‘Counting sheep’, a film about the purgatory of insomnia

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Insomnia was a powerful tool for artists famous like Nabokov, Proust and Dalí. They sought it out to boost creative work.

Nabokov wrote in Speech, Memory:

“The dream is the most idiotic brotherhood in the world, with the highest obligations and the crudest rituals. It’s a mental torture that I find degrading.”

For Van Gogh insomnia was a gift and a curse. Insomnia during his stay in Arles inspired the painter’s most avant-garde works, which evoke a state between dream and reality. Insomnia also caused acoustic and visual hallucinations that aggravated Van Gogh’s mental health.

Insomnia as a source of creativity and hallucinations permeates every scene of Counting Sheep (2022), the debut feature by José Corral Llorente, which will be released next Wednesday, April 13, exclusively in cinemas.

The film takes place between the real and the dreamlike, the black comedy and the dirty drama in an indefinite time —as it happens in dreams— in a building that may have been stately in other times but that needs renovation at the time of the story. This building is another protagonist. The sordidness of the spaces created by Chuck Palahniuk has been installed there. Chipped walls varnished by dust, stairs with rotten wood and a useless cage elevator.

The endless corridors with tiled walls are reminiscent of the mental hospitals of old English horror films. The dilapidated mailboxes leave no doubt: four cats live there.

Juan Grandinetti and Eneko Sagardoy in Counting Sheep Juan Grandinetti and Eneko Sagardoy in ‘Counting Sheep’

This building is purgatory for Ernesto (Eneko Sagardoy), an artist who suffers from insomnia, although he has committed no sin other than living and recording stories starring dolls. An art known as stop-motion that has given Corral Llorente satisfaction thanks to the animated short film for adults El desván, which won numerous awards and was nominated for the 2004 Goya.

Consuelo Trujillo in Counting Sheep Consuelo Trujillo in ‘Counting Sheep’

Insomnia is not a gift for Ernesto, but a problem that affects his health, his spirit and his job as botches in the old building run by a fussy old woman (Consuelo Trujillo) from whom he receives ridicule and contempt.

The culprit of insomnia is Leandro (Juan Grandinetti), a neighbor who organizes parties at dawn. upstairs to sell designer drugs to characters who look like they just came from a Frankie Goes to Hollywood video shoot. Parties that last until dawn.

It is not uncommon to find Ernesto in his cheap overalls picking up cans and dog poop on the stairs while the last guests, sons of the cutrelux, descend. Parties that arouse the interest of characters from coated paper magazines like Paola (Natalia de Molina), addicted to drugs and Leandro, and Ernesto’s wet dream.

Natalia de Molina and Juan Grandinetti in Counting Sheep Natalia de Molina and Juan Grandinetti in ‘Counting Sheep’

When Ernesto protests, with a small mouth, Leandro acts like a high school bully accompanied by his presa dog as a deterrent.

Laura (Maria Fernanda Valera), the Peruvian assistant of the landlady, seems the only beacon in the dark purgatory. As soon as the actress appears on the screen, she has the rare quality of creating a bubble of magic and calm in the audience.

María Fernanda Valera in Counting Sheep María Fernanda Valera in ‘Counting Sheep’

It is not hard to imagine that at some point Ernesto will react against those who treat him like a rag. But the solution comes unexpectedly for the audience and plunges the film into a dark fantasy. It is not possible to say more without gutting the plot.

Somehow, Corral Llorente places us in a dream in which we feel powerless to alter the facts. The director challenges the audience: he wants to prevent the audience from saying “And now (happens)…”.

In Counting Sheep, the expression «now (happens)» has no place because the film is not drawn following the script manuals. The viewer must be open to expect the unexpected.

To create in the audience the sensation of being defenseless before the images, Corral opens the film showing the miserable life that Ernesto endures in a dystopia represented by the building itself.

In any other story it would be the beginning of the hero’s journey, but Ernesto does not make any trip because from the first image he is at that point that the manuals call “the belly of the whale”: the dilapidated stately building. The place where the hero departs from the known world. But Ernesto is not a hero and he only knows one world: the one that causes a perpetual state of insomnia.

Do you want to know more about the film? Click here.