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Friday, Dec. 12, 2008
Swooning to the swirl of Viggo's sword
By KAORI SHOJI
Touted as the most expensive Spanish production ever made, the $28 million swashbuckler "Alatriste" refrains from flaunting its price tag.
Submerged in hues of black and gray, with muted lighting and hand-held cameras, "Alatriste" is all about mature authenticity, and eschews the extravagant style of typical period pieces. It's also a pleasant surprise that the language is Spanish (with Castilian accents yet) after seeing "Love in the Time of Cholera" and "Goya's Ghosts" — both set in Spanish-speaking locations — conducted entirely in English with occasional gutteral Euro accents, "Alatriste" feels genuinely romantic.
When the project got going, director Agustin Diaz Yanes announced to the Spanish media that he had his fingers on all the right buttons — undoubtedly the biggest button was casting "Lord of the Rings" star Viggo Mortensen in the title role. The sword fights are choreographed by the famed Bob Anderson (who studied the art with Errol Flynn) with awe-inspiring production design courtesy of Spanish veteran Emilio Ardura. The spectacular opening battle scene justifies Diaz Yanes boast: Flanders captain Diego Alatriste (Mortensen) and his men, up to their waists in muddy water, save the life of the Duke of Guadalmedina (Eduardo Noriega). Almost in the same minute, Alatriste holds his longtime friend Balboa (Alex O' Dogherty) as he dies and with his last breath entrusts the fate of his 13-year-old son Inigo (Nacho Perez) to his pal.
Already, I was weeping over Balboa's death, congratulating the Duke on a lucky escape and hopelessly in love with "Capitain Alatriste." And who made the Capitain's gorgeously sweat-stained shirt, wet and clinging to his torso? (costume designer Francesca Sartori). Forget digitally rendered armies charging on vast, digitally painted fields; what we need are a few choice men, elegantly piercing each other's necks and clad head to toe in dirt-caked silk and leather.
Mortensen has gone from Russian in last year's "Eastern Promises" to Spanish, and went through a crash course in shifting from a South American accent acquired in childhood, to the heavier, more majestic Castilian. But Alatriste is in no way verbose — with him, the job (mercenary and military man) comes first, and it's not for him to explain what he does or why he does it. Even when the love of his life, married actress Maria de Castro (Ariadna Gil) practically begs him to talk and let her know his feelings, Alatriste maintains a dignified silence, laden with 17th century testosterone. What a guy. Or more to the point, right now Alatriste out-guys all other guys in Western cinema (in Asia, his rivals are the boys in John Woo's "Red Cliff" series). Just seeing him stand there, his face half-obscured by a tattered black hat, his sculpted frame offset by a long cloak worn over the shoulders — it's no wonder Maria looks as though she's ready for cardiac arrest every time he appears.
For a second, one imagines Antonio Banderas in the role, but that would have diminished the dry, wind-swept grittiness of the package. The entire tone of "Alatriste" is set to match Mortensen's harsh, brittle handsomeness; Banderas would have looked way too smooth.
Based on the five-part novel series by Arturo Perez-Reverte, the 17th century backdrop is splendidly re-enacted, albeit on a much subdued and smaller scale than we've become used to in productions of this scale. Faces and details (a scroll, a polished gun) are lit like museum pieces, surrounded by darkness — and some of the sword scenes are conducted in unlit dungeons (Alatriste listens for the other's breathing and boot clicks). But as always, the problem is with adapting a hefty literary work, and halfway though, Diaz Yanes falls prey to an overcrowded storyline in which incidents and intrigue fight for screen time, leaving a lot of loose ends that are well, just left hanging. But then a mad rush of adrenaline permeates the screen as Alatriste hurls himself into yet another combat. His and the enemies' figures are drenched in shades of black but the blood bursts and blooms like an unlikely Spanish rose.