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'Alatriste' is a film based in a series of novels by Arturo Pérez-Reverte (five until release time, with a sixth published four months later) which is hugely popular in Spain. But undoubtedly it was the news that Viggo Mortensen was to be playing the title character what put the project onto the international radar.
In fact, had it not been for Mortensen's acceptance of the role, the film would not have been made at all. Director Agustín Díaz Yanes, who also adapted the script, condensing the five novels into 134 minutes of action, said from the beginning that the film would be made only if a major movie star fronted it, and the search soon took him beyond the Spanish frontiers. To his credit, Mortensen accepted to follow up his stardom-achieving role in 'The Lord of the Rings' trilogy (the clinching conversation for 'Alatriste' took place during the Berlin premiere of 'The return of the king' in December 2003) with a daring move that raised many eyebrows: starring in a non-English language film, and speaking his whole part in Spanish with his own voice, whose accent he had to change from the South American he knew since childhood to the Old Castillian his role demanded.
The film follows 40-something Diego de Alatriste y Tenorio through 20 years of his life, from the wars in Flanders in 1623 to those against France in 1643, when Spain, under king Philip IV, accelerated its decline from its position as the world's dominating superpower. The film is bookended by two spectacular feats of arms taken from each of these conflicts, but in the middle we get to know the man under the wide-brimmed hat and the long cloak. When not in the thick of the action, he has to make a living hiring his skills, and those involve killing for a few gold coins back in the dark corners of Madrid or Seville: not for people of his type the kind of glamourised glory depicted in victory-celebrating murals. Mortensen's portrayal - raspy voice, cold-eyed gaze and menacing professional manner - is every bit what the role demands, and his performance is one of the triumphs of the film.
However, he is not all there is, even if the hype has made it seem that Mortensen was all that mattered in the film. He is surrounded by a crew he has celebrated as being as fine as any he's worked with anywhere, and a cast of the best 'hidden' talent Spain has to offer (no Antonio Banderas or Javier Bardem here). Accompanying the 'tired hero', as he is described in the books, we have Unax Ugalde as Íñigo de Balboa, the young buck Alatriste raises in lieu of his dead father; Elena Anaya as Angélica de Alquézar, the scheming ladyservant of the queen; and Ariadna Gil as 'la gran actriz' María de Castro, Alatriste's luscious love interest. They form the heart of the film from the perspective of personal relationships. In none of their hearts love for each other is the only ingredient by any means, and negotiating their twists and turns can be as dangerous as avoiding sharp and pointy steel objects in the street. In fact, they don't stay sheathed indoors all the time either
The rest of the painting is full of extraordinary nuances and details. And 'painting' is the right word, because none other than one of the greatest masters of the trade ever, Diego Velázquez, has been the visual inspiration for the film, with his grave palette of black and brown colours, a world away from the splendour and shine of previous and later historical films. Spain was wealthy on the outside but poor and rotten on the inside, and his paintings show this, as does the film. The novels mix the imaginary characters hitherto mentioned with real-life figures, and two of the supporting ones are brought to life directly from his canvases. These are Javier Cámara as the Count-Duke of Olivares, the mover and shaker behind the throne, and Juan Echanove as the writer and poet Francisco de Quevedo. The first one is, as can be expected, important to move the political plot forward, and the second might seem peripheral and time-consuming, but his picture and verses are in every school textbook in Spain, so for Spanish people these two play the important role of making Velázquez's paintings move and speak, bringing closer to home the other characters. It's been Pérez-Reverte's aim from the beginning of the saga to use Alatriste's stories to re-educate Spanish people in their own history, too neglected in recent years (see trivia section on this site) and this is a way of seeing what could have happened 400 years ago in the streets one can still walk today. Not for nothing the premiere was planned, old fashion style, in La Gran Vía, in the heart of El Madrid de los Austrias.
This is the first English review of the film ever written (as far as I know), fully one week ahead of the official Spanish release, so it is mostly introductory and I am not going into more details on purpose. Outside Spain, the film will be seen mostly in festivals, with foreign releases happening gradually towards Christmas 2006. Just to say that those who have read the books will find, as it usually happens, many changes among a genuine attempt to be faithful to the spirit of the original material, and that one thing you should avoid doing is seeing it under the shadow of 'The Lord of the Rings', because of Viggo, or under the shine of glossy Hollywood historical recreations full of dizzying light and colour. The scale is much smaller, the atmosphere darker and grittier, and sword master Bob Anderson, who crossed blades with the likes of Errol Flynn (not to mention humming lightsabres and Elvish-lettered weapons), has never been happier teaching people 'a matar, y mucho'.
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