Little Ashes

 (2009)

by Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

In the early 1920s, three Spanish geniuses happened to occupy the same dormitory in a university in Madrid. Federico Garcia Lorca was a great poet and political activist. Salvador Dali was one of the century's foremost painters. Luis Buuel was Spain's greatest filmmaker. The three became friends during their college years and formed extremely complicated relationships that would continue into adulthood in one form or another. They were actually quite a mismatched trio. Buuel was a cynic and a hard-nosed pragmatist who would sometimes expose an ugly side of his character. Garcia Lorca was an elegant idealist with smooth social skills. Dali was an awkward and eccentric outsider who showed up in school looking like Oscar Wilde or perhaps like Gainsborough's Blue Boy, right down to the page-boy hair cut.

Given the presence of three such lions in one place when they were all but cubs, and given an odd mix of sexual proclivities, there is a natural human curiosity about what they did and said in those days, and that's what the script of Little Ashes is about. As portrayed here, their friendships ebbed and flowed, and the eventual dynamic which developed between them was determined to a large extent by their sexuality. Garcia Lorca was a homosexual, Luis Buuel was a homophobe, Dali was flexible and/or confused. In fact, Dali and Lorca had a homoerotic and sometimes very romantic relationship that apparently stopped just short of intercourse because Dali was afraid of that side of his nature, or perhaps because he ultimately realized that it did not really exist.

The problem with Little Ashes is not the quality of the production, but the fact that it's an arthouse film with extremely limited commercial appeal. I'll illustrate that claim by describing what might be the most important scene in the film. There is a lovely and aggressive woman in love with Garcia Lorca, who is in turn in love with Dali, who will not have sex with him. The woman bursts into Lorca's dorm room, determined to have sex with him. She sees Dali there, but proceeds undaunted. Lorca allows himself to be seduced, but keeps his eyes entirely on Dali as he rolls around with the woman. For his own part, Dali watches and masturbates. We are not sure whether Dali is excited by the man, the woman, or simply by the act of passion, but he manages to climax just as Lorca does. You can probably imagine that this scene is not going to play to packed houses in your local mall theater, especially since it includes some very graphic camera angles. It will appeal most strongly to indie film lovers who are very interested in history and literature, and who are extremely tolerant of or interested in male-male kissing.

I didn't have any problem with the film's explicitness, and I'm interested in the subject matter, but I was disappointed by Little Ashes. I found the script too unfocused to deliver any significant emotional impact or intellectual stimulus. While the film has moments that I found interesting and thoughtful, and I enjoyed the musical score of flamenco guitar and sad violins, I walked away from the film wondering why it was made in the first place. It just doesn't seem to have any point, and it can be deadly dull. It's just a rambling character study. You may be wondering whether it is at least an accurate character study, given that it deals with three important historical characters. I honestly don't know whether the great artists have been presented fairly. It's the kind of film which may or may not be accurate, by which I mean that the conversations are not based on the autobiographies or journals of the three men, so all the dialogue consists of speculative imaginings. On the other hand, none of those speculations contradict anything we know for a fact. Insiders have had mixed reactions. Luis Buuel's family has not been satisfied with the way he is portrayed here, but those with expertise in the lives of Dali and Lorca seem reasonably comfortable with the way this film styles them and their relationship.

The film has attracted more attention than it normally would have because the actor playing Dali became quite a major heartthrob in his next movie. That actor would be Robert Pattinson, and the film which made him famous is the vampire romance called Twilight. In Little Ashes, Pattinson was part of a mixed Spanish/English cast. Of the four main characters, two are played by Spanish actors speaking English with Spanish accents and the other two (including Pattinson) are English actors mimicking Spanish accents. Having good Spanish represented by bad English was an odd choice of conventions, and rendered the film more artificial than it needed to be. It also made the dialogue more inaccessible, because the accents can sometimes be hard to understand. That convention is disrupted for Lorca's poetry. When the bard is reciting his verses, he switches to Spanish, but the words are simultaneously translated into an English overdub, also in his voice. This allows, or requires, the audience to listen to both audio streams and separate them. It's awkward. One feels that the script would have been better served if it had been performed in Spanish with English subtitles, or by using good English to represent good Spanish. On the other hand, that's a minor point because that sort of change would not have made this film commercially viable.

Awaiting Blu-Ray INFO

 

 

 

THE CRITICS AND ACADEMIES

   
3 Roger Ebert (of 4 stars)
24 Rotten Tomatoes  (% positive)
41 Metacritic.com (of 100)

 

 

 

THE PEOPLE

   
7.1 IMDB summary (of 10)
   

 

 

 

THE BOX OFFICE

Box Office Mojo. Micro-mini arthouse appeal. 16 theaters, $450,000 total gross.

 

 

 

NUDITY REPORT

  • Marina Gatell - full nudity including a procto-cam
  • Robert Pattinson - frontal nudity including his pubic hair, but cut off just before exposing the happy stick.
  • Various background women - topless

 

 

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Our Grade:

If you are not familiar with our grading system, you need to read the explanation, because the grading is not linear. For example, by our definition, a C is solid and a C+ is a VERY good movie. There are very few Bs and As. Based on our descriptive system, this film is a:

C-

Watchable, but probably a mere shadow of what it might have been, given the premise.