“Fiesta” is a handsomely mounted anti-war tale in which an idealistic 17 -year-old aristocrat in exile gets a crash course in manhood when summoned to his native Spain to fight for Franco in the Spanish Civil War. Jean-Louis Trintignant, as the brilliant and cynical commanding officer who toughens the youth for battle, delivers a mesmerizing, powerhouse perf that thesp has announced as his final screen work before devoting himself exclusively to the stage. Pic should do decent biz locally on the strength of Trintignant’s dazzlingly precise and complex turn. Offshore arthouse play is also indicated.
Rafael (handsome, doe-eyed Gregoire Colin, who played the silent monk in the first segment of “Before the Rain”) is a Spaniard of illustrious military lineage who’s been studying at an exclusive Dominican-run academy in France during the four years since the Spanish Republic was declared. It’s October of 1936, and Rafael is summoned home to fight the Communists and defend Franco’s vision of Spain, a task that the sheltered teen, now a lieutenant, eagerly anticipates.
Rafael reports to Col. Masagual (Trintignant), who — amazingly enough — lives with his aide de camp, Casado (Marc Lavoine, right on pitch). As effete in private as he is masculine, commanding and resolute in public, Masagual is first seen putting on face cream, demanding his hair net and being downright prissy. Trintignant gives a supremely modulated perf marbled with a certain dark humor that still leaves breathing room for the rest of the cast.
Masagual assigns Rafael to serve in a firing squad at his garrison, executing prisoners — Communists, Socialists, Republicans, anarchists, men, women and children — to toughen him up before he’s sent to the front.
Rafael is transformed from callow youth to exhausted zombie in a matter of days, as he does his bit with a rifle while the colonel and his society guests watch the executions as if they’re at a tea party. His sexual initiation with ambulance driver Lady Harrington Forbes (Dayle Haddon) advances in short order from shy acquiescence to selfish rape. But when instructed to help execute a particular prisoner, Rafael reclaims his convictions long enough to double-cross his mentor.
Moral showdown between a rebel priest (Laurent Terzieff, chosen for his El Greco-like expression and quiet strength) and an admiring Masagual is a flamboyant but affecting set piece.
Story, based on an autobiographical novel by Jose Luis de Vilallonga, puts deliberately inflammatory statements in Masagual’s mouth to demonstrate the absurdity of war.
Helmer, whose “The Sandwich Years”– also a tale of apprenticeship between an inexperienced youth and a wise older man — did nicely in 1988, comes from a solid theatrical background, which shows, although “Fiesta” is highly cinematic in its exacting visual approach.
Given the era and context, it’s a stretch to accept that Masagual would have been able to sleep openly with another man. That aside, period details and production design are pro. Sometimes jarringly contemporary score by Wim Mertens could be used far less.
Although the characters are all Spanish (excluding Haddon’s English woman), dialogue is exclusively in French, except for instructions to the firing squad, which are issued in Spanish.