Based on a series of popular novels by Arturo Pérez-Reverte, Alatriste is the most expensive Spanish-language film ever made in Spain, and that is certainly obvious in every single frame of the film, which is gorgeous through and through. However, Alatriste is proof yet again that even the biggest budget can't save a film if it's lacking a solid storyline and well-developed characters.
It's the 17th century, and Spain is in her twilight years. The kingdom's grasp still extends around the world, but the grasp is growing weaker as time passes. The most pressing concern is the hotly contested region of Flanders, which continues to resist the Spanish Crown, and even worse, is home to heretics. Spain continues to pour its resources into the Flanders campaign, and the soldiers who survive as veterans of these battles are recognized as some of the finest warriors in the kingdom.
The most renowned of these warriors is Diego Alatriste (Viggo Mortensen), who is famous for his bravery and cunning in battle. Despite not being an officer, all of the men refer to him as Captain, a symbol of their respect. During one particularly violent fight, one of Alatriste's men is felled in battle. Before he dies, the man tells Alatriste of his son Iñigo. Honor-bound to his companion, Alatriste takes Iñigo as his squire, attempting to resist the young man's wishes to become a soldier.
It makes all the sense in the world that the relationship between the tired warrior and the young, naive squire should be the emotional and dramatic core of the film -- which makes it doubly puzzling that it's barely there as a storyline. This is indicative of the movie's biggest flaw, a complete lack of a central storyline, which is due to its attempts to essentially cram a series' worth of events into 135 minutes.
Based on the film's first third or so, it looks as if the primary storyline is going to follow Alatriste's attempts to resist the machinations of both the Spanish court and the Inquisition. But just when things are getting interesting there, revealing conspiracies and political intrigue that span Europe, the film drops it entirely, leaving all manner of loose ends, and never returns. Instead, the movie jumps across the years, slogging on through the various and sundry shady jobs that Alatriste receives over the years, his various vendettas and quarrels, and his long-running affair with the beautiful actress Maria de Castro.
It's also puzzling that a film with so many colorful characters also utilizes them so poorly. Alatriste should be seen as an iconic character, a sort of tragic hero who never compromises his nobility -- or his rakish nature. We're told again and again by all of the film's characters that he's just that sort of a man, but we're rarely allowed to see it. Yes, there are swordfights, and yes there are confrontations during which Alatriste sticks to his code of honor, but we're never given a glimpse as to why he is the man that he is.
It's tempting to long for even the smallest of flashbacks to Alatriste's past, something that would provide some insight into what drives the man. Instead, Alatriste is presented to us fully-realized from the very first frame, and the character's development simply flatlines from there on. Mortensen does the best he can, and delivers yet another solid performance, but all the script has him really do is scowl, glower, and occasionally swing his swords around.
By the time the film enters its final reel, no dramatic steam has been built up. The film ends with one last battle, with the broken-yet-fierce Alatriste on the frontlines, bloody sword in hand. But the lack of any central storyline -- just a bunch of seemingly random vignettes that happen to have recurring characters -- means the battle is so disconnected from the rest of the film that it doesn't feel climactic at all, even with the dramatic freeze-frame on which the movie ends. Despite Mortensen's best attempt at a heroic gesture, and Iñigo's tribute, there's no swell of emotion, no surge that accompanies a satisfying finale.
So where does the film get it right? Well, in all things related to the visuals department. The look of the film draws much inspiration from the paintings of Diego Velázquez, and many of the scenes have a distinctly painterly look to them (not unlike Girl With A Pearl Earring). From a technical standpoint, the film certainly has all of the trappings of a smashing, swashbuckling, and mature epic full of intrigue and betrayal. But that's all it has, merely trappings.
It may have been a wiser decision to stick to just one of the novels, rather than condense them all into one film. As it stands, it the filmmakers decided to go all out with this one movie, and the result is lovely to watch but fairly unsatisfying on any other level.