Director: Agustin Diaz Yanes
Writer: Agustin Diaz Yanes, Arturo Perez-Reverte
Producer: Alvaro Augustin, Antonio Cardenal
Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Elena Anaya, Javier Camara, Unax Ugalde, Eduardo Fernandez
Running Time: 145 min.
By JJ Hatfield
This is a great film! I was mesmerized by the story line, the cinematography and the acting. It cannot really be accurate to say it is an action film and yet there is no shortage of action. Action on a very personal level as well as full blown war. There is also intrigue. The further into the film the more plans, plots and personal agenda affect the core of a country that was at the time the most powerful on earth. In some ways it is an understated work. There are moments when no one is speaking, when you are not told exactly what the character is contemplating. If the viewer demands constant explanation or exposition the movie will probably not interest them. I found it most refreshing to be allowed to think for myself instead of being told what everyone is doing and thinking. The director knew how the scenes should play. And the actors, without exception were all quite believable in their character. Some did seem underdeveloped but there was no time. The movie is 145 minutes that spans twenty years. It will be some time before there is another like it. Alatriste is one of the most exceptional films I have seen in years!
The film is based upon a five novel series, and a sixth novel after the release of the film in 2006 of immensely popular books by Artur Perez-Reverte, a Spanish War Correspondent. The subject of the series is Captain Diego Alatriste a soldier who also became a mercenary in 17th century Spain and it is through his experiences we come to understand much about the time period.
After numerous frustrating Spanish casting calls there was no one who fit the character. There was but one man the producers and director would accept to play the title character. The decision was made to cast Viggo Mortensen (“Lord of the Rings”, “Eastern Promises”, “A History Of Violence”). It was not a decision made lightly and if Mortensen would not take the role the film would be shelved indefinitely. That is unheard of in the film industry. Actors are often treated as interchangeable but then Viggo Mortensen is not in any way a typical actor. In the world of film Mortensen is a rare individual, choosing his roles very carefully and rejecting the majority of parts offered.
Mortensen’s Captain Diego Alatriste is first introduced waste deep in foul water, his intense gaze seemingly aware of all things at once. This noble man of the people wound tightly to spring upon the enemy as well as avoid risk to the soldiers who would follow him anywhere. There is a very clever use of lit fuse wrapped around his arm. Nothing mentioned or obviously presented to be seen but very effective in the kind of brilliant strategy combined with the essence of practicality.
As battle breaks out Alatriste, while killing those who are killing his men manages to save the life of the Duke of Guadalmedina (Eduardo Noriega) and in the next moment he is holding one of his men in his arms as he is dying, promising to take care of and educate his young son Inigo (Nacho Perez).
The battle scenes are where the director Daz Yaness and Mortensen seem to merge and Mortensen goes all out for reality. His willingness to endure downright painful and miserable experiences to make the film as realistic as possible require some enormous sacrifices. Fight sequences made excellent use of hand held cameras to convey a sense of reality – chaos, rage, brutality, fear, pain, confusion and most of all the feeling that the people in power sending their kinsmen off to fight often considered them only as numbers of soldiers. Tools to be used, pawns in a game of royals and the court.
There are moments that the viewer cannot really see what is happening. Able to hear grunts, metal on metal and screams of the dying. The next moment the smoke thins and you can see exactly what is happening. War is hell is a given. Hand to hand combat is the most brutal. Daz Yaness isn’t shy about the details, and that is to his credit. Mortensen is following his King’s will, ever the honorable loyal soldier and carries out his duties in as professional manner as possible. He is not a sloppy killer, however people don’t always die easily or quickly, especially in sword fighting. Daz Yaness is as concerned with detail on the battlefield as much as in the depiction of real life Spain and it’s people. I did have one small complaint about the aura of the battle scenes. It appeared that instead of a filter used in shooting there was some post production color grading that made scenes a little too blue. Some of the shots were too tight and didn’t seem to benefit from the reported 97 different filming locations nor the ten thousand extras. There were architectural wonders that were fantastic but the scenes too quickly would focus on the characters and lose some of the grandeur of the setting. The cinematography is primarily superb using natural light whenever possible. There were instances of using only the unique capture of light to punctuate the plot.
Attention to detail was high on the list of priorities to not only the producers and directors but the cast as well. The art departments created luxurious surroundings and little taverns with the same attention to detail. No one can argue this films is anything but beautiful.
Driven to be authentic the director has squeezed a huge amount of political intrigue into one film. It is confusing at times because there really were a number of people plotting in all manner to their benefit. If there is any one thing to be blamed for the fall of Imperial Spain it is the corruption within. That message may not come through well for some viewers.
Alatriste returns from war to find his formerly powerful country to be riddled with corruption. He will be forever loyal to the king but he also realizes his king is capable of making unwise decisions. Every time Alatriste is presented with another layer of deception it takes a toll on him. Once he returns to Madrid he is ordered along with another man to murder two visitors to Spain. The order is given by the unsettling asexual Bocanegra (Blanca Portillo), who is the head of the Holy Tribunal of the Inquisition. Bocanegra does not inform them of who the visitors are only that they should not be left alive. Alatriste senses something is wrong and doesn’t kill them. He then discovers one of the visitors is the Prince of Wales. Afterwards the king’s men interrogate him demanding to know who gave the order. Alatriste does not tell and as a result is sent back to the “Spanish Netherlands” a hell hole of cold wet trenches with men who have not received supplies nor any money. They have virtually nothing to use in this battle.
When Alatriste is not on a mission he is mostly a solitary man, spending time with his loyal companion, Balboa (Unax Ugaldehe) or more infrequently with a married actress with whom he has had a long affair, separated by sometimes years of his service to the king. While Alatriste is fighting Spain’s newest war Balboa stays behind and falls in love with a beautiful courtier who truly loves the commoner but is conflicted by her desires.
Spain’s ongoing expansion was becoming outrageously expensive as taking care of the soldiers needs became even less of a priority. Communication in warfare is imperative. Passing along orders and commands became almost impossible. Spain was not the first power to believe it could reign over so much of the world nor would they be the last.
There is a thread of fear that runs through commoner and the royal court as well. A threat no one could put down and that was the Spanish Inquisition. Loosely cloaked as a religious organization it held sway over everyone. No matter what Alatriste continues his unceasing support of the king and the country he loves and he has fought for all his life.
Even with all the numerous battles and bloodshed this is still a very beautiful film. The fight scenes are superb and energetic choreographed by sword fight master instructor, Bob Anderson. Anderson may not be the best choreographer with swords but the fight scenes sure come off looking damned realistic. Some people complained some of the fights seemed chaotic. That was the point – hand to hand combat is chaotic. It’s very difficult to see which side a soldier is fighting for when there are so many people, weapons and yelling and screaming, all mixed together. Another reason war is hell.
The score makes an excellent companion to the film without being overpowering. But it is really Mortensen who makes the film a success. The producers and director knew what they were doing when they insisted on Mortensen.
A note of interest. The author was a Spanish War correspondent named Artur Perez-Reverte. He decided to write the novels one day after his twelve year old daughter showed him her school book which had limited the entire period to several pages and not providing much information. He felt it was wrong and he would do something about it. His young daughter helped him research the novels. Without them this important story would have never been made.
JJ Hatfield’s Rating: 9/10