The waning years of the Franco regime don’t so much come alive as drag slowly by in Manuel Huerga’s “Salvador,” an earnest, well-intentioned biopic of middle class leftie Salvador Puig Antich, the last person executed by the garrote in Spain. Lluis Arcarazo’s unfocused script fails in the first half to generate enough sympathy for the charming but irresponsible protag, but then switches gears and piles on the sentiment in pure TV movie fashion once execution time approaches. Shorn of historical references, there’s little to hold pic together, signaling probable local success but poor chances further afield.
Born into a left-leaning bourgeois family, Salvador (Daniel Bruehl, raised bilingually in German and Spanish) exercised his youthful idealism as a student struggling against Franco’s repressive regime. Together with friends turned “comrades-in-arms,” he robs banks to fund the radical labor movement, but, as depicted here, their crime spree feels more like bored rich kids on a joy ride than committed leftie intellectuals hastening regime change.
First half is mostly told in flashback, with Salvador recounting his career of crime and anarchy to lawyer Oriol Arau (Tristan Ulloa). Huerga lenses the bank robbery scenes with expected fast edits, jerky handheld and loud ’70s rock to build energy, but the style reinforces the sense that these guys are in it for the fun.
The gang’s boldness finally backfires, and during a heated gun battle a cop is killed and Salvador is captured.
The trial is quick, but the chances for reprieve are endless. Huerga switches over from hijinks to sentiment: Sadistic guard Jesus (Leonardo Sbaraglia) turns all gooey after reading Salvador’s letter to his father (in an especially sappy montage), going instantly from brutalizer to friend.
Any hope of a reprieve is squashed when an ETA bomb kills Franco’s president, leading to endlessly drawn out scenes of Arau and Salvador’s sisters trying to galvanize international protests: Warner Brothers made Jimmy Cagney’s death row scenes a lot more affecting at a fraction of the time.
Salvador’s heavy-handed retelling of his commitment to politics and bank robbery feels overly didactic and stilted, and Huerga just can’t muster sympathy for the young man’s reckless actions, despite attempts to work in troubled paternal relations and a couple of unsatisfactory romances.
Bruehl, currently one of the hardest working actors of his generation, has difficulty locking onto his character in the first hour, though as written there’s not much he can do with the role. Once the second half and sentiment kick in, he’s better able to convey the image of a nice guy in way too deep.
Comparisons in both visual style and content can be made with Michele Placido’s recent “Crime Novel,” a pic also drawing from the ’70s with a similarly high octane, self-consciously hip flair. Like the Italo pic, “Salvador” moves from pale, cool blues (in jail scenes) to the highly saturated primary colors of the period, though especially in the early scenes Huerga piles on the shots until the whole feels burdened by over-construction.