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The high-drama subject of the Spanish conquest of South America is given defiantly low-drama treatment in Agustin Diaz Yanes’ Gold — to the extent that you wonder how it’s possible to extract so little adventure from such a rich mine of raw material.
Plodding along much as its characters do in the general direction of nowhere, what initially looks like an ambitious attempt take to deliver some anti-Ridley Scott 1492 realism to this hyper-mythologized period of Spanish-American history ends up drab and suspense-free, with only a handful of decent perfs, some striking visuals and a few sharp moments able to offset the lack of interest it inspires in either plot or character. File under “opportunity wasted” for an item which has performed below expectations at home; Spanish-language bookings await.
Like a previous Diaz Yanes feature, 2006’s Viggo Mortensen-starring Captain Alatriste, Gold is based on work by the historical novelist Arturo Perez Reverte. In 1538 in the Amazon jungle, Martin Davila (Raul Arevalo) rises from a group of slain natives to introduce via voiceover a sizeable list of Spaniards who have set off in pursuit of a city of gold (then as now, money is the only god that unites us all). The group is led by aging tyrant Don Gonzalo (Jose Manuel Cervino), given to summarily putting his charges to death. He is accompanied by his young wife Dona Ana (Barbara Lennie), the object of the affections of the ruthless Lieutenant Gorriamendi (Oscar Jaeneda), Gonzalo’s ambitious second-in-command. Other key figures are Sergeant Bastaurres (a dashing, curly-locked Jose Coronado) and Halfhand Indian (Juan Carlos Aduviri), doing translation duties.
Money of course divides as much as it unites, and the early part of the film is dominated by the threat from a rival gang led by Medrano (Rafael Cebrian), which will end in a bloody, convincingly rendered conflict. It’s in stand-alone sequences like this, or an encounter with an Indian tribe later, that Gold works, if it works at all — what’s missing is any throughline.
Perhaps inadvertently, Gold captures well the tedium of trudging through the jungle for 62 days, and some scenes point up well the dangers — occasionally, for example, as they’re crossing a river, someone will disappear as food for (presumably) an unseen croc. Nature has other dangers: One scene has a priest, Pater Vargas (Luis Callejo), being dragged down into quicksand while the others look on, chuckling at his fate. The expression on Vargas’ face as he uncomplainingly goes down is wonderful: and incidentally, this is a stoic, manly world in which nobody ever seems to complain about anything or indeed have many emotions at all.
Superficially, Gold is realistic and the researchers have done their homework in terms of costume design and setting, while the constant bickering about rank and which region of Spain they’re from is plausible. A couple of scenes featuring the garrote vil, a sickeningly simple tool of execution favored by the Inquisition, which involves twisting a rope slowly around the victim’s neck until it breaks, comes with all the requisite sound effects and suggests the barbarism and horror that is never far from the surface of these men’s existences. But if it’s realism you’re after, then nobody is ever seen consuming food, and or even talking about it, while every death by sword — and there are many — is unnaturally fast, painless and strangely silent.
Yes, Spain’s conquistador immigrants were a rough, nasty brutish lot, and to be fair maybe they were as irredeemable as they’re presented here: humorless, inarticulate, lacking both the capacity for self-reflection and much interest as people. But to deprive them, with a couple of exceptions including Dona Ana, of any kind of backstory longer than a couple of words seems like self-sabotage, leaving the cast struggling to deliver hard-boiled dialogue that is sometimes very unconvincing. No character generates more than fleeting interest, especially since there are so many of them, with many given a short time onscreen before inevitably being run through by somebody’s sword.
As Spanish casts go, this one can scarcely be bettered. Standouts include Jaenada, whose feral looks are ideally suited to the role, and vet Juan Diego as Requena, an outsider character conceived like Dennis Hopper’s in Apocalypse Now (which seems to have been much on Diaz Yanes‘ mind) living in a jungle encampment, who has thrown in his lot with the locals. Diego does wonders with the couple of scenes in which he features.
Paco Femenia’s photography is predominantly jungle-dark and claustrophobic, its obscure tunes sometimes punctuated brilliantly by flashes of light and color. Monotonous music, often Andean-flavored, is sometimes only there as an almost sub-audible hum.
Gold is dedicated to the memory of its editor, Jose Salcedo, whose professional relationship with Pedro Almodovar ran all the way from Almodovar’s first feature in 1989 to his most recent, Julieta.
Production companies: Apache Films, Sony Films Spain, Atresmedia
Cast: Raul Arevalo, Barbara Lennie, Oscar Jaenada, Jose Coronado, Jose Manuel Cervino, Antonio Dechent, Juan Jose Ballesta, Luis Callejo, Juan Carlos Aduviri
Director-screenwriter: Agustin Diaz Yanes, based on a story by Arturo Perez Reverte
Producers: Gabriel Arias-Salgado, Mikel Lejarza, Enrique Lopez Lavigne, Marta Velasco
Executive producer: Jose Torrescusa
Director of photography: Paco Femenia
Art director: Javier Fernandez
Costume designer: Tatiana Hernandez
Editors: Jose Salcedo, Marta Velasco
Composers: Javi Limon Maza, Javier Limon
Casting director: Juana Martínez
Sales: Sony Pictures Releasing
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