Film-Related & Film Reviews 2006

The Court of Alatriste

Source: El País Semanal

Print View

Article by Rocío García - El Pais Semanal - 8.2006 La Courte de Alatriste
Article by Rocío García - El Pais Semanal - …
Image César Urrutia.
© 2006 El Pais.
More than 10.000 costumes and extras, 97 locations, a budget of 24 million Euros. And Viggo Mortensen. Pérez-Reverte's character will take to the theatres in September. It's Alatriste, one of the Spanish films of the year. A fresco of the Golden Century painted with passion by the director Agustín Díaz Yanes.

"I liked the script a lot, and if you really want me to play this character, and it turns out that this can be done, it would be an honour for me, I'd like it." That was the simple and firm answer that the New York actor Viggo Mortensen gave the director Agustín Díaz Yanes when the latter offered him the part of Alatriste, the wicked soldier of the convulsed Spanish XVII century, created by Arturo Pérez-Reverte. They met at a luxury hotel room in Berlin, in December 2003. Viggo Mortensen was there promoting the third instalment of The Lord of the Rings. Díaz Yanes travelled accompanied by the writer and film maker Ray Loriga, a friend of both (Viggo and Yanes) and who was present at the beginning of this magical meeting, so beneficial for the great adventure of Alatriste, the film that will be released on September 1st. "The first time I saw him he was barefoot, coming out of a room in whose door he had put a towel to prevent it from closing. We came in and I could see the room was a mess. Viggo opened a bottle of wine, we started to talk, he took us to the première of The Lord of the Rings, we went out to have dinner and then went back to the room. And we stayed until six in the morning. He treated us wonderfully, we laughed our heads off, and from then on everything went easily", remembers the now director Agustín Díaz Yanes at another hotel room, also luxurious, but this time in Madrid.

The journey already began with possibilities. Part of the way was cleared. The director of Nobody Will Speak Of Us When We're Dead and No News From God arrived in Berlin knowing that Mortensen had read the script (sent to him by Loriga), that he had liked it and wanted to do it, but also being aware of the big pressures that a world film star was going to have to accept a role in a Spanish movie. "A man who has just finished The Lord of the Rings, who probably is the most famous face worldwide, is he going to come to Spain to work with a Spanish director about a swordsman of the Spanish Golden Century? His agents, his friends would talk him out of that madcap idea. I returned to Madrid being confident that he was going to do it, but with the doubt that as soon as he arrived back in the United States they would tell him he was crazy. Two months later he called and told me he would do it. I know they put pressure on him to not accept (the role); he won't want to tell you that, but that's the way it is," adds Díaz Yanes.

Mortensen does tell it, but without giving too many clues or going too deep. Barefoot, drinking maté, smoking self-rolled cigarettes on the little balcony of the hotel and with a soft and hoarse Spanish, the New York actor, who lived for nine years of his childhood in Argentina, clarifies: "Some people in Spain thought it was strange that I came to do this story. In the United States, some people asked me why I was going to do this. I answered them that the script was very good, that it was the best thing I had ever read; that not only did I like the story of Alatriste, but also the period. It's a valuable project, an interesting character, a historical period that is very unknown outside the academic world. I was very interested in the parallels with the present worldwide empire of the United States. The current decline of the American empire is very similar to the one that the Spanish empire went through in the XVII century. The international debt we are in, the waste of lives and resources; we have troops, and strongholds, and impossible military expenses, we are in strange lands inhabited by strange people, where they fear us and hate us and will never give us a respite, as Alatriste says in the film in response to the Count-Duke of Olivares. If this story was contemporary Alatriste would easily be a veteran American sergeant who was in Iraq in 1991, who was also in Panama and in the Central American dirty war, and that, even though he knows that invading the Iraqi city of Fallujah is a bit useless, he just does it. There is not a fixed aim, but loss of lives, and gold, and reputation".

The film, with a script by Agustín Díaz Yanes himself (Madrid, 1950) is built on Arturo Pérez-Reverte's five novels and shows an Alatriste of beautiful blue eyes who hides a dark heart, a wicked soldier and a mercenary killer of the Spanish Golden Century, a man with a challenging and at the same time tender look. "The exact image of a weary hero," as Pérez-Reverte has described him. The film delves into the story of this courageous soldier who, after fighting in the imperial Spain of the XVII century in a war in the cold lands of Flanders, returns to Madrid and finds a dying empire. The same Spain in which Quevedo and Góngora write their verses, Velázquez paints his paintings and Lope de Vega gets his plays performed is collapsing under the impassivity of King Felipe IV, in a court dominated by intrigues and corruption, handled by the Count-Duke of Olivares as he pleases, with the support of the Holy Inquisition.

Glory and decadence. Grandeur and intimacy. Alatriste is a beautiful film full of contrasts. Along with the great battles, thousands of extras, scenes with swords, sea landings...there is the intimacy of love, of friendship, of the smallest things, and the suffering of the most miserable people. Alatriste, with a production worthy of the biggest studios in Hollywood, not only lingers over adventure, it also inquires into the poverty of the people of the XVII century in Spain; it goes into the life of a soldier and, through him, it tells the glory and the decadence of Spain, of the power, but also of the people. Produced by Antonio Cardenal (Origen) together with Telecinco and Universal Estudios, Alatriste is one of the biggest Spanish cinematographic productions to date - a budget of 24 million Euros of Spanish capital - in which 50 actors and more than 10.,000 extras have worked. Herds of horses, galleons in the sea, artillery discharges, blastings... Alatriste has a spectacular cast, in which we can find the best of Spanish cinematography. Except Mortensen and the Italian Enrico Lo Verso, who plays the role of Gualterio Malatesta, all the actors are Spanish. Eduard Fernández (in the role of Copons, Alatriste's loyal friend), Ariadna Gil (the beautiful María de Castro, Alatriste's great love), Javier Cámara (Count-Duke of Olivares), Eduardo Noriega (Duke of Guadalmedina), Unax Ugalde (Íñigo Balboa), Elena Anaya (Angélica de Alquézar), Blanca Portillo (Bocanegra) or Juen Echanove (Francisco de Quevedo) are some of the important faces that accompany the courageous Alatriste.

From the beginning Díaz Yanes was very clear about something, which is that the film he was entrusted with three years ago had to be shot in Spanish and with a big film star. Otherwise he wouldn't have accepted the project. It took him one second to say yes to the job. Because of a lot of things. Because of his education as a historian, Díaz Yanes found himself with the biggest opportunity of his life. Cinema and History together, the director had also the chance of looking at the century he likes the most, the XVII c., and making a period film, which he's truly passionate about. "It was an opportunity that you can only turn down if the working conditions are not adequate, if you don't have enough money or you cannot get the actors you want. Otherwise it's impossible to say no," explains the director, who doesn't deny the extent of thoughtlessness that making movies has. "It's as if suddenly someone tells you that you are going to be the number 9 (centre forward) of the Spanish team in a football World Cup or it is announced you are to bullfight at Madrid's Feria de San Isidro. You cannot say no. Besides, I'm one of those who think that it seems that in Spain we don't get on very well with our history. The French have done some magnificent period films, and so have the English. I hope that Alatriste, whether people like it or not, can clear the way in this shortage of period films we have in Spain".

And those two circumstances (the Spanish language and the big star) joined together in an almost sole name: Viggo Mortensen, the performer of films like A Perfect Murder, Crimson Tide, Psycho, Hidalgo and A History of Violence, besides The Lord of the Rings. "Viggo fulfilled the perfect conditions. I always thought that the character of Alatriste had to be played by a big star. That's how it works in cinema. I love all actors, but I don't think that The Godfather can be done without Marlon Brando or The Deer Hunter without Robert de Niro. They are stars because they carry the weight of gigantic projects on their backs. I knew we needed a great actor, but at the same time he had to be a star. Nobody changed my mind." But Viggo turned out to be much more than a star who speaks Spanish perfectly. Everyone in the crew, and especially the actors who have accompanied him in this adventure, speak wonderfully (of him). He has been the perfect mate. He was the one who read the most about the Golden Century's history. He sent books and CDs for all his casting colleagues to savour that time - "not to seduce or control what the others did, but to share what I had found out," Mortensen informs. He gave presents every day. He arrived at the shooting with bags full of sweets, chewing gum and so on to share out amongst the crew. Also flowers, and maté, and Argentinean cakes. He also designed some T-shirts. An example of what Viggo Mortensen's participation in this Spanish project has been like is explained by Unax Ugalde: "When he knew about my big childhood fondness for Sugus sweets, one day I found on the floor of my dressing room the shape of my name all made out with sugus."

Another fact that speaks not of the actor, but of the human being, is the reception that Mortensen gave one day to Cristina, a sick girl whose wish was to meet the New York actor. The NGO "Fundación Pequeño Deseo" (Little Wish Foundation) was in charge of getting Cristina to celebrate her 11th birthday, the 31st of May 2005, in Talamanca del Jarama (Madrid), together with Mortensen. The actor took her to his trailer, stayed with her for nearly two hours, and showered her with gifts and surprises. Cristina's mother assures us that her daughter will never forget that day.

Poets, painters, writers. Quevedo, Lope de Vega, Velázquez's paintings. The XVII c. is the great Spanish cultural century, the only time in which Spain was the great world power. It's the century of Baroque. A century of wars and confrontations. One people, the Spanish, religious and mad, with lots of contrasts in thought, with geniuses who did things that nobody did anywhere in the world, but at the same time isolated. "It's a moving century," says Agustín Díaz Yanes. "From a cinematographic point of view it's fantastic; it only has one defect, which I think we have solved, that it's quite ugly. It is not the French XVIII c. or the Italian XIX c. . The XVII c. in Spain was dark and poor," adds the director.

Viggo Mortensen has devoutly looked at all of them, Quevedo, Velázquez and many more. He visited El Prado Museum again and again. "I wanted to make sure what the clothes were like; how they had their hair, the moustaches, the weapons, the postures. Those are details that I saw not only in Velázquez, but also in other painters," explains the actor. And keeping his habit of preparing the characters he plays thoroughly, Mortensen also wanted to know everything about the soldier Alatriste. "After reading the script, I always want to know what's not written, and I start with the character's birthplace, where and how he was brought up, how was his family, how was the geography of the place where he spent his childhood, how was his life." And all this took him to Castile, the place where Arturo Pérez-Reverte locates Alatriste. "I called and told him I was going to walk round that place. I travelled Valladolid and Salamanca, where it's said that the Spanish they speak is the most similar to the Spanish of the Golden Century. I arrived in León, rented a car and started to move around. In the mountains, in some villages close to the Asturian border, I found something. I don't know what. I went into a bar and it looked like the saloon of a Western. When I went in, everybody stopped talking because I was a stranger. Although I looked like them - half the people were blond and blue-eyed - no one spoke to me. I had a coffee and stayed for a little while because it was snowing outside and it was cold. I left, but I kept thinking about that place, about that village, about those people. I went back a second time and, without asking me anything, they served me the same thing I had had the previous time. On that occasion they'd talked to me. On my third visit I was a friend, they already trusted me. Their character, their way of speaking, the tone they used, that sharp tone, that so succinct character...I thought I had arrived at the place where Alatriste had grew up. I called Pérez-Reverte and told him it was León where I had found Alatriste's birthplace. "Could that be?' I asked him. "Yes, he could be from there,' he answered. During the preparation of the film I went back several times to that valley, to that place in the north of León, in the mountains, and every time I returned there I realized more and more that my choice had been the right one."

After two intimate films, Díaz Yanes has faced the great adventure of a superproduction, with 10,000 extras and great battles. "Before starting to shoot I was told this film was going to be my great adventure, and so it was. I remembered that a lot during the shooting. Making movies is always an adventure, regardless of the budget or whether it turns out well or badly; but in this case it has been a very pleasant adventure, in which I had a really good time, in the sense that I have felt I was a film director, that things have turned out just like I thought they would." Díaz Yanes hasn't found big differences between his two previous films and Alatriste. "For one reason," he clarifies, "that it's barely said in cinema. In these kind of films the director is very important, I do not doubt that, but the crew is also fundamental. I was lucky my assistant director (Charlie Lázaro) prepared everything extraordinarily because he's very used to that. All the crew chiefs, except Paco Femenía, director of photography, and myself, had done these kind of films. That takes all the problems away. That reduces them (the problems) to the actor to manage to get the emotion you want, and you to manage to finish the takes you had thought about. When you have such a solid crew as the crew of Alatriste you don't run into big difficulties."

The technical crew was made up of great professionals. Bob Anderson, creator of all the great swashbuckling films, from the ones starring Errol Flynn to Barry Lyndon or The Lord of the Rings, was in charge of developing all the fight scenes. The costume designer was the Italian Francesca Sartori who, commanding a great crew, prepared the tailoring of around 10,500 costumes. The make-up has been the work of the Spaniard José Luis Pérez, the same guy from The Lord of the Rings. The art direction has been in the hands of the Spaniard Benjamín Fernández, who has made not only great sets, but also a Spanish galleon of the XVII century which is 45 metres in length and 8,5 m. in width. They also had a military advisor who was in charge of keeping all the troops in formation, and a second unit crew that did the hardest work and perhaps the least eye-catching, but not less important. The magnificence of this production can also be seen in the number of locations where they have shot: in total, 97. In the streets of Úbeda and Baeza they shot the street scenes of the Madrid of that time; the plain of the Monastery of Uclés has served as a setting for the great battle of Rocroi; Seville, Cádiz and some of its beaches (Conil, Tarifa...) were the real sets for the galleons and the sea landing.

The cinema always looks at the cinema. That's what Díaz Yanes thinks, who has never denied that when he has to face a new production, no matter which one, he watches lots of films. For Alatriste, the director made a selection based on three aspects: the technical aspect ('Femenía and I watched all the great battles of cinema, more or less modern, from Barry Lyndon to Braveheart or The Last Samurai'), the personal one ("I've seen Cimino's The Deer Hunter a lot of times, to soak up its emotions; a lot of good period films, like Scorsese's The Age of Innocence; I made everybody see Visconti's Il Gattopardo, and as always I went back to The Godfather") and the most concrete aspect of poverty in order to describe the misery of the Spanish people ("I returned to the Italian Neorealism; I watched again a lot of Rossellini's films, Giulano's, a lot of the black and white of the poor").

Although the weight of the film falls on an international star, the overwhelming presence of some of the greatest actors in the Spanish scene is no less important. "I'm fed up with the fact that some people outside and inside the cinema world talk nonsense about the Spanish actors. We have 20 or 25 world first-class actors, including many of them who are not in my film. Viggo, when he arrived and saw them acting he was gobsmacked. I thought this film needed the foremost members of the Spanish industry. I like that people see that Juan Echanove's work as Quevedo is as good as any of Charles Laughton's roles, that Javier Cámara is as good as Anthony Hopkins." Viggo Mortensen had already known them, but he won't ever forget them. "In my life I've had to work a lot of times feeling a bit isolated. In the case of Alatriste it has been quite different. It was beautiful to work in a group. I rented and saw some films which the rest of the actors had worked in and I realized that I was in front of an exceptional cast. If I had wanted to work with all of them I would have to have done at least 10 films. An actor has to be confident, to feel comfortable, to feel he is welcome. Not everything is about working and being paid. I never felt that anyone said that the part of Alatriste should be played by a Spaniard. They made me feel more confident and helped me a lot."

That hero will have Viggo Mortensen's face forever. Challenging and tender. Big blue eyes and proud look. As Mortensen himself says, heroism is in the small things. "A hero doesn't have to be a political leader, or a sportsman, or a famous person, a soldier either. A heroic person is someone who behaves well, who treats other people well when things go badly for him. Alatriste and his comrades have a lot of stamina. This is not just an adventure story, it's a complicated and difficult story which you have to pay attention to. All the characters are complicated. That is the kind of films I'm interested in doing and seeing. Whoever expects this to be just an adventure story like The Three Musketeers is going to be surprised. It's much more than an adventure, it will make us think a lot. It's a sad and difficult story. A story that has honour, that rouses a lot of feelings and moves us. I'm very proud of it. I think that the citizens of all of what is called Spain, no matter where they are from, and without feeling any kind of embarrassment, can be proud of what this is." This is Alatriste.
Last edited: 16 August 2006 04:29:07
© Diario EL PAÍS S.L..