At $28 million, “Alatriste” is the most expensive Spanish-language film ever made. An epic swashbuckler set in the early 17th century when courtly corruption was starting the downfall of Spain’s global empire, pic features top-notch production values, but its visual flair and some good perfs by well-known contempo Spanish actors cannot redeem an over-episodic, over-busy script with little dramatic undertow. Hispanic through and through, the super-hyped project has done strong business at home, with solid play in other Spain-friendly territories likely. But word-of-mouth won’t help it, and, despite the pulling-power of star Viggo Mortensen, pic probably won’t make a big mark elsewhere.
The film is based on a series of bestselling, widely translated novels by Arturo Perez-Reverte. The densely atmospheric opening, set during an ambush with the characters up to their waists in water, has Flanders veteran captain Diego Alatriste (Mortensen) saving the life of the Duke of Guadalmedina (Eduardo Noriega), and then holding Balboa (Alex O’Dogherty) in his arms as he entrusts the education of his young son Inigo (Nacho Perez) to Alatriste and then dies.
Back in Madrid, Alatriste is sent, along with the Sicilian mercenary Malatesta (Enrico Lo Verso), to ambush two visitors to Spain as they are entering the capital.
Their murder is ordered by the creepily asexual Bocanegra (Blanca Portillo), head of the Holy Tribunal of the Inquisition, and, unknown to Alatriste, one of the visitors is the Prince of Wales.
After Alatriste, smelling a rat, decides not to kill the visitors, the king’s right-hand man, the Count-Duke of Olivares (Javier Camara), interrogates Alatriste to try to find out who ordered the ambush. Alatriste refuses to tell and so is returned to the hellhole of the Spanish Netherlands, where the pic’s most striking battle-scenes take place.
There are two romances threaded through the pic to dilute the general whiff of testosterone — the first between Alatriste and ambitious actress Maria de Castro (a hammy Ariadna Gil), the second between the older Inigo (an unconvincing Unax Ugalde) and the plotting courtier Angelica de Alquezar (Elena Anaya, watchable). These increasingly dominate through the second half, but both are laden with faux emotion.
Criss-crossed with under-developed storylines, the script suffers badly from writer-helmer Agustin Diaz Yanes’ decision to include too much material from the novels, making the many plot strands feel summary and over-brisk — particularly when you throw in a slightly confusing study of the decline of Spain as a world power. Too many scenes do not move the narrative forward nor form part of an emotional or dramatic arc.
Most members of the sizeable cast fall victim to the script’s hyperactivity, with only three able to make their characters memorable. Juan Echanove, who plays the embittered poet Quevedo, is our commentator on the slow decline of the empire and does a decent turn benefiting from the fact that his scenes have been written around him. The reliable Camara plays Olivares as a superficially gentle, somewhat camp but actually ruthless and driven, figure.
The decision to have Bocanegra played by a woman (Portillo recently appeared in Almodovar’s “Volver”) is an inspired casting decision, a hint of daring in a project otherwise hampered by its conventionality.
Mortensen plays Alatriste as a Hispanic Clint Eastwood with swagger but without any of the humor that might have made his self-conscious anti-hero more winsome. Thesp speaks his own lines but his Spanish is Latin-American inflected, which has created a credibility problem for Spanish auds.
Visuals are superb, often self-consciously painterly fare, lit to echo the chilly beauty of Spain’s great artist Diego Velazquez, who is referred to several times.(The script is typically showy about the research behind it.)
In an attempt to augment pic’s intensity, too much time is spent on close-ups, while more mileage could have been made of the stunning locations (97 of them, many in Andalusia). Costume design, courtesy of Francesca Sartori, is perhaps pic’s greatest tech strength, from the sumptuous robes of the aristocracy to the rags of the dying soldiers.
The violence feels authentic, with hand-held cameras liberally employed, and the squalor of army life is superbly-rendered. Fight scenes are vigorous and absorbing, with swordplay choreographed by vet sword master Bob Anderson, but the 10-minute climax scene at the Battle of Rocroi is flat. Roque Banos’s score veers between lyricism and standard bombast, never straying far from the rule-book.