Taking the bare bones of Andalusian poet Federico Garcia Lorca’s mysterious death at the start of the Spanish Civil War, Puerto Rican helmer Marcos Zurinaga has grafted them onto the body of a thriller. Result, “Death in Granada,” is a peculiar, intermittently fascinating English-language hybrid that never settles into coherence. It’s hard to imagine much offshore impact for the film, though success in Spanish-speaking territories comes built in.
Pic has opened to controversy in Spain, where the historical issues are still sensitive. At the end of the day, the film — based on the detective work of writer Ian Gibson — is more admirable as an attempt to realign mainstream celluloid attitudes toward Latinos than as a movie.
Ricardo (energetic, white-suited Esai Morales) is a young Spanish journalist exiled, with his family, to Puerto Rico in 1936, at the start of the Spanish Civil War. Having grown up in the grip of an obsession with Garcia Lorca (Andy Garcia), he returns to Spain in 1954, against the advice of his father, to find out the truth about the poet’s death.
Ricardo’s motive for returning is that he is writing a book about Garcia Lorca. He also feels guilty about a friend having been shot dead by the Nationalists. But these two impulses are not pulled into dramatic focus, and damage the credibility of the character from the start.
Ricardo is greeted with false cordiality by Col. Aguirre (Jeroen Krabbe, square-jawed) and his daughter, Maria Eugenia (Marcela Wallerstein, wooden), with whom he falls in love. She puts him in touch with shady Nestor Gonzalez (Jose Coronado), and through him he meets a prostitute who tells him that the person responsible for giving the orders for the poet’s execution was Lozano (Edward James Olmos).
As he stumbles toward the final revelation, Ricardo’s every step is shadowed by Francoist security official Centeno (Miguel Ferrer, embodying fascist evil), and by a friendly cab driver (Giancarlo Giannini) who for some unexplained reason helps him out of tight spots.
The slow unveiling of a truth that local officials refuse to admit brings with it a fair amount of violence and political intrigue, whereupon the pace picks up. But as the flashback-heavy script struggles with the complexities of the story it wants to tell, suspense is fatally lost.
Pic looks like an uneasy compromise between ethics and business. The worthy aim of staying true to the spirit of the facts of Garcia Lorca’s assassination — an embarrassing stain on Spanish history — collides head-on with the desire to tell a ripping yarn, with justice to neither. For a thriller, too many characters are introduced and then dropped.
As Ricardo, the link between fact and fiction, Morales has an unbearable dramatic burden, pushed around from character to character in the grip of an impulse never made fully plausible. Garcia is forced into a cliched cinematic version of the poet, and both Ferrer and Giannini struggle with a script that is fatally (in thriller terms) committed to telling the whole of the horrendously complex story. Only Olmos, as a gravel-voiced Lozano, is able to extract drama from his character’s shadowy ambiguity.
Pic is extremely beautiful to look at, with the sun and shadow of the magical city of Granada well lensed. Attention to period detail is exemplary, and the soundtrack suitably flamenco-inspired.