Based on a Spanish classic written in 1499, “Celestina” is a dependable and tastefully lensed costumer which, in its marriage of sexy young talent to forbidding high culture, seems to be aiming to out-Branagh Branagh. The movie has performed well at home, although an over-respectful attitude toward its source gives it a distinct flavor of the schoolroom. But quality production values, the achingly beautiful looks of young thesp Penelope Cruz and the potent sensuality of Maribel Verdu (both from “Belle Epoque”) have the potential to cause offshore ripples.
Juan Diego Botto (the antihero of 1994’s “Tales from the Kronen”) plays Calisto, a lovelorn youth who has lost his heart to Melibea (Cruz). With the assistance of go-between Celestina (a powerfully theatrical performance from veteran Terele Pavez) and his two servants, Parmeno (Jordi Molla) and Sempronio (Nancho Novo), Calisto is able to win over Melibea without her parents’ knowledge.
As payment, Calisto gives Celestina a golden belt. When Parmeno and Sempronio hear about this, they go to Celestina in search of their share and, when she refuses to give it them, kill her. Celestina’s young prostitute friends Areusa (Verdu) and Elicia (Candela Pena) vow revenge on Calisto, who they blame for Celestina’s death.
Story predates Freud by 400 years, and it shows. These characters are governed by unanswerable imperatives such as greed, honor and love. By choosing not to drag the plot into the late 20th century, veteran co-scripter Rafael Azcona has kept the characters at the puppetlike service of largely obsolete values, with the exception of the nuanced Celestina and Parmeno, inside whom there’s the semblance of an interesting moral struggle.
Otherwise, swords are brandished with due energy, laughter is undeniably hearty, shoulders and backs are slapped, hay is rolled in and eyes are filled with tears. Unfortunately, Calisto and Melibea, the star-crossed lovers, are no Romeo and Juliet — their romantic mettle is never really put to the test — and original novelist Fernando Rojas was no Shakespeare. The subplot roguery of Parmeno and Sempronio is dramatically more interesting than the simpering lovers.
The conservative treatment of the material by Gerardo Vera — whose helming experience is largely in theater — offers too few surprises to prevent a feeling of deja vu. Still, tech credits are superb, apart from intrusive use of music, which is almost always present as background to the dialogue.