Falling Star (Stella cadente): Rotterdam Review

A royal treat: crisply sumptuous, wryly offbeat glimpses into an obscure Spanish monarch's ill-fated reign.

Alex Brendemuhl plays 19th-century Spain's King Amadeo I in Luis Minarro's feature-film debut, which competed for the Tiger awards at the Netherlands port city.

While its premise suggests some Iberian, 19th-century cousin of The King's Speech, Catalan oddity Falling Star (Stella cadente) instead presents an amusingly idiosyncratic, louchely left-field vision of tormentedly insecure monarchy. Because while the charismatic, eerily indigo-eyed Alex Brendemuhl plays things affectingly straight as Spain's short-lived ruler Amadeo I, director/co-writer Luis Minarro mounts his performance in an ornate framework of deadpan-camp curlicues.

A frankly explicit approach to male nudity renders this austerely elaborate, fancifully speculative confection adults-only material, one whose best bet of niche success lies in its native Catalonia. Suitable handling may yield encouraging arthouse returns elsewhere in Spain, not to mention France and possibly even in the hapless Amadeo's native Italy. Festivals and platforms seeking handsomely eruditely high-toned but puckishly witty fare should take note of this belated fiction-feature debut from noted maverick producer Minarro, who's well into his seventh decade.

"My reign was brief," Amadeo directly informs us in the prologue, this Savoyard nobleman having been elected monarch of Spain amid the violent social upheavals of 1870. Traveling from Turin to his stark, castle-like palace, Amadeo quickly grasps the limitations and frustrations of what's little more than a figurehead role. Blocked and mocked by his subordinates treated with polite disdain by his servants, Amadeo cuts a lonely figure as he awaits the delayed arrival of his wife - passing his time in aesthetic contemplation and tetchy grumbling.

The appearance of the Queen (Barbara Lennie) at the start of the picture's second section lifts Amadeo's mood, but he nevertheless divines that his short-term destiny is a 'choice' between assassination and abdication. Though his ambition is to turn Spain into "a modern parliamentary monarchy that guarantees progress and justice for all ... a better distribution of wealth," the impeccably regal-looking Amadeo palpably lacks the backbone needed to thwart his Machiavellian ministers.

But rather than deliver some stultifying evocation of kingly stasis, Minarro and his collaborators - including co-screenwriter and noted dramatist Sergi Belbel -- instead opt for a semi-experimental narrative approach punctuated with droll absurdities and unexpected eccentricities. Most startling is a sylvan sequence in which Amadeo's manservant Alfredo (Lorenzo Balducci) masturbates with a watermelon, his thrustings tactfully captured in long-shot via the fixed-camera mode which Minarro consistently adopts.

Digital cameras often render the past with a clinical spotlessness which makes suspension of disbelief difficult, but here cinematographer Jimmy Gimferrer, aided by colorist Diana Cujas, achieves a directness and simplicity which unfussily boosts verisimilitude. His limpid visuals stand in welcome contrast to his much shadowier, "dirtier" work on Albert Serra's Locarno-garlanded Story of My Death -- a film whose cloying atmosphere of rarefied pretension is conspicuously absent here.

Indeed, of the numerous Catalan notables with whom he's worked as a producer, Minarro's fictional debut (he's been previously responsible for a couple of well-received documentaries) nods more strongly towards Sergio Caballero (2010's Rotterdam winner Finisterrae). As with Caballero's work, there's a jaunty anything-goes feel to proceedings, allied to a madcap, sometimes berserk sense of humor -- welcome amid occasional longueurs and the tendency of the more serious passages to veer towards ponderousness.

Minarro audaciously throws in some rousing, unapologetically anachronistic 20th century music-cues on his sound-track (alongside more stately samplings from Mozart and Puccini) and has an insatiable fondness for picturesque fauna: a propos of nothing, a peacock struts into a regal chamber at one point, and by this stage we barely turn a hair. Then there's a scenestealing tortoise who occasionally ambles into view, modeling precious gems in a gold setting on her shell -- the critter as slow-paced, as poised, as irresistibly exquisite as Falling Star itself.

Venue: International Festival Rotterdam (Tiger Competition), 26 January 2014
Production company: Eddie Saeta SA
Cast: Alex Brendemuhl, Barbara lennie, Lorenzo Balducci, Alex Batllori, Lola Duenas
Director: Luis Minarro
Screenwriter: Luis Minarro, Sergi Belbel
Producers: Luis Minarro
Director of photography: Jimmy Gimferrer
Production designer: Sebastian Vogler
Costume designer: Merce Paloma
Editor: Nuria Esquerra
Sales: NDM, Mexico City
No MPAA rating, 110 minutes