An aging theorist faces the progressive ideals of the 21st century in Catalan director Jose Luis Guerin’s “The Academy of Muses,” a fascinating look at the antics of an ethically dubious professor that defies easy categorization.
In the simplest terms, Guerin — a formally ambitious filmmaker whose work often merges fact and fiction — focuses on the efforts of an instructor at the University of Barcelona who attempts to use concepts based on classic literature to sleep with his students. But there’s nothing simple about “The Academic of Muses,” which drops viewers into the center of a heady lecture by instructor Raffaele Pinto and never slows down. However, the heavy dialogue eventually transforms into an conduit for more intimate concerns, and “The Academy of Muses” blossoms into an unlikely crowdpleaser more broadly accessible than any given scholarly dispute.
Guerin builds to this point from the seeds of real life. Pinto has indeed been a professor of literature at the University of Barcelona for more than 40 years, and the rest of the cast exists within the constraints of the college. The filmmaker worked with Pinto and his students — who retain their real first names — to develop an organic plot. Beyond that, “The Academy of Muses” is fiction, but it retains a rare kind of mental authenticity.
After early scenes unfold as pure documentation of a lecture hall in action, the movie shifts to more private encounters that further develop Pinto’s story. Squabbling with his wife about his corrupt ideas, then sharing warmer moments with his entranced female students, Pinto evolves into a shifty character ruthlessly committed to mixing work with pleasure. As these events continue to develop through further wrangling over the definition of “muses” and their merits, Guerin molds the material into a vibrant portrait of academic unrest that changes, against seemingly impossible odds, into an experimental romantic comedy.
Pinto’s underlying argument for gathering young women as the titular muses to stimulate his poetry — a conceit that he draws from classic literature — creates heated debate among his disciples about whether he has genuinely inspired them to think in profound terms or simply enacted a form of intellectual seduction. His strong-willed wife (fellow professor Rosa Delor Muns) doesn’t buy any of it, and repeatedly tells him as much to routine comic effect. Guerin burrows into this mesmerizing ecosystem and surprisingly unearths the material for a thrilling high-minded plot about misguided ideas.
As title cards connote the passage of time, the conversations get increasingly heated. At one point, Pinto tries to shrink from accusations of misogyny by proclaiming that “We’re all prisoners of language.” That doesn’t do him much good, but it sets the stage for the essence of a movie in which language is the narrative’s dizzying central force. Despite the dense topic, “The Academy of Muses” remains a lighthearted experience that’s above all funny and engaging throughout.
Once the action shifts to scenes of Pinto advising his inquisitive students in the more intimate environment of his car (notably, he’s never seen in dialogue with other male students), there’s no doubting the subtext behind their exchanges. Later, in conversation with his wife, she confirms suspicions that beneath the veneer of his academic discourse lies more questionable intentions. Even to these charges, though, he provides a hilariously roundabout defense. “I’m possessive on the methodological level,” he insists, which has got to be the most outrageous excuse for infidelity in modern history.
While Pinto sets the action in motion, ultimately a trio of women take center stage. The wide-eyed Emanuela Forgetta has grown into such a devotee of Pinto’s theories that she tries to sway others from speaking ill of him, demonstrating the sheer danger of burying too deeply into a single frame of mind. His latest “muse,” the gullible blond-haired Mireia Iniesta, asserts her dominance in Pinto’s world in the hopes of outdoing any competition. Looming above them all, his wife offers the sole voice of reason. At once deeply critical of his methods and fiercely devoted to him, she’s a complex enigma thanks in large part to Muns’ animated performance.
The full extent of her commitment is only revealed in the sensational climax, when she faces down one of her husband’s gullible young subjects and puts the smart aleck in her place. It’s a vibrant confrontation in which characters attempting to rationalize their feelings finally cave to them. This scene marks one of several occasions when Guerin captures his subjects through glass, as if they’re physically constrained by their soul-searching dialogue.
“The Academy of Muses” eventually travels well beyond the campus, most intriguingly during a field trip to record singing shepherds in Sardinia, which prompts further debate about romantic ideals. As these scenes include conversations about reconciling passion and desire with rational thought, one doesn’t have to follow every beat to capture the essence of the struggle taking place.
To his credit, Pinto’s arguments with his students force them to explore the world in new ways, and he’s a continually ambiguous presence in their lives — horrifyingly corrupt at one point, enlightening the next. “The Academy of Muses” draws viewers in and forces them to take sides along with Pinto’s skeptical apprentices. By its end, the movie has transcended the boundaries of the classroom to become an educational experience in more ways than one.
“The Academy of the Muses” premiered this week at the Locarno Film Festival. It does not currently have U.S. distribution.