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Film Review: ‘Falling Star’

Lluis Minarro's drama about a 19th-century Spanish monarch is more interested in camp aesthetics than historical biography.

With:

Alex Brendemuehl, Lola Duenas, Lorenzo Balducci, Barbara Lennie, Francesc Garrido, Alex Batllori, Gonzalo Cunill, Francesc Orella. (Catalan dialogue)

A hothouse fantasy rather than a historical biopic, Lluis Minarro’s “Falling Star” is ostensibly about the brief reign of Amadeo of Savoy as king of Spain in the 1870s, but in truth Minarro, best known as producer, is interested in a surreal-absurdist mood piece wedded to camp aesthetics. Wearing his artistic influences with pride, the helmer appears to be channeling Werner Schroeter in a minor vein, presenting attractive tableaux that are enjoyable on their own, yet related more to Minarro’s amusing and freewheeling connections than to Amadeo or the Spain of past and present. “Star” will twinkle wanly at fests, decorative but fleeting.

At the end of 1870, with Spain embroiled in a struggle pitting Carlists against Bourbonists, republicans against monarchists, Amadeo, duke of Aosta, second son of Victor Emanuel II of Italy, was nominated as the Spanish king. He was sworn into office in January 1871 and abdicated in February 1873, following a reign stymied by political chaos and the knowledge, from all sides (himself included), that his time on the Spanish throne was always going to be brief.

That’s the history. In “Falling Star,” Amadeo (Alex Brendemuehl) arrives in his kingdom and immediately steps into a puddle, literally and figuratively. The man who championed his appointment, Gen. Prim, was assassinated days before Amadeo took the throne, and in his new castle (exteriors were shot at Italy’s Castel del Monte), no one is there to greet him. Ministers block him from actually ruling, so the king is trapped in a gilded cage, bored but not especially bothered, admiring personal secretary Alfredo (Lorenzo Balducci), who has intercourse with a melon, and a seductive servant (Alex Batllori), who shaves his pubic hair in the larder.

In 1872 Amadeo’s wife, Maria Vittoria (Barbara Lennie), shows up — in truth, she arrived the year before — and while at first he’s uninterested in her presence, he’s grateful to have an ally around the palace. Still, there’s not much to do apart from toy with a jewel-encrusted tortoise that looks like a Judith Leiber handbag. Amadeo occasionally fences (badly), dances to an Iberian cover of “I Only Want to Be With You” (stiffly), and has a nightmare involving a peeled cucumber, an enormous salt cod and two bunny rabbits.

Obviously it’s not history that interests Minarro in his fiction feature debut, but it’s difficult to know exactly why he’s especially captivated by a man confined to inactivity. A monologue in which Amadeo sets out his desired program of reforms, including every progressive policy of the last hundred years, seems aimed at making some statement about Spain today, though the director is indifferent to connecting dots in such a pedestrian way, and besides, Amadeo’s liberalism was of the 19th-, not 20th-century variety.

All this is presented in distinct scenes whose acknowledged visual influences include Gustave Courbet, Francisco Goya and Emil Nolde, among many others. Scenes are mostly shot at close or midrange, allowing the helmer to maintain an intimate focus that precludes any hint of a big-budget historical epic. His humor is diverting, his aesthetic sensibilities unquestionable, yet audiences will be divided over whether there’s more here than amused subjective fantasy.

Jimmy Gimferrer’s warmly saturated lensing, full of satisfying chiaroscuro, vividly suits Minarro’s artistic aims, bringing out the richness of the impressively sumptuous fabrics and handsome production design. Musical choices suit the enigmatic juxtapositions and playfulness, from Leopold Mozart’s “Toy Symphony” to Puccini’s “Un bel di,” the latter a surprising accompaniment to the melon scene.

Film Review: 'Falling Star'

Reviewed at Rotterdam Film Festival (competing), Jan. 26, 2014. Running time: 110 MIN. Original title: “Stella cadente”

Production:

(Spain) An Eddie Saeta presentation of an Eddie Saeta production, with the participation of Televisio de Catalunya. (International sales: NDM, Mexico City.) Produced by Lluis Minarro.

Crew:

Directed by Lluis Minarro. Screenplay, Minarro, Sergi Belbel. Camera (color), Jimmy Gimferrer; editor, Nuria Esquerra; production designer, Sebastian Vogler; costume designer, Merce Paloma; sound (5.1), Dani Fontrodona, Alejandro Castillo, Ricard Casals; assistant director, Pol Rodriguez.

With:

Alex Brendemuehl, Lola Duenas, Lorenzo Balducci, Barbara Lennie, Francesc Garrido, Alex Batllori, Gonzalo Cunill, Francesc Orella. (Catalan dialogue)

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