Dexterously juggling feature and docu formats to often striking effect, vet Jose Luis Garcia Sanchez nonetheless fails for the most part to galvanize the potential high drama in “Dearest Maria,” a biopic about exiled Spanish poet and philosopher Maria Zambrano. Centered on an attractive performance from vet Pilar Bardem and entirely free of fashionability, pic’s stated claim is to introduce younger Spanish auds to the influence of this largely unknown figure. Its likeliest home, though, is with discerning fest audiences, with the odd pickup in Hispanic territories.
A key personality in the ’30s Spanish Republican movement, Zambrano was exiled when Franco came to power in 1939. Following an interview with the aging woman, journalist Lola (Maria Botto) is offered the chance to make her biopic, a project to which Zambrano (Bardem) agrees, after initial reluctance.
Zambrano’s recollections of her childhood and early involvement in politics are well evoked by juxtaposing her words with old photos and footage, much of it heartbreaking. Effectively, they double as a social and intellectual history of Republican Spain of the ’30s.
A couple of memory sequences are genuinely touching, and digital effects are intelligently employed, as when Goya’s iconic painting, “3rd May, 1808” is brought to life. But dramatically, things start to feel hurried following Zambrano’s exile, and end on an unsatisfying, ambiguous note.
Excessive time is devoted to a slight subplot about Lola’s emotional problems with b.f. Pepe (Alex O’Dogherty), her pregnancy, and her attempts to raise money from her film producer ex, artistic philistine Luis (Juan Diego).
Bardem is quietly convincing as the somewhat idealized, wheelchair-bound grand dame, vainly touching up her hair for the cameras even as she lets ash fall onto her from the cigarette holder permanently in her hand. Rafael Azcona’s script, though, conceives her as some kind of sound bite generator, incapable of speaking without delivering a resonant pearl of wisdom (largely lifted straight from Zambrano’s writings).