Directed by Jose Luis Garci. Starring Fernando Guillen, Alicia Rozas, Cristina Cruz, Agustin Gonzalez, Cayetana Guillen Cuervo, Rafael Alonso, Fernando Fernan Gomez. (1998, PG, 147 min.)
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Dec. 3, 1999
Nominated for an Academy Award last year, Garci's film is a sprawling, epic, two-and-a-half-hour period piece rife with gorgeous, sun-dappled shots of old Spain, heady emotional outpourings, and more than a hint of subtle pre-Franco politics. Unfortunately, it's also about as exciting as watching bugs sleep, due to the film's stodgy formalism. Calling The Grandfather glacial does a grave injustice to frozen H2O. Gomez, swathed from head to toe in a black woolen cloak and sporting a yellowed set of whiskers that would make Kris Kringle jealous plays Don Rodrigo de Arista Potestad, the titular abuelo and hoary scion of a formerly well-to-do Spanish family who has just returned to his old stomping grounds after an eight-year hiatus in South America. The reason for his return would do Masterpiece Theatre proud (as would much of the film): His son, dead of a broken heart, has left behind two young daughters by his haughty wife Doña Lucrecia (Cuervo). One daughter is the true offspring of the union, while the other is a bastard taken under the son's wing and into his heart. Not so for Don Rodrigo, who is so belligerently unmoved by the death of his son that his only concern is to discover which of the two girls carries within her his “blood.” While Doña Lucrecia aligns herself with the local priory and monks in order to get the crotchety old man off her back, the wily and scheming grandfather mounts his own various and sundry attacks against the family, relenting only in the presence of the girl's suicidally bedeviled tutor, Pio (Alonso). All this in the first half hour, to boot. Garci, working from the novel by Horacio Valcarcel, has enough dirty dealings and emotional intrigue on his plate to topple the Bard from his position as potentate of familial creepiness, but the sheer alarming breadth and snail-like pace of the film renders it a marathon of sheer endurance. On the plus side, The Grandfather was clearly nominated for several excellent reasons, not the least of which is the fine acting from all five, particularly Gomez as the bitter old man who feels that his salvation, and that of his deceased son, can only be obtained by the destruction of his stepdaughter. With a rancid gleam in his eye and a slow, implacable pace that mirrors that of the film itself, Gomez is “bad granddad” incarnate. Likewise Cuervo as the girl's mother, a fiercely protective she-wolf of a Doña who'd more than likely spit fire if we could just get some flint in that saturnine mouth. There's also the constant, stunning cinematography that literally makes turn-of-the-century Spain appear as if it's just been cribbed from a Boticelli canvas. Still, with The Grandfather's deadly pacing and over-earnest platitudes, no amount of beauty and grace can save it from becoming, ultimately, a magnificent bore.