The hoary tradition of “free” biopics of great artists lives on in “El Greco,” a nicely lit but historically dubious tribute to one of Spain’s greatest daubers, aka Cretan-born Domenikos Theotokopoulos. Shot largely in English, 16th-century potboiler emerges as a mash of Greek patriotism, Spanish Inquisition nastiness and painting-by-numbers dialogue whose main plus is a creepily closeted perf by Hispanic thesp Juan Diego Botto as El Greco’s, uh, “admirer” and nemesis. Pic has so far nabbed a hunky 650,000 admissions (and still counting) in Greece since mid-October release, but elsewhere will find its largest canvas as Euro tube fodder.
Film doesn’t hide the fact that it’s based on a biographical novel, but its construction (with datelines, etc.) gives the impression that it’s closer to the truth than it actually is. And for a painter renowned for his dramatic play with darkness and light, there’s precious little discussion of his art, apart from repeated statements about protecting “the light from the darkness.” (Art historians may leave here.)
Largely structured as a flashback, as El Greco feverishly pens his story in prison while waiting for his Inquisition trial, the yarn starts in Crete in 1566 as Domenikos (Brit newcomer Nick Ashdon) falls for the comely Francesca (Dimitra Matsouka), daughter of the island’s Venetian governor, Da Rimi (Yorgos Hristodoulou).
After an abortive uprising led by his father (Yorgos Haralambidis), Domenikos moves to Venice, where he’s dubbed “El Greco” and is personally encouraged by the veteran Titian (Sotiris Moustakas, briefly sparky). He’s also spotted by a soupy-eyed young Spanish priest, Nino de Guevara (Botto), who convinces him to move to Toledo, where he finds fame and wealth and a new companion, Jeronima (Laia Marull).
However, as the Inquisition grows more powerful, Domenikos finds himself increasingly at odds with it and now Nino, who’s risen to become Grand Inquisitor and is majorly miffed by Jeronima finding a place in the Cretan’s heart. Their final faceoff provides pic’s most gripping (but fanciful) material.
Until this final half-hour, film is an uninspired costumer, routinely directed by Cretan-born vet Yannis Smaragdis (“Cavafy”) with flatly delivered voiceovers by Ashdon and scenes which then visualize what the viewer has just been told. Ashdon performs energetically but without much natural charisma. Pic only springs to life with the appearances of Botto, whose increasingly satanic Nino has a style and intensity missing elsewhere.
Burnished lensing by Aris Stavrou in Crete, Italy and Spain captures the period well, though dressing of historical locations is rather sparse. Score by Vangelis is rousing but thematically unmemorable.