There was a time when the sun never set on the Spanish Empire, and the Alatriste book series by Arturo Perez-Reverte takes us back to those times.
Painting by Diego Velazquez
All empires fall and we find our hero, Diego Alatriste, at a time of corruption, intrigue, and the Inquisition. Alatriste (2006) the film is sumptuous and ambitious, visually stunning, taking the look from Spanish art of the period (17th Century). The film has all the elements of a satisfying period film based on historical fiction: a world of handsome men in period costumes, women wearing beautiful gowns and jewels, amazing settings and locations, many excellent sword-fights, star- crossed romance, and political intrigue.
In response to a question about his own films, Viggo Mortensen mentioned Alatriste as one of his favorite. I read a couple of the Alatriste books some time ago, but never finished the series. I prefer Perez-Reverte’s mystery books. But the interview gave me the desire to revisit the film, since I’m lucky to own the DVD.
The film covers a long period of time in the life of Captain Diego Alatriste, and several of the books if not most. We first meet Alatriste waging war for Spain in Flanders and rescuing the man who will become his protector in the Spanish court, the Count of Guadalmedina (Eduardo Noriega). Then we see him back in Madrid taking care of the son of his dead comrade in arms, ten year old Íñigo Balboa (played as an adult by Unax Ugalde). We follow Alatriste and his ward Íñigo through a decade or more, sometimes in the never ending wars, sometimes in the dangerous peace of home in Madrid. We see the boy grow to a man, and Alatriste trying to survive his political and military enemies.
Some of my favorite scenes are the many battle scenes and sword-fights in the film The director knows how to handle these large crowd and battle scenes well. Some of the scenes in Flanders with the Spanish soldiers in the trenches during the Dutch Revolt or the Eighty Year’s War is reminiscent of similar scenes in World War I themed films and TV programs, I’m sure deliberately so. The constant rain, the snipers, the lack of food, the illness, the petty arguments, all in the place Alatriste (Viggo Mortensen) describes as hell.
There are also love stories in the film for both Alatriste and Íñigo. I like the contrast between the illusions of the young lovers versus the world wariness of the older couple. Elena Anaya plays the young, beautiful Angelica, and Ariadna Gil plays Alatriste’s lover Maria de Castro (based on La Calderona, mistress of Philip IV of Spain).
Yet there is something about the film that manages to not engage me fully. Is it the complicated real history that is the basis of the story, yet too complicated for those not fully acquainted with it to make us understand? Is it Viggo Mortensen’s performance as the lead character Alatriste, too remote and enigmatic to make us care for the man? I would answer yes to both questions, and that is why, even if this film has all the elements I hold dear in a period film, I admire the work, but I can’t give this cinematic experience my full heart and soul.
Even so, I do recommend seeing Alatriste if you like historical fiction and grand period films. For fans of Viggo Mortensen the film is another chance to see him in a heroic role.
Alatriste (2006) Directed by
In Spanish - English subtitles available on DVD