MOVIE REVIEW 'LITTLE ASHES'
Madrid Revisited: 3 Paths Meet
By A. O. SCOTT
Published: May 8, 2009
The tangled three-way friendship of Luis Buñuel, Salvador Dalí and Federico García Lorca — important artistic figures of the 20th century whose paths crossed in Madrid early in their careers — could make for a fascinating movie. Instead, we have “Little Ashes,” directed by Paul Morrison and written by Philippa Goslett, a painfully sincere study in creative passion, sexual ardor and political zeal that embalms a mad and exuberant historical moment within the talky, balky conventions of period-costumed highbrow soap opera.
The film starts off like a Spanish variation on “Brideshead Revisited,” with various handsome young men in beautifully tailored shirts bursting into university dormitory rooms, lighting cigarettes and declaiming knowingly on art, religion, modern society and the talents and deficiencies of their peers. A couple of brightly plumed, semi-emancipated women occasionally take part in the conversations, which the international cast utters in Castilian-accented — or should I say acthented — English.
It is all very heady and earnest and excruciatingly dull. This is shocking, since it is hard to imagine anyone less dull than Dalí, Buñuel and García Lorca. Mr. Morrison works hard to convey the impulses that fed their art, but he seems unable to treat these wildly innovative figures in any but the most literal-minded way. So García Lorca (Javier Beltrán) recites verse in voice-over; Buñuel (Matthew McNulty) delivers potted avant-garde aphorisms; and Dalí (Robert Pattinson), well, he trembles and drinks and says scandalous things in the drawing studio and at dinner parties.
Mr. Pattinson, interrupting his career as a virginal vampire heartthrob, looks distractingly like Louise Brooks and conveys little beyond a kind of free-floating, inscrutable freakishness.
Dalí arrives on the scene dressed in preposterous ruffled shirts, and soon becomes a minor campus sensation, promoted by the bossy, blustering Buñuel even as he becomes infatuated with García Lorca, Buñuel’s quiet and sensitive roommate. Buñuel, jealous of both of them, tries to cajole Dalí into running off to Paris, knowing that García Lorca, whose writing is rooted in his Andalusian homeland, is unlikely to follow.
As the triangle solidifies, “Little Ashes” briefly transcends its musty trappings and achieves a measure of dramatic clarity and psychological insight. (There are also some lovely travelogue images of Spanish landscapes.) Buñuel, a brawler and a homophobe, is at least partly at war with his own unacknowledged desires. García Lorca’s acceptance of his own homosexuality entails grave risks in a conservative society creeping toward fascist dictatorship.
As for Dalí, his flamboyant perversity masks a great deal of erotic anxiety, and his longing for García Lorca is accompanied by a terror of actual physical intimacy. Their relationship is consummated only indirectly, through the mediation of Margarita (Marina Gatell), a journalist whose love for Federico makes her the fourth wheel of a curious tricycle.
If the acting were less wooden and the dialogue less insistently devoted to issuing manifestoes, “Little Ashes” might have vibrated with the danger and strangeness of the intensely lived commitments it tries to explore. But while Mr. Morrison and Ms. Goslett are clearly enthralled by the daring of their subjects — in particular by García Lorca’s bravery — they seem impervious to the lessons offered by the artists’ work, which was in every case opposed to the kind of tidy, deflating realism practiced in this film. It suffers the fate of so many biographies, in which genuine admiration expresses itself through the dutiful recording of dates and facts.
The facts are of enough interest to make “Little Ashes” attractive to those eager to hear some old, vigorous arguments about aesthetics and politics conducted by elegantly dressed men wielding cigarettes and cocktails. But neither the ideological melodrama of Spain before the Civil War nor the exploding-teapot storms of the international artistic avant-garde really come alive here. The film is an open-hearted tribute to three great iconoclasts, whose response to its piety and sincerity would, most likely, have been ruthless and obscene mockery.
“Little Ashes” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian) for sexual content, language and a brief disturbing image.
Opens on Friday in Manhattan.
Directed by Paul Morrison; written by Philippa Goslett; director of photography, Adam Suschitzky; edited by Rachel Tunnard; music by Miguel Mera; production designer, Pere Francesch; produced by Carlo Dusi, Jonny Persey and Jaume Vilalta; released by Regent Releasing. Running time: 1 hour 52 minutes.
WITH: Javier Beltrán (Federico García Lorca), Robert Pattinson (Salvador Dalí), Matthew McNulty (Luis Buñuel), Marina Gatell (Margarita) and Arly Jover (Gala).