A sexy, rebellious 16th-century writer, two enamored women and the pomp of the powerful are the well-worn motifs of Andrucha Waddington’s “Lope,” but fortunately, they aren’t the whole picture. Wisely playing to its limitations, pic is compact and efficient rather than grand and sweeping, with little adventure but many striking setpieces and a clutch of fine perfs. But despite being the best Spanish period item in some time, it lacks the deft contempo ironies of the projects to which it clearly aspires, including “Shakespeare in Love” and “Cyrano de Bergerac.” Opening weekend B.O. in Spain was solid but unspectacular.
Very loosely based on the real life of Spain’s greatest playwright, the pic feels rather downbeat, given the apparently devil-may-care life of its hero. Lope de Vega (Alberto Ammann) returns in his mid-20s from naval action with ambitions to become a writer and not a penny to his name. The first 20 minutes are the film’s liveliest and wittiest, with one character telling Lope “the real money is in construction,” a deft comment on Spain’s current economic woes.
Refusing the advice of his brother Juan (Antonio de la Torre) to travel to Portugal with him as a soldier of fortune, Lope borrows a suit and heads off to win patronage from theater owner Jeronimo Velazquez (Juan Diego). Velazquez at first won’t see him, but Lope gets his foot in the door by reciting a seductive poem to Velazquez’s daughter Elena Osorio (Pilar Lopez de Ayala).
When Velazquez gives Lope a play to copy out, Lope alters it in ways that initially anger his patron, but the result proves a commercial success. (The thoughtful script takes a decent stab at explaining Lope’s literary gifts, primarily his bravery in rewriting the rules to create a more “lifelike” theater.) Lope and Elena make out, and from this point, the pic loses much of its dramatic spark.
Lope is hired by the wealthy Tomas de Perrenot (Miguel Angel Munoz) to write a poem for Perrenot’s beloved, the aristocrat Isabel de Urbina (Leonor Watling), in whom Lope, too, has a romantic interest. Though it’s too reminiscent of “Cyrano,” the scene in which Isabel watches Lope’s lips mouth the words as Perrenot recites Lope’s poem to her is one of several fine standalone sequences, terminating in a sword fight between Lope and Perrenot’s ally, the powerful Marques de Navas (Selton Mello); Lope is now making enemies of the same powerful people on whom he depends for advancement.
The plot turns up few surprises but is delivered snappily and smoothly enough, staying just on the right side of breathless but never really getting the pulse racing. Spanish dialogue opts for the modern idiom rather than the archaic, and is better for it, with Brazilian helmer Waddington seeming comfortable in a genre new for him.
Visually, the midbudget item is happy to settle for a few convincingly bustling street scenes (pic was partly shot on stunning locations on Morocco’s Atlantic coast), a few sepia-hued aerial shots of Madrid and some well-choreographed swordplay. Shadowed interiors contrast powerfully with sun-bleached exteriors, Ricardo Della Rosa’s lensing emphasizing detail over range; there are plenty of sweating, grimy closeups.
Performances rep the pic’s strongest card. Ammann, a revelation in last year’s “Cell 211”, carries the weight of the central role well, energetically playing Lope as a straight-up dashing, ambitious romantic hero who’d probably be trying to get into the advertising business were he alive now. Crucially, Ammann never lets the viewer forget that Lope’s mercenary nature is rooted in poverty.
Reliable vet Diego does wonders with Velazquez, a portrait of the pathetic insecurity of threatened power. De Ayala, a fine actress too rarely seen, fascinatingly combines social arrogance and sexual need in Elena, overshadowing the relatively monotone Watling, who fails to strike the same onscreen sparks with Ammann.
Spanish cinema buffs will enjoy seeing “Cell 211’s” Luis Tosar play a gruff, good-hearted priest. Since 16th-century priests usually spell “Inquisition” in the cinema, this is one of too few examples of the film playing cleverly against type. Script quotes liberally from Lope’s own work to mostly good effect.