ALATRISTE, from Spain in 2006, directed and scripted by Agustín Díaz Yanes, stars Viggo Mortensen as a 17th-century soldier/adventurer/lover, serving King, honor and las exigencias del amor during what the Spanish call The Eighty Years War. This messy piece of Europe’s puzzle played out from 1568 to 1648, when provinces in what are today Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg revolted against domination by Spain under King Philip IV. Also known—by the other side—as the Dutch War Of Independence. Religion played its customary jolly part, with Catholics against ‘heretics’. Yanes’ 145-minute sally into a sorry period was based off pieces from five of seven ‘Captain Alatriste’ books written between 1996 and 2011 by noted Spanish war correspondent and historical novelist Arturo Pérez-Reverte. *
Honor dictates the violent life of ‘Diego Alatriste’ (El Viggo), a Spanish captain serving in several desperate campaigns over two decades in the early 1600s. The story begins in the marshes of Flanders (northern Belguim), moves to episodes of deadly intrigue in Madrid and concludes in France with a medium-scale version of the 1643 Battle of Rocro. Shaping and vexing his adventures and perils is his mission as guardian of the son of a slain friend, and his on & off affair with a famed actress who is courted by men of higher standing.
Trying to compress a half-dozen books, a bewildering war, two decades and a swarm of characters into two hours & twenty-five minutes of screen-time makes for confusion, and the ‘adventure’ is not of the lighthearted variety; as befitting the time, attitudes and events, the tone is grim. Mortensen’s screen presence is compelling but the script doesn’t give you much reason to root for the character, or for any of the others, who are mostly unsympathetic to start with. They’re all well acted, but emotionally remote. The excellently-staged action sequences are not filmed to be exciting or rousing, just realistic, brutal and bloody.
Mortensen carries it best he can. His casting, off the renown from the ‘Lord of the Rings’ trilogy, ensured the lavish period production got the green light. His proficiency in Spanish sealed it, and those orc-skewering sword skills came in handy for all the hand-to-hand combat Capitan Alatriste must survive. He looks terrific, dashing and deadly; the costuming is marvelous. His scenes with the actress, played by Ariadna Gil, have chemistry built-in, as Ms.Gil has been Viggo’s real-life partner since 2009.
Throughout, the movie has a great canvas of detail in wardrobe, settings, props and makeup. The production design by Benjamin Fernandez and the rich cinematography from Paco Feminia, shooting in 97 locations around Andalucia and in Madrid, look to capture the feel of paintings of artists like Diego Velazquez. Quietly atmospheric scoring comes from Roque Baños.
At roughly €24,000,000/$30,000,000, this was one of the costliest films ever produced in Spain. Barely seen in the States, it did gross $23,483,000 in international markets, with Spain obviously the biggest player.
With Javier Cámara, Eduardo Noriega, Juan Echanove, Elena Anaya, Unax Ugalde, Blanca Portillo (seen that same year as the dead/undead mother in Volver, here she plays a man, a creepy Inquisitor) and Enrico Lo Verso.
* Reading up on the assorted causes, players, battles, treaties and slaughters is dizzying, but its trove of personalities and actions look tailor-made for dramatic treatment. Set during the same time frame as “The Three Musketeers” (that story’s historical Cardinal Richelieu is mentioned in the script), it blended into the Thirty Years War (only 30–what a relief!), another awful squabble over Who’s God Gives Me This Property insanity, its distant mirror shown a touch of cinema light through The Last Valley.
Speaking of Reason, or pleasoning—the Goya Awards, Spain’s big prize trinket, nominated this in 15 categories, including Picture, Director and Actor. Heady competition that year from Volver and Pan’s Labyrinth, but Alatriste did snag three Goya’s.