Wednesday, December 16, 2009

SCN hosts another winner: José Luis Garci's fabulous history lesson SANGRE DE MAYO

And the hits just keep on coming. The FSLC's Spanish Cinema Now, usually a good bet, has this year outdone itself. With four of the new films left to see (I missed Rec 2), only one of the eighteen has been a miss. The rest, good to wonderful, are reason enough to attend this sterling series. Yesterday's movie BLOODY MAY (Sangre de Mayo) co-written (with Horacio Valcárcel) and directed by José Luis Garci (shown below) is one of the series' best -- working simultaneously as history, drama, pageant and art.

Beginning with a charming, slightly ironic narration full of fascinating facts from Spain's history, the accompanying visuals move from historical artwork into "reality" -- where the sets, costumes and cinematography will pop your eyes. We meet our hero, Gabriel, played by Quim Gutiérrez -- shown, center, below -- slightly gap-toothed and dimple-chinned (another of Spain's young actors bolstering that country's reputation for possessing the world' most beautiful men). Gabriel works as a "helper" to a local theater company, where he's particularly good at keeping his ear to the ground for rumors of things political, military, romantic, whatever. Enamored with a lovely young woman (shown two photos below), he still jumps at the chance to go into the service of a lady of the aristocracy, where, she makes clear from the beginning, he will act as her servant, spy and lover.

Though all this, he (and we) learn bits and pieces of what's going on behind the scenes. The time is the early 1800's when Spain is controlled by France, via a kind of puppet government that cedes decision-making to Napoleon and his eldest brother Joseph Bonaparte, even as the Spanish people -- sick of being under the thumb of soldiers who cannot even speak their language -- are preparing for revolt. Concurrently, we learn how other forces, such as the Church and the theater, fit into this mix.

It's a rich and heady kind of stew that Garci and Valcárcel have concocted, and yet it seems prepared to be digested by, say, intelligent teenagers, so simple and understandable have the filmmakers chosen to make it. I do not mean this as derogatory, for the potent mix of politics, amorous adventure, military information and -- finally -- armed resistance is therefore easier to comprehend. By giving us a dose here, a dose there, they lead us along, usually in the shoes of the Gabriel, his lover and her cleric uncle.

Bloody May is an unusually warm movie -- from its photography (by the award-winning Félix Monti), bathed in hues of yellow, to its cast of characters, each brought to life by an accomplished actor (the cast is huge and made up of a number of Spain's finest). Interestingly, the filmmakers find no real villains here, not even in the avaricious relatives (below) of Gabriel's young lady, nor in the aristocracy. Garci and Valcárcel take a larger view so that the alliances and betrayals -- whether in politics, economics or love -- seem simply a part of the greater life. The relationship between servant Gabriel and his aristocratic mistress is one of genuine caring. Despite how things turn out, these two want to best for each other, and we want the same for them.

Where the filmmaker's sympathies lie, however -- it becomes increasingly clear -- is with the common people. The single, prolonged scene of war (shown below) -- the uprising of the townspeople against the French -- is stupendous, not because of its specials effects or its huge cast, but due to the filmmaker's ability to capture so many individual moments that bring home war's destruction as well as I have ever seen it done. Garci acted as his own film editor here, and the man knows what's it's all about: not a matter of CGI effects and gargantuan bloodshed but of a mother protecting her son, of men and women rising up in anger with whatever weapons they can find. Gabriel, though more of a lover than a fighter, has finally to pick up a weapon, too just as common folk everywhere seem eventually to do.

The finale is a memorable wonder. The filmmakers find a way -- in but two short moments -- to link history to art and give a world-famous painting its own back-story. An instant later, in another sudden and astonishing twist, "then" becomes "now" and, as the credits roll, we're left to ponder all that has happened in the two centuries between. (This was one of the rare times I've been in a theater in which almost no one in the audience walked out during the final credit roll.)

In this past year's Goya Awards, Sangre de mayo appears to have been the biggest competitor of Camino, which won all the major prizes. It's not difficult to understand why, as the latter movie is "modern," ground-breaking and deals with a more apparently controversial subject. If I'd had to choose between them, the choice would have been difficult. In the end, I think I'd have gone with Garci's warm and intimate historical epic, for Sangre de Mayo makes Spaniards of us all.

Bloody May screens one more time only at the Walter Reade Theater, closing this year's Spanish Cinema Now, on Sunday evening, December 20, at 7:50.

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