Wednesday, December 29, 2010

SCN: Andrucha Waddington's LOPE looks at the personal history of the playwright/poet

Almost everyone in LOPE has plenty of dirt under his/her fingernails. That's just one of the details that makes Andrucha Waddington's semi-sweeping historical epic so much fun -- and seemingly so right. TrustMovies' understanding of Spanish history is nowhere near good enough to critique dates, locations, and the known facts of the life of famed 16th-Century Spanish playwright and poet, Félix Arturo Lope de Vega y Carpio (known more often as Lope de Vega). This made is easier to simply sit back and let the enjoyable movie wash over him -- somewhat in the manner that the old Hollywood spectacles used to do. This one, however, seems more intelligent, particularly where the man's work, love life and character are concerned.

Waddington (the filmmaker is pictured at right) begins his tale as Lope returns from a military campaign, eager to see his beloved mother. With his initial scenes, the Brazilian director (The House of Sand, Me You Them) sets us up for spectacle done on a scale that's both grand (lots of extras) and personal. Yet there is rarely a sense of overused "special effects" here. Instead, everything looks real, dirty and of its time. After awhile, you begin to hope that someone will at long last take a bath --- and this for the chance to view cleanliness rather than nudity. Waddington's camera sweeps, all right (particularly at the finale, on horseback, galloping over the golden plains: the fine cinematography is by Ricardo della Rosa) but more often it lands on faces, architecture, desks, and the stage.

One of those faces belongs to Alberto Ammann, above, who limns a terrific young Lope. Last year Ammann played a great second fiddle to Goya-winning actor Luis Tosar in the SCN hit Cell 211. This year -- in the manner of the proper repertory company in which Spanish actors often seem to reside -- it's Tosar who second-fiddles Ammann as his friend and confidant, Friar Bernardo. Both men come through with fine performances. Ammann, in particular, plays down his good looks under a heavy, scruffy beard, but the playwright's fire and talent are never for a moment in question.

One of the delights of Lope is how it lets us peek in at 16th-century Spanish stage-craft: the workings of the writers, directors and actors. Lope de Vega added a new kind of realism to the mix that audiences appreciated, and we see a bit of how this came about -- despite the protestation of Lope's not-quite mentor, Jerónimo Velázquez (an excellent Juan Diego -- above, left, who actually bears much more resemblance to the poet/playwright than does Ammann, but of course is not nearly so youthful nor such a visual hunk). Also in the loop is Velázquez's fiery, sexy daughter (Pilar López de Ayala, above, right, who coincidentally opens today in The Strange Case of Angelica), as a lady who's got an eye for talent -- on the page and in the sack.

Also in the cast is the lovely Leonore Watling, (above, left) a staple of SCN (and so much else) as a friend of the poet who eventually becomes something more than that. One of the movie's most enjoyable scenes involves a visiting piece of French royalty, Ms Watling's fiancé, and some improvised poetry that Lope creates on the spot. Twice. The film's intelligent and encompassing screenplay, by the way, is via Jordi Gasull and Ignacio del Moral.

There's a great deal to appreciate in this lovingly created spectacle of a time long gone. When the film had ended and a title card told us of Lope's latter days and endeavors, the sound of surprise and delight -- even some applause --  went up from the audience at the Walter Reade, upon leaning how fecund, successful (and long-lived) an artist our young hero eventually became. (The film was shown as part of this year's FSLC Spanish Cinema Now series.)

I would doubt that Lope, being a foreign-language film about an artist, would have U.S. distributors rushing in to give it a theatrical release. But such a beautiful film it is that I'd hope at least VOD, DVD or streaming might beckon. This movie deserves to be seen.

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