Alatriste (2007): Historical Epic Starring Viggo Mortensen

Reviewed by Tim Grierson

Adapted by writer-director Agustn Daz Yanes from author Arturo Prez-Revertes series of popular Spanish novels, Alatriste fills its two-hour-plus running time with so much political intrigue, unrequited love, and epic battle scenes that the films sheer quantity of events hopes to distract from the lack of quality moments.

Tracing the decline of the Spanish Empire over a 20-year span in the early 17th century, Alatriste, which was recently nominated for 15 Goya awards, is a dry history lesson intermittently enlivened by sword fights.

Viggo Mortensen plays Diego Alatriste, an honorable soldier whose commitment to following a personal code of ethics occasionally finds him running afoul of corrupt superiors.

A solitary man, Alatriste quietly pines for Mara de Castro (Ariadna Gil), a married actress with whom he has had an ongoing, infrequent affair. His main companion is the loyal igo Balboa (Unax Ugalde), the son of a slain fellow soldier whom he promised to look after. While Alatriste goes off to fight Spains wars, Balboa falls for Anglica (Elena Anaya), a courtier who loves the commoner but has royal aspirations for herself.

All of Alatristes characters, no matter their station, are bound together in their fear of the ruthless Inquisitions as well as their uncertainty of Spains continued global reign, which grows more tentative the larger the kingdom expands. As Spain begins its slow but inevitable fall, Alatriste continues mightily to defend the country he loves, despite the ruinous decisions made by his king.

Daz Yaness first two films–the comedic No News From God” (“Sin noticias de Dios”) and the crime drama Nobody Will Speak of Us When Were Dead (“Nadie hablar de nosotras cuando hayamos muerto”)–attracted some interest at American festivals but failed to secure domestic theatrical releases. Despite Alatristes success with Spanish audiences, the film may encounter the same problems on these shores as the writer-directors earlier efforts did.

Chief among the films deficiencies is its frustratingly episodic nature, which continually snuffs out any hint of narrative momentum. The plots structural repetition becomes apparent early on. When Alatriste receives a military assignment, he successfully completes the bloody mission and returns home to learn what new drama has befallen Spains ruling class; then, he (or Balboa) meanders through his romantic subplot.

Drawing from the many incidents described in Prez-Revertes books rather than focusing on the characters emotional arcs, Daz Yanes presents the audience with the figures who lived during a critical era in Spanish history, but reduces their desires and ambitions to tawdry melodrama more common to bulky historical romance novels.

As the films central figure, Mortensen does what he can with an underwritten part–he imbues his dully noble warrior with gravity and intensity. But this meager role cannot compare with his fine work in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, where he seemed to grow in stature and confidence right alongside his character Aragorn.

With his first appearance on screen in Alatriste–his steely gaze floating above murky waters, his body coiled for battle–Mortensen shows his readiness to deliver another comparably heroic turn. But Daz Yanes has only envisioned Alatriste as a blandly square-jawed champion of the people, showing no curiosity for this soldiers inner life. Too many of Daz Yaness scenes find Mortensen merely listening to other characters expositional dialogue that establishes the state of Spains empire and the current scandals among the hierarchy, making him a rather passive action hero.

This state of inactivity hampers the other performances as well. Gil and Anaya are attractive actresses, but they fail to make much of an impression, because the plot-heavy story determines their actions more than their own motivations do. As for the forces of corruption within the Spanish Empire, personified by Blanca Portillos cartoonish Inquisitor Bocanegra, Daz Yanes simplistically dramatizes them as sneering, shadowy villains with no personality.

When the film moves on to the battlefield, both Mortensens performance and Daz Yaness direction become temporarily vibrant. Indeed, the fight scenes display a blunt, rugged urgency, underscored by the use of hand-held cameras, which cuts through the timid bedroom drama and historical detail that permeate the rest of Alatriste. However, rather than showing how different Alatristes life is at home, as opposed to during battle, the self-consciously dissimilar filmmaking techniques only illustrate how dull much of the narrative is.

Just as Daz Yanes loads the film down with political intrigue that grows increasingly difficult to follow, so are the films technical credits overly composed. Taking a page from the work of Spanish painters of the era, Daz Yanes and his cinematographer Paco Femenia incorporate a mannered but effective chiaroscuro lightning design for their interior shots, creating a sense of drama that the characters themselves rarely achieve.

Perhaps tellingly, though Alatriste received more Goya nominations than any other movie this year, its only wins came in the rather minor categories of artistic direction and costumes. Daz Yanes has made a film thats beautiful to look at, but very difficult to listen to or get invested in.

Credits

Running time: 140 minutes

Director: Agustn Daz Yanes
Production companies: Estudios Picasso, Origen Producciones Cinematograficas S.A., Telecinco
US distribution: 20th Century Fox
Executive Producers: igo Marco, Beln Atienza
Producers: Antonio Cardenal, lvaro Augustn
Screenplay: Agustn Daz Yanes, based on the novels by Arturo Prez-Reverte
Cinematography: Paco Femenia
Editor: Jos Salcedo
Music: Roque Baos

Cast

Diego Alatriste (Viggo Mortensen)
Duke of Guadalmedina (Eduardo Noriega)
Lope de Balboa (Alex O’Dogherty)
Young igo Balboa (Nacho Prez)
Quevedo (Juan Echanove)
Malatesta (Enrico Lo Verso)
Bocanegra (Blanca Portillo)
Count-Duke of Olivares (Javier Cmara)
Mara de Castro (Ariadna Gil)
Older igo Balboa (Unax Ugalde)
Anglica de Alquzar (Elena Anaya)