An ambitious, often intriguing 200th-anniversary retelling of a key episode in Spanish history -- the heroic but doomed 1808 attempt of the people of Madrid to beat back invading French forces -- "Blood in May" sees vet helmer Jose Luis Garci aiming for that grand, sweeping feel but failing to achieve it.

An ambitious, often intriguing 200th-anniversary retelling of a key episode in Spanish history — the heroic but doomed 1808 attempt of the people of Madrid to beat back invading French forces — “Blood in May” sees vet helmer Jose Luis Garci aiming for that grand, sweeping feel but failing to achieve it. Too much the self-regarding auteur to let this wonderful story tell itself, Garci imposes his own stylistic tics, resulting in dramatically dissatisfying, if visually rewarding, fare that weighs too heavily on the shoulders of its callow protag. Since its early October release, B.O. has been muted, but the helmer’s rep could generate some offshore interest.

Voiceover gives us an excess of info about early 19th-century Madrid, where the times are a-changin’ with the arrival of French troops. Gabriel (Quim Gutierrez) is a humble print-setter in Madrid, in love with Ines (Paula Echevarria), who lives with her priest uncle, Don Celestino (Manuel Galiana).

Seeking some rough-and-tumble with a working-class boy, marchioness Anastasia (Natalia Millan) hauls Gabriel off to her palace, where he indulges in a bit of spying on her behalf and learns the court is a corrupt place. Unable to live without Ines, he returns to Madrid to discover she has been sent to live with her aunt, Dona Restituta (Tina Sainz), and uncle, Mauro Requejo (Miguel Rellan), who initially provide some comic relief but turn out to be Dickensian monsters.

The politics are always there in the background, and the pic does a good job of bringing across the idea that the people are the pawns of the politicos. Some unimpressive battle scenes wrap things up, the lensing directly evoking Goya’s great paintings on the invasion’s sad aftermath.

At 2½ hours, “Blood in May” doesn’t feel especially drawn-out. There is enough raw material here to fill a novel, and pic in fact is based loosely on two of Benito Perez Galdos’ “National Episodes” series — but the sense one gets from Galdos, of an entire society being X-rayed, is absent here, despite an impressive numbers of extras.

Gutierrez plays Gabriel in a low-key, naturalistic manner, and though the perf reps a nice change from the gung-ho manner that characterizes many Spanish perfs in historical fare, he’s so laid-back that he’s frequently expressionless. Surrounding perfs, mostly from Garci regulars, are stronger, and well-handled given their sheer number, but characterization seems lifted from books rather than life.

Too often, the dialogue is mere speechifying, and Garci’s editing is often simply oddball as scene after scene fades to black. On the plus side, the images are never less than beautifully composed and painterly, though the sepia hue is a couple of shades too heavy. Period detail, apparently the product of exhaustive research, is first-rate, and pic reps one of the finest cinematic depictions of historical Madrid to date: Indeed, it was partly funded by the Madrid City Council, and hence reflects its political leanings.

Clumsily, the closing credits feature tourist-video shots of the modern city.

Blood in May

Spain

Production

An Alta Classics release of a Nickelodeon, TeleMadrid production with the participation of TeleMadrid. (International sales: Nickelodeon, Madrid). Executive producers, Juan Carmona, Salvador Gomez Cuenca. Directed, edited by Jose Luis Garci. Screenplay, Garci, Horacio Valcarcel, inspired by texts by Benito Perez Galdos.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Manuel Velasco; music, Pablo Cervantes; art director, Julian Mateos; sound (Dolby Stereo), Miguel Rejas, Jose Antonio Bermudez. Reviewed at Cines Princesa, Madrid, Oct. 8, 2008. Running time: 152 MIN.

With

Quim Gutierrez, Paula Echevarria, Manuel Galiana, Lucia Jimenez, Enrique Villen, Miguel Rellan, Tina Sainz, Natalia Millan, Manuel Tejada, Paco Algora, Fernando Guillen Cuervo.
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