Thursday, April 15, 2010


After tallying the box office returns for Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings, the world had determined that Viggo Mortensen was a bankable and bonafide “star”. After fifteen years of solid performances in movies good and bad (and let’s forget about 1998’s Psycho and Dial M For Murder remakes entirely, ‘kay?), it was as if Hollywood suddenly realized that the actor was alive. And to thank him for their dubbing him “bankable”, Mortensen opted for the “actor” route, taking up roles that interested him, rather than those that would add to his bankability. Between starring roles in movies like the exciting but monetarily under-performing Hidalgo and the Oscar contender, A History of Violence, helmed by David Cronenberg, Mortensen took a trip to Spain to star in that country’s second most-expensive film in their history. Based on a popular series of books by Arturo Pérez-Reverte, Spanish producers hoped that Mortensen would bring some of his magic to Alatriste. And he did. But it was his actor’s magic, not his “bankablity” magic. And, thus, it’s safe to say that many of you have not seen, nor heard of, Alatriste.

Captain Diego Alatriste is a soldier in the service of King Felipe IV, during the 17th Century “Eighty Years War” between Spain and a good deal of the rest of Europe. When his good friend is killed during a tense battle in the Netherlands, Alatriste takes the man’s son, Inigo Balboa, into his care and raises him as his own, something between a son, a ward and a best friend. We spend the next twenty years with Diego and Inigo during many very complicated adventures involving intrigue, political machinations and battles—international wars and personal duels.

Alatriste is many things at the same time—swashbuckler, history lesson, romance, coming-of-age story—but none of these elements come together comfortably. The primary culprit here is not found in the performances, the production design, the costumes or the action but in the script. Written by Arturo Pérez-Reverte and the director, Agustín Díaz Yanes, the screenplay attempts to condense all five of Pérez-Reverte’s sprawling novels that make Las aventuras del Capitán Alatriste into one single film. As a result, even with a 145-minute running time, the movie feels cramped, rushed and very convoluted. Characters are introduced and then dropped, only to resurface an hour later to varying degrees of importance. Inigo’s journey from innocent youth to starry-eyed young lover to villain-for-hire unspools without linkage, as does Diego’s own romance with Maria de Castro, a royal courtesan. The audience is supposed to take all of these relationships between fifty-plus characters as a given without getting a chance to see any of it develop. In the end, we’re given a lot of history and a lot of action but very little emotion to tie it all together.

Alatriste is a handsome-looking movie filled with adventure and rousing duels and, at the same time, giving a gritty look at pre-industrialized war little hinted-at in other films. One harrowing sequence has Alatriste and his men tunneling beneath a structure only to meet the enemy tunneling through the other side. The resulting knife fight is ugly and brutal, hardly the clean one-strike affair we’ve come to expect in costume dramas. The duels, too, are bloody, leaving both sides wounded and painfully recovering. The production design gives 17th Century Spain a texture, almost aromatic in some scenes. You feel transported at every turn, but hopelessly lost in the tangle of intersecting storylines. For non-Spanish speakers, subtitles increase the confusion, with your eyes darting back and forth between the spoken and the speaker, working to remember who is who and of what relation to Diego or Inigo. And judging from some of the comments littering the movie’s IMDb and Amazon pages, the Spanish were none-too-impressed with Mortensen’s performance. Apparently he looks the part and brings his signature charisma but botches his accent. Being an ugly American, I can neither confirm nor deny that Mortensen trips over his “s”s or growls his grande`s. By the end, I was still trying to dope out who he was dueling and why.

Pérez-Reverte was inspired to write Las aventuras del Capitán Alatriste after perceiving a lack of great stories set in the history of the Spanish Golden Age, particularly in school textbooks. He saw it as a rich period of Spain’s history, intersecting the same span of time as Dumas’ Musketeer stories, and it allowed him to insert real characters and events into the storyline. As a war reporter, Pérez-Reverte also gave the action-oriented novels a darker tone. As a set of novels, Pérez-Reverte had the luxury of bringing his flawed but heroic characters to three-dimensional life and that’s chiefly where the movie fails. By trying to cram so much into the running time—including a depiction of Alatriste’s demise at the Battle of Rocroi (1643, May), which was taken from a book that had not even been published at the time of shooting—Yanes succeeded in creating a beast with the feel of an epic, minus the subtlety of what makes epics so enduring. Ultimately, his desire to film a Spanish blockbuster undercut the movie’s real purpose, resulting in a muddled and unsatisfactory experience.

To that end, Alatriste arrived on Region 1 DVD only recently and without any fanfare. 20th Century Fox held the rights to the North American release but chose to release it to Latin America only, with a company called “Rough Trade” taking the Canadian territory. So much of the movie is admirable—Mortensen’s decision to take a role that excited him in a foreign production, a Spanish studio attempting to adapt a beloved fiction series and treating it handsomely—it makes the final product that much more disappointing.


  1. he did not 'botch' the Spanish. He's fluent in Spanish but the Argentinian dialect. mist reviews i read said he did extremely well. btw, mr mortensen is fluent in 4 languages and speaks 7

  2. Who are you fighting with? I liked the movie for the most part. I just wish it'd been split into multiple episodes instead of one big film.