The cinematographic version of the adventures imagined by the Spanish writer Arturo Pérez Reverte, to be released next Thursday in Buenos Aires, brings together an exceptional cast spearheaded by the most famous supporter of San Lorenzo de Almagro, who is also David Cronenberg's fetish actor.
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When Spanish director Agustín Díaz Yanes decided to adapt the adventures of Captain Alatriste, by the prestigious writer Arturo Pérez Reverte, to film, he knew that the gamble meant a risk and a challenge. One of the first problems he had to face was how to make a blockbuster with its own identity that wouldn't be branded as "the European version of Hollywood." So he set to work and gathered together a great group of Spanish actors and actresses - Ariadna Gil, Eduardo Noriega, Eduard Fernández, Blanca Portillo, among others - and the American superstar Viggo Mortensen, with the idea of condensing the four novels of the Alatriste saga into only one film. "It was impossible to combine the four books. The books would have made a long TV series rather than a movie. So it was decided to make Captain Alatriste's life as a biography," he says for the interview with Página 12, in which Mortensen and Gil, who are in Buenos Aires promoting the film that opens this Thursday, also take part. "That way I could take what I wanted from each book and not have to follow the chronology of each one of them," the director explains.
Alatriste is the most expensive Spanish film in Spanish history. The budget exceeds 24 million Euros. About fifty actors and hundreds of extras took part in it, and many locations, such as Talamanca del Jarama, the Monastery of El Escorial, El Alamo, Cádiz, Tarifa, Sevilla, Úbeda, Baeza, Viso del Marqués and Santa Cruz de Mudela were used in a filming that lasted fifteen weeks. In addition, casting a star like Mortensen was a guarantee of quality acting but it added another risk: the American actor speaks fluent Spanish - a result of his childhood in Argentina, where he became a San Lorenzo de Almagro supporter - but he doesn't speak a Spanish that is as pure as the rest of the characters. Nevertheless, he comes through with flying colors in his creation of Diego Alatriste, a seventeenth century soldier of the Spanish Empire in a time in which the cultural life of the Golden Century was blossoming with Quevedo, Góngora, Velázquez and Lope de Vega, but when at the same time the empire was sinking in the obscurantism of those who held in their hands the destiny of the Iberian Peninsula. And while the brilliant portrayal of Aragorn in the saga of The Lord of the Rings - the trilogy the New Zealand director Peter Jackson brought to the screen based on the masterpiece by J.R.R. Tolkien - endures in the eyes of many cinephiles, Mortensen again plays a complex and adventurous character, but one that has little in common with the one in The Lord of the Rings.
How did you approach your characters and which aspects did you identify with?
Viggo Mortensen: I had lots of things in mind, but there are some that you can't be aware of, things that come to you or that you have inside and it's a question of finding them. Among the superficial things, the writings, the paintings, the geographical locations, the language as it is spoken in certain parts of Spain. And the practice of moving in those boots with heels, that hat, that cape, the weapons (the sword hanging from the belt), spinning around, walking, running, jumping. That is to say, a bunch of things to find a way to seem like a natural person who's comfortable with those things, and that way of speaking, of walking and all of that.
Ariadna Gil (She plays Maria de Castro, Diego Alatriste's lover): I identified above all with her position, since she and I are devoted to the same thing: we are actresses. Leaving aside the distance in time and so many things, basically, the life of an actor is not so different either. What I mean is in the sense that, in that time, just as now, you can live in a slightly different way from ordinary people. You have many, many things for preparing yourself, since you can read and study a lot. In my case, we began to prepare a lot for the theatre part especially, where we had to stage the scenes in which she acts, learning to speak in verse. The truth is there was a lot to learn and things that could be enriching.
And you, Mr. Mortensen, what aspect of Alatriste did you identify with most? Do you see him as a heroic figure but fraught with moral ambiguities?
VM: I wish I were as brave and honest as he is. But maybe what I have a little in common with him is a certain commitment to the people I love, friends even if they are recent, from the shoot in this case. I would give everything for them and they for me. It was obvious and Agustín set the example of that behavior, doing things as they have to be done, seriously, arriving on time, prepared. But afterwards, not taking it too seriously, joking a little, having a good time because life is short and filming even more so.
Is it more difficult to bring a literary character to the screen?
Agustín Díaz Yanes: If it is a literary character like Alatriste, yes, it is, because it has been read by three million people; you carry a heavy load. It has an advantage too; it's very well written and it is also written by Pérez Reverte. But with Alatriste, it was a little more complicated because of the huge success it's had; it has been read by fourteen year old kids and seventy year old men and women. Everyone knows him. There were even Alatriste drawings in the novels. The whole thing was a little overwhelming, so to speak. But in the end, it was not as difficult as I thought.
Is it more difficult to play a character from another time than a contemporary one?
AG: I don't know about that; it depends on what happens to the character and what they say. For me, it's easier to play characters to whom intense things happen or who undergo changes rather than something more everyday. In that respect, the era in which things happen is not important. The era can be of help to you because there are so many things that you can take hold of, and at the same time nobody knows for sure, because nobody was there. As a result, you have to imagine it and that gives you a lot of freedom. But I don't consider that a determining factor.
VM: First you'd have to ask yourself the question, "What are 'period movies'?" Something that happened a thousand years ago, a hundred years ago, two minutes or two seconds ago? It depends. There are characters that require you to learn a new language or a different way of walking, or to not be able to walk at all. All characters have their own challenges. All circumstances in a shoot have some. You can make it easy for yourself and not work a lot, you can be as lazy in this craft as in any and be successful without learning very much. Or, if it interests you, you can learn a lot of things and immerse yourself in any given era. The short answer is: I don't know. (laughs)
Did you work close to the script or was there room for personal contribution?
VM: There was enough for everyone. I see that Tano (Díaz Yanes) has a way of directing similar to that of David Cronenberg, another director I like a lot. The truth is that they are both good for me and I think for the other actors too. Well, not for her (for Ariadna Gil) (laughs). So, it's a matter of preparing yourself very thoroughly, researching everything possible and when the moment to film arrives, remaining open. That includes ideas that the actor, the cinematographer, the property manager, the art director may bring you. And being able to say, "yes" or "no" or "no, thanks", or "that's a silly idea" or "It doesn't work for me", or "yes, thank you, I´ll use that". And that's the way he is. And that makes things much easier for you. It's natural; it should be the general rule in making movies, but you almost never see it because human beings are strange, and directors are rather strange or insecure, and actors even a little more so.
Which character was the most difficult to recreate in the filming?
ADY: Alatriste was the character that had to be there all the time. But the most difficult ones were the historical characters whose portraits fill the Museo del Prado: the Count-Duke of Olivares (Javier Cámara) and Quevedo (Juan Echanove). Everyone in Spain, even people who don't read or don't like culture, or who are not committed to it, everyone has seen the Count-Duke of Olivares in the Museo del Prado. And everybody knows what Quevedo looks like. I think they did that pretty well.
Viggo, as an American, how did you feel about participating in a film that tells a story so particular to Spain in the seventeenth century?
VM: I never thought about my passport, or my passports, because I have a Danish and an American one. But working on Alatriste, I thought much more about my childhood in Argentina, the language and what I'd learned about Spanish history. I'm interested in reading and in history. It's always more interesting to tell something that has not been told much, well or in depth as is the case of the Golden Century, which is too little known outside the academic world.
The film not only tells Alatriste's story, but also, through Alatriste, the history of Spain in the seventeenth century. What, then, did you study before directing and acting?
ADY: It was easier for me, because I had studied history and that century in college because it was the "star century" for those of us who investigate contemporary history. Also, it was the century I liked best. Well, I don't have the library that Arturo Pérez Reverte has, but I had a library at home about the seventeenth century, and it was easier for me than for them. But that thing about "you have to prepare yourself very well" has become a myth. Yes, yes. But in the end, what lasts in films is the spirit. Preparation is always secondary. The best thing in movies is what is not written in the scripts. In this film, there are two takes that define it very well; one of them is the one of Ariadna Gil walking down the stairs. The other is a shot that cost me a lot to include because I had to change all the editing, which is the one where Alatriste is in the jail to enlist the bravos. It's a shot that covers the entire screen, with the hat falling over his face and that look in his eyes. So I think that what's best in films is what is not written. In Spain as well as Latin America, the director takes on a prominence that he doesn't have. What stays with you from films is always the image of an actor or actress doing something that wasn't in the script.
Taking into account that the film tackles the topic of the decline of a powerful empire, how would you describe it from a political point of view?
ADY: I'm a very political person, but I never thought about the film as politics. It's inevitable that there will always be a political comparison because, well, the declines of empires are almost always similar. That of Spain was a little bit different as it was unique: it decayed in twenty years. It's as if now the United States fell and turned into Zambia, which is a little like what happened to us, the Spaniards. It wasn't something I thought about for the film but it came out in it, because it was inevitable.