May 10, 2007

Alatriste (2006)

One of the most popular figures in modern Spaniard literature is definitely Arturo Pérez-Reverte, who since the late 80s has produced a long string of successful novels touching a wide variety of genres such as adventure, thriller and historical novels. Without a doubt, his most popular character is Alatriste, who originated in the book "El Capitán Alatriste" and has appeared in 5 novels after his debut. Being his response to the lack of treatment of the Spanish Golden Century in history books, "The Adventures of Captain Alatriste" have conquered many fans thanks to its accurate portrayal of the history of Spain and the mix of action, adventure and romance in its narrative. Considering the popularity of the character, it was not a surprise that a movie adaptation began to be considered, however, what is indeed a surprise is the sadly poor quality of the resulting product.

Set in 17th century Spain, "Alatriste" is the story of Diego Alatriste (Viggo Mortensen), an aging soldier who after serving in the Flanders War makes his living working as an assassin for hire. His life has a sudden change when one day a young boy named Iñigo Balboa (Nacho Pérez) arrives to his house with a letter. In the letter Alatriste discovers that Iñigo is the son of Lope De Balboa (Alex O'Dogherty), one of his good friends at Flanders and who asked him to protect Iñigo before dying under the enemy fire. While he knows that his way of life is not the most appropriate for this job, he takes Iñigo under his care, decided to fulfill his promise. The movie chronicles many of the adventures that Alatriste lives in Madrid, including the meeting of the love of his life, his problems at the King's court and specially his often difficult relation with his "adopted son", Iñigo.

The movie was written by director Agustín Díaz Yanes himself, and sadly, this is were things start going wrong for the movie, as Díaz' script is an example of what not to do when adapting a series of books. Instead of focusing on one of the many books to build up the story (or making a new adventure), Díaz Yanes opts for condensing the plots of 5 books into one single script, moving from event to event without giving the proper time to develop the details behind the stories. While this still may sound like a fan's nitpicking, it is actually a major problem in the film, as the script lacks a proper narrative to tie every event in the movie, leaving the feeling of an incomplete work or a lack of care in the development of the screenplay. Without a cohesive narrative, it doesn't matter how good the characters are or how interesting the setting is; the result ends up as boring, and often incoherent.

The terrible quality of the script contrasts enormously with the excellent work of production done in the film, as it is really one of the best and most realist portraits of 17th Century Spain committed to film. While his script is of an awful quality, as a director Díaz Yanes shows a great skill directing actors in complex set pieces, as well as a nice use of Paco Femenia's excellent cinematography and Benjamín Fernández' art direction. Focusing on the characters, Díaz Yanes seems to avoid the traits of epic adventure (odd considering the source novels) in favor of human drama, resulting in an extensive use of closed spaces to tell his film and portray the decadence of Spain in those years. Despite this focus, there are some brilliantly choreographed (by the legendary Bob Anderson) sword fights through the film that help to spice up things from time to time.

Díaz Yanes' best trait is his direction of actors, and in this aspect he doesn't disappoint, getting very good performances from most of his cast. Viggo Mortensen takes the lead role of Alatriste with courage and dignity, and shows his great versatility and talent. While his Spanish has some minor problems, he delivers a convincing performance against all odds. Unax Ugalde plays the adult Iñigo, although he is not nearly as convincing as Mortensen is in his character. The women in the movie are truly the film's best feature, with Elena Anaya and Ariadna Gil delivering bests performances of the movie as the mysterious Ángelica De Alquézar and actress María De Castro respectively. Juan Echanove and Eduardo Noriega have small but important roles as Alatriste's friends, with Echanove making a terrific job portraying poet Francisco De Quevedo.

Considering the many excellent things that "Alatriste" has to offer, the terrible flaws in its script become even more tragic as serve as proof that without a good screenplay the movie simply doesn't work. While by the second act it kind of gets on focus and the problem is somewhat corrected, the story never stops feeling like a series of disjointed vignettes without any connection other than the main characters, as the motifs and reasons for every adventure end up either unknown or are explained on a very superficial way. I know a movie should not be compared to the book it's based on, but in this case it is obvious that Díaz Yanes' mistake was to try to put 5 different books into one movie. This ambition destroys what otherwise could had been the best swashbuckling adventure in many years, as no matter how amazing the movie looks or how good the actors are in their roles, the movie feels simply incomplete.

"The Adventures of Captain Alatriste" are excellent adventure novels, as not only they offer an accurate portrayal of the period, but also have really interesting characters and wonderfully thrilling story lines. Sadly, "Alatriste" the film only keeps that care for historical accuracy as everything else is thrown out of the window by Díaz Yanes. While I'm sure fans of swashbucklers will like it, I'm also sure that it could had been better, a lot better.


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