Film-Related & Film Reviews 2006

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An Accordant Man

By Javier Marías - translated by Xabo

17 September 2006

Source: El País Semanal

As mindful readers may note, I often mention Richard Ford's Handbook For Travelers of Spain (1845) when making the point that little has changed in this country, in spite of appearances. The book is not only one of the most astute observations of Spain I've ever read, but also one of the most entertaining, along with Giuseppe Baretti's A Voyage from London to Geneva (1770). There are countless times when Ford mentions that deep-seated Spanish custom of having kings, cardinals, generals and totally corrupt, fanatical and incompetent leaders carry the nation into disaster, leading both people and soldiers to sacrifice and endless slaughter. The most recent reference I have read by Ford concerns the War of Independence (Note: the war against the Napoleonic occupation of Spain: 1808-1815.) "In vain, the Duke of Wellington pleaded for the Spanish government to adopt a defense policy of guerrilla warfare. The generals of the regular army arrogantly refused to accept anything other than the strife and slaughter of fierce field combat."

Recently I saw Alatriste, Agustín "Tano" Díaz Yanes' movie on the character created by Arturo Pérez-Reverte. Before continuing, I need to forewarn you that I've been Tano's unconditional friend for 30 years. Furthermore, having shared space on the same newspaper page with Pérez-Reverte awhile back, our friendship has been solid for 8 years, withstanding all manner of darts, arrows and whispering voices damning our friendship as "literarily improbable." So if the above does not serve to convince a reader of the sincerity of my appraisal of this movie, it would then be best for said reader to abandon this article without delay.

Alatriste is a thoughtful reflection - sans hyperbole, grand speeches or denunciations - upon what has almost always been our country's history, including when it was yet an empire holding forth over a large portion of the world. Even then the country had poverty and suffering and was full of accordant individuals. I never tire of pointing out that there's a difference between such conformity, the equivalent to submission, and conformism, meaning resignation or acceptance in an individual. The second is a lamentable character flaw. The first is mostly admirable, and consists primarily of being able to endure hard circumstances without complaining too excessively, and of knowing how to lose gracefully when it's your turn. In that sense Spain has definitely changed. Today it's a country full of whiners who don't want to take responsibility for anything, not even for their own decisions.

Captain Alatriste is, without doubt, a proud man, a rebel and anarchist, but only to a certain extent. As he himself says, "There are rules," and they have to be held to. And thus he, too, is an accordant man, and you see it throughout the movie, and particularly in the impressive final scene (in the style of They died with their boots on), the battle of Rocroi, where the Tercios soldiers were sacrificed under the command of the inept Spanish government. Here, Díaz Yanes shows us how pikes and lances can be used horizontally for maximum effect in attacks and collisions, just as Orson Welles demonstrated their vertical prowess many years ago in 1965's Campanadas a medianoche (tr.note: Chimes at Midnight in the UK, Falstaff in some other countries). There are many facets to Alatriste that in no way prove themselves unworthy of Welles' earlier masterpiece.

Tano Díaz Yanes has made a risky movie. Or, put another way, he has made things difficult for himself. After every narrative twist, he forces the audience to refocus their attention and interest on the new events onscreen, disregarding the usual niceties of interwoven stories where everything happens for a reason and can be tied together and neatly explained. He tends to achieve his aim, but the only story that we truly follow full circle ends up being that of the character of Alatriste, whose depiction is a moving portrait of a hero. What Viggo Mortensen does with the character is extraordinary, not just because of his splendid appearance, but because of his acting, full of subtleties, sober intensity, as well as looks and gestures that serve to convey a story in a way that has rarely been seen onscreen since the deaths of actors like John Wayne, James Stewart or Robert Mitchum. The care with which he says his lines, making sure to keep the character Castilian, initially creaks a little, but ends up becoming a part of the character, thus presenting a happy ending to a potential disadvantage.

Alatriste is a work of surprising originality. It is far removed from the "epics" so common to the big screen today, which tend to enact scenes by rote (as though the directors no longer truly believe in the story and are merely thinking, "okay, time for a fight. Here's some love making. Now for some heroics. Etc.") In this movie we perceive that almost all that happens, both on and off the many battlefields in the movie (including war, love and the daily struggle of life itself) is inescapable : Because we have to work to live, because there are rules that must be followed, because making enemies is just as much the result of trying to remain true to oneself as is breathing wrong or lifting an erroneous finger, because compromises are necessary between friends and lovers, because there are no alternatives, because it has always been this way. Alatriste, both as written by Pérez-Reverte and as recreated by Díaz Yanes and Mortensen, is, as Pérez-Reverte has said on more than one occasion, "a tired hero." So tired, so patient, so aware that he will likely die before his time, that he is truly accordant with being allowed to unsheathe his sword just one more time, as a shadow or a phantom.
Last edited: 21 October 2006 09:47:27