film’s obvious artifice, he’s the sole emotional connection we have to a story that is undeniably clever but never quite as engaging as it would like to be.