Given the richness and depth of the novel on which it is based, “The Carpenter’s Pencil” is strangely monotonous emotionally. Merely efficient pic has all the ingredients of the sumptuous Spanish Civil War drama it aspires to be: A storyline packed with incident, excellent visuals and an impressive cast supplying decent performances. However, the labored, over-schematic script and strictly rulebook characterization mean that little suspense is generated. The surfeit of Civil War material out there signals merely okay B.O. at home, but Spanish territories could respond well and there’s an outside chance of other pickups as well.
In Galicia, northern Spain, just before the outbreak of the Civil War in 1936, young Republican doctor Daniel Da Barca (Tristan Ulloa) is engaged to be married to Marisa Mallo (Maria Adanez). When he’s arrested for his left-wing beliefs by nervy nationalist Herbal (Luis Tosar), who becomes Daniel’s guard in prison, Marisa’s father, Benito (Manuel Manquina), tries to get her to marry a young nationalist soldier.
However, Marisa swears to be faithful to Daniel and manages to smuggle a gun into prison, right under the nose of Herbal. In fact, Herbal knows what’s going on, and this turns out to be the first of several lucky escapes for Daniel set up by Herbal – for plausible reasons only revealed toward the end.
The diffuse, unfocused script struggles to get across all the dramatic info that its rangy plot demands, generating plenty of over-literal, explanatory dialogue. Jerky structure means that pic is more memorable for its setpieces — as when a painter tells a parable about two sisters, Life and Death — although one sequence in which some prisoners burst into impromptu song is risible.
Given the motives for his unease about doing away with Daniel, Herbal is easily the most interesting figure, and a better script could have made him, as in the novel, profoundly moving. As Daniel, Ulloa lacks the presence to create a central figure the viewer can care about.
Other characters fall too neatly into Republican good, Nationalist bad stereotypes, with Nancho Novo doing a spectacularly nasty turn as a soldier, Zolo, who’s Herbal’s brother-in-law.