Wellspring Media // 2003 // 113 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Russell Engebretson (Retired) // May 18th, 2006
Fernando Colomo's romantic comedy is based on the real-life adventures of British author Gerald Brenan, who in the 1920's settled down in a remote Spanish village for inspiration.
Shortly after the end of the First World War, Gerald Brenan (Matthew Goode, Chasing Liberty), who is traveling by foot across southern Spain, stumbles into the small village of Yegen. Suffering from dysentery and exposure, he arrives during a graveside service and collapses. After his recovery, he rents a hacienda, hires a village woman to cook and clean, and settles in for an extended stay to pursue his writing.
The twenty-something Brenan is attracted to 16-year-old Juliana (Verónica Sánchez), the village witch's daughter, after he sees her bathing nude in the river. His pursuit of the girl embroils him in the political and personal machinations of the locals, and he finds himself a typical stranger in a strange land as events spin out of his control. Paco (Guillermo Toledo, The Perfect Crime), an urbane sophisticate compared to the average local yokel, befriends Brenan and clues him in to the Spanish small-town customs and way of life.
South From Granada is based on events taken from Gerald Brenan's book of the same name. The book, essentially a personal journal written more than three decades after his adventures in Spain, is still popular today. How closely the script follows the book I can't say, as I have not read it. Also, how closely Brenan's account reflects reality is anybody's guess, as no one is around to refute or confirm his stories. And that's an aspect of this film that bothers me. As I watched this movie, I was beset by nagging thoughts: Did it really happen this way? Were the personalities and motivations portrayed accurately, or manipulated by the writer to excuse his own caddish behavior? I suspect the latter, but can offer no proof other than an analysis of his actions on film rather than the lighthearted spin put upon them by the director.
Brenan was a minor figure in the literary Bloomsburg group and came from a moderately wealthy Victorian family, although the script takes pains to portray him as having limited funds (it seems the poor chap was cut off from the family fortune for a while). Late in the film, an inheritance is conveniently dropped in his lap. When things do not go his way, Brenan sometimes displays an insouciant arrogance that is unappealing but probably an accurate reflection of his upper class station in life. I don't feel a need to empathize with the star of a movie; sometimes the main character is meant to be repellant or unlovable. What I find bothersome here is that Brenan's choices, although they smack of egocentric manipulation, are bathed in a whimsical and nostalgic glow. I felt his treatment of Juliana -- in the end -- was reprehensible, but the director does not want Brenan to appear a boor. Instead, we are treated to a weepy final scene that is somehow supposed to justify Brenan's behavior while tugging at our heartstrings. It's a shame the movie was not entirely fictionalized; a final act in harmony with the earlier tone of the film would have been a more emotionally satisfying experience.
In spite of its shortcomings, there are things to like about this movie. First, the cinematography: The film was shot not far from the actual location of Brenan's sojourn, and the pristine countryside appears to have escaped the developer's notion of progress. Mountains, greenery, and sun bleached adobe are awash in the golden light of southern Spain, all expertly captured by the fine director of photography José Luis Alcaine. Second, the music: Andalusia is the birthplace of flamenco, and the single, extended scene of flamenco dancing is authentic. There are no señoritas with black fans and castanets -- only hand clapping, foot stomping, and passionate, sensual dancing to the accompaniment of fiercely rhythmic solo guitar. Last, the script: Although I've complained mightily about some aspects of the screenplay, there is an abundance of light comedy alongside wry observations of human nature. The first two-thirds of the film works well as a light romantic comedy set in an exotic locale. It's the final third of the film that leaves a bitter taste.
The DVD transfer is competent but nowhere near reference quality. The picture is slightly soft, and a few specks of dirt are noticeable. Color is good, and shadow detail is generally decent for the interior scenes. The audio is unspectacular but serviceable.
The short featurette (under twelve minutes) is a conglomeration of interviews filmed prior to completion of shooting. The actors and director voice opinions about the story and praise one another; it's standard bonus fare that can be skipped. Half a dozen trailers round out the skimpy extras.
Aside from my complaints about Brenan's character -- or lack thereof -- and the uncomfortable direction the latter third of the movie took, I believe South From Granada is worth seeing; the acting is solid, and the sense of time and place feels realistic. The passionate flamenco dance courtesy of Verónica Sánchez is reason enough by itself to justify a rental.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Wellspring Media
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 113 Minutes
Release Year: 2003
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Making of Featurette
* Trailer Gallery
* Coming Attractions