Augusto Tamayo’s imposing but stiff 17th century Peruvian drama, “The Good Bastard” (“El Bien Esquivo”), aims for the scale and importance of past epics like Arturo Ripstein’s “The Holy Office,” but never strikes a balance between tale’s religious-ethical conflict and its Dumas-like adventure. A familiar replay of the outcast pitted against the iron fists of Catholic dogma and Spanish power, pic makes obvious social points that are now a cliche of Latin American cinema. Although encased in an expensive looking package, pic is not destined to travel theatrically very far north or east of the Andes.
In 1618, a priest leads a group hoping to unearth so-called pagan gold amid Incan ruins, but all they find are skulls, which leads to hot tempers and murder. Bitten by a scorpion, courageous hero and ex-Spanish soldier Jeronimo (Diego Bertie) barely survives the misadventure, but he’s more determined than ever to claim his birthright as he seeks the documents that prove his legitimacy.
Alejandro Rossi’s and Tamayo’s dramatic storylines are too numerous by half, with Jeronimo’s quest having to share screen time with a complex political conflict inside the Church — personified by inquisitorial cardinal Ignacio (Orlando Sacha) — which is attempting to force Indians from praying to pagan gods while keeping some unruly nuns in line. Ignacio persecutes one gifted lady of the cloth, Sister Ines (Jimena Lindo), because of her talent as a poet, which he insists violates her chastity vows.
Jeronimo’s journey leads to his arrest and trial on trumped-up charges based on his mistaken status as a half-breed. After much lugubrious staging and speechifying, Jeronimo’s and Sister Ines’ dramas intersect, as they flee together from prison and into the Peruvian wilderness, pursued by troops.
“Bastard” stubbornly remains in neutral throughout, never achieving lift-off as a rebel’s adventure or as a tragedy of ill-fated love, while succumbing to rather dry reiterations of Catholic doctrine and social hierarchy. Bertie, alone among the cast, plays his character’s dilemma with a real sense of desperation.
Saga is decked out with a strong sense of the early colonial period, though such attention to period setting begins to weigh things down and proves to be an impediment to the movie’s emotional momentum. Tamayo and lenser Juan Duran impressively cover an enormous range of Peruvian geography, from valleys to desert to blizzard conditions in the Andes.