Thursday, May 7, 2009

Reverend's Reviews: Love and Art Rise from Little Ashes

Three students met at a Madrid university in 1922, and would go on to become famous figures not only in Spain but around the world. Salvador Dalí, Luis Buñuel and Federico García Lorca were at the time young, unknown men who would make lasting impressions through surrealist art, avant-garde film and politically-charged poetry.

A fascinating new movie, Little Ashes (opening in limited release tomorrow), reveals that there was much more going on at the time between these three budding artists than their academic studies. Dalí and García Lorca, in particular, shared a tortured romance of which Buñuel was aware but which did not become publicly known until after Dalí’s death in 1989.

At the time of their initial meeting, Spanish society was beset by economic depression, class tensions and political corruption. These conditions bred a conservative backlash by Spain’s military and the Catholic Church that would lead to the persecution of intellectuals, artists and homosexuals. Dalí and Buñuel fled for France, while García Lorca remained and was killed by the military government for his liberal writings in 1936.

While Dalí and Buñuel gained immediate, worldwide attention for their works — largely thanks to the controversial 1928 film on which they collaborated, Un Chien Andalou — any mention or promotion of García Lorca’s work was prohibited by the Spanish government until 1953. Since then, however, García Lorca has become regarded as one of Spain’s most beloved poets.

The love affair between García Lorca and Dalí was apparently ignited during a holiday they spent together in Dalí’s hometown of Cadaqués, Spain. While it is depicted in Little Ashes (the film’s title is taken from a poem García Lorca wrote for Dalí) as a chaste romance due to García Lorca’s Catholic guilt and Dalí’s sexually-troubled past, theirs was clearly a union of mind and heart.

Little Ashes is literate and sensual. Impressively directed by Paul Morrison (Solomon & Gaenor), it evokes the upper-class, sexually-repressive atmosphere of E.M. Forster’s novel Maurice (which was made into a 1987 movie) as well as the poetry and passion of the Mexican film Like Water for Chocolate. The film’s intelligent, well-researched script is by first-time screenwriter Philippa Goslett.

The cast of Little Ashes is extraordinary. Robert Pattinson, who recently set teen girls’ hearts aflutter as Edward the vampire in the hit Twilight, plays Salvador Dalí. It will be interesting to see how Pattinson’s current fan base responds to his spot-on portrayal of the eccentric, bisexual artist, weird mustache and all.

Matthew McNulty excels in the less-showy role of Luis Buñuel. In addition to his Hollywood-ready good looks, McNulty captures the famed director’s bourgeois style, dark humor and propensity for opportunistic self-preservation. McNulty also sums up with one look the love-hate relationship Buñuel had with Dalí (Dalí eventually denounced Buñuel as a Communist to the House Un-American Activities Committee while Buñuel was working in the US).

Best of all, though, is newcomer Javier Beltrán as Federico García Lorca. As the central figure in these artists’ creative and romantic triangles, Beltrán’s portrayal of the writer is beautifully understated. It makes García Lorca’s longing for Dalí all the more palpable, and the one scene where he lashes out in anger at Dalí all the more effective. It’s hard to believe this is Beltrán’s first film role, his performance is so accomplished.

Visually, Little Ashes is gorgeous. Between the Spanish locations, Pere Francesch’s sets and Antonio Belart’s costumes, the film captures the setting and period perfectly. Adam Suschitzky’s photography draws from the artists’ own styles and imagery, and his use of light is breathtaking during a nighttime sequence as García Lorca and Dalí frolic in the sea.

Also of note is the original music score by Miguel Mera, as well as the film’s use of period songs and music. The Latin-flavored sounds accentuate the visuals and Mera’s main, carnival-esque theme perfectly underscores Dalí’s personality and conflicted desires.

Far from a sensationalistic gay take on the early years of real-life, celebrity figures, Little Ashes is a mature yet provocative docudrama that should be seen and discussed by everyone.

UPDATE: Little Ashes is now available on DVD from

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.

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