VENICE — A romanticized sketch of the early years of great Spanish poet and playwright Lope De Vega, “Lope” is a classy production that rises above the swashbuckling television costumer it could have been. It will still grab readers of Harlequin novels, but also wider audiences on both big and small screens. Graced by a trio of beautiful and talented young actors, the film opened in Spain on Sept. 3 and has pursued a vigorous festival launch here and in Toronto.
Though Brazilian filmmaker Andrucha Waddington (“The House of Sand”) seems an odd choice to direct a film about a national icon, he has a feeling for 16th-century atmosphere and describing the romantic entanglements of a man able to wield both sword and pen. Lope was born two years before Shakespeare, who is said to have been influenced by his revolutionary ideas about theater, and there is a faint hint of “Shakespeare in Love” here, though the feeling of continental Euro TV costumers is the stronger taste.
The dashing soldier Lope (Alberto Ammann) returns from the Azores penniless but high-spirited. A skillful liar, he tells his blind mother he has a purse full of coins, when they’re only stones. From lying to writing is a short step, and he soon has a play in hand that needs producing. His brother dismisses him as a dreamer, but Lope borrows some good clothes and presents himself to the powerful theater impresario Velasquez (Juan Diego).
He wouldn’t get a foot in the door, had the producer’s sexy, sharp-tongued daughter Elena (Pilar Lopez De Ayala) not taken a shine to him. As they embark on a passionate, clandestine affair, Lope begins to win popular acclaim for his plays, which break the strict canons of the time. Viewers rejoice along with him when the poorly dressed audience applauds his first, reworked Cervantes production in a miniature Globe Theater built in a courtyard. Waddington also makes a shrewd connect between Lope’s ever-difficult relationship to his producer and the way movies are made today.
Lope is loyal to Elena, but when she plays foul, he discovers an attraction to the well-heeled noblewoman Isabel de Urbina (Leonor Watling), whom he has always overlooked, though who knows why. Now caught between two loves, he finds he must choose between his heart and what’s good for his career. The ending offers a satisfying solution.
Ammann, known for his role in “Cell 211” (like Luis Tosar, here in the role of a kind-hearted monk) proves a dashing, impulsive and thoroughly likable hero, well-matched to the spirited female leads. Turning the bodice-ripper on its head, both Elena and Isabel remove their own bodices, thank you, and De Ayala and Watling have a modern self-determination that connects to audiences.
Venue: Venice Film Festival (In Competition)
Production companies: Antena 3 Films, El Toro Pictures, Ikiru Films, Conspiracao Filmes
Cast: Alberto Ammann, Leonor Watling, Pilar Lopez de Ayala, Luis Tosar, Selton Mello, Antonio De La Torre, Miguel Angel Munoz, Ramon Pujol, Carla Nieto, Jordi Daudier, Mariano Venancio, Sonia Braga, Antonio Dechent, Juan Diego
Director: Andrucha Waddington
Screenwriters: Jordi Gasull, Ignacio Del Moral
Executive producers: Juan Carlos Caro, Leonardo M. Barros, Eliana Soarez, Julio Ariza, Angel Blasco, Iona De Macedo
Producers: Mercedes Gamero, Jordi Gasull, Edmon Roch, Andrucha Waddington
Director of photography: Ricardo Della Rosa
Production designers: Cesar Macarron, Lilly Kilvert
Music: Fernando Velazquez, Jorge Drexler
Costumes: Tatiana Hernandez
Editor: Sergio Mekler
Sales Agent: Wild Bunch
No rating, 112 minutes