TIFF 2017: The Motive Review

Special Presentations

The Motive, the latest Spanish-speaking feature from Manuel Martin Cuenca, is a little too full of itself. The film sets out a challenge by explicitly defining drama and discussing what makes a good story, but, unfortunately, fails to provide either.

Alvaro (Javier Gutiérrez) is an aspiring novelist who has learned very little in his three years of taking a writing class. He churns out turgid prose that his writing instructor screams is devoid of any semblance of reality or lived experience. After witnessing his wife having sex with another man, Alvaro begins experiencing a variety of different emotions, that, once put on paper, gain the respect of his classmates and teacher. Seeking further approval, Alvaro decides to move into an apartment building and wishes to use his neighbours as inspiration for his new novel.

Among the sub-genre of meta-fiction, there are many great films that meet the challenge of telling a great story about stories: Adaptation, Stranger than Fiction, and In the House are but a few examples. In fact, attempting to please one’s writing instructor is the impetus of In the House (2012), which leads to an exciting confrontation between the protagonist and his English teacher. It’s important to recognize that when a story states or discusses stories in explicit detail, the veil has been dropped and we can see the inner workings for what they are.


The story of Alvaro manipulating his neighbours looks good on paper, but the story beats have all been seen before. The neighbours lack the eccentricity or whimsicality of the ones featured in Amélie. Lulu, the aged and lonely superintendent (Adelfa Calvo), is the only neighbour of interest: I wish that her song midway through the film was subtitled (many films do not subtitle their songs, which is unfortunate). Even if realism was the aim of the depiction of the neighbours, the film falls flat: details are told rather than shown, and scenes feel unnecessarily drawn out. 

I appreciate The Motive for putting its balls on the table like Ernest Hemingway did, but too bad it doesn’t have a leg to stand on. The story about a story will not stop reminding you that it is a story, and that, in the end, is not a very entertaining use of the meta-fiction subgenre.

Accessibility Note:

In addition to songs not being subtitled (which is a common practice), the first scene which involves a Herzog film and a lecture in English was not subtitled. Thanks to Anna Maria of A.M. Public Relations for providing a transcript.


Michael McNeely is a deaf-blind film critic and advocate for greater accessibility in our cinemas. Read more about his story here.

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