Little Ashes Review
9th Jameson Belfast Film Festival review
In Europe, the important cultural centres in the development of new movements of art and intellectual advancement that characterise the early years of the twentieth century have been traditionally seen as being the Vienna of Freud and the Secessionists, and the Paris of the Left Bank writers and artists that would give rise towering figures such as Picasso and Joyce, names that still dominate and influence the world of modern art, literature and thinking. In Spain however, there was an important group of young artists and intellectuals who would come together in Madrid in the 1920s, among them Luis Buñuel, Salvador Dalí and Federico García Lorca, whose revolutionary influence may not be as widely recognised outside of Spain. Throw in the coming to power of Franco into this cauldron of young revolutionary anti-establishment sentiment and it makes for a very interesting period indeed. Recognising this cinematic possibilities of this remarkable union, and in the absence of any Spanish filmmaker willing to enter into this controversial period that still stirs emotions in Spain, English director Paul Morrison has bravely stepped up to the challenge.
An exciting, fascinating and important period it might be, populated by outrageously extravagant and outspoken characters, but anyone dealing with the subject cinematically must also confront the troubling nature of the biopic genre, and risk caricaturing not just one character, but several. If Morrison’s film doesn’t entirely succeed in this respect, the film often having the look of a television mini-series with several of the encounters between the principals being rather stagily scripted and over-enunciated by a cast of mixed internationals with the kind of emphasised Spanish accents that one dreads in such productions, Little Ashes does at least give cause for reflection on the nature of these important figures in the areas of drama, poetry, art and cinema, on the personalities behind the works and on the issues that drove them to step outside the boundaries of traditional and acceptable moral standards in their artistic and their personal lives.
And principally, that would seem to be the intent of the film, showing figures prepared to accept “no limits” in the name of freedom. The challenge for the filmmaker is in how he is chooses to either show or tell how Dalí, Lorca and Buñuel achieved this through their works. There’s no right way and any filmmaker brave enough to tackle the biopic knows this, the drawing of parallels between famous work and the moment of their inspiration and creation rarely coming across convincingly on the screen. But for some of the minor faults in execution, which does indeed end up telling more than showing, Morrison largely handles this side of the biographical content well, making sparing use of key works (a few poetry readings, one or two early Dalí paintings and clips from Un Chien Andalou), remaining close to available sources, and attempting to focus largely rather on the personalities behind the work rather than the inspirations of what they create.
The problem is though that these sources are scarce and unreliable, the Civil War years still remaining under a pacto del olvido (a pact of forgetting), with only a prominent Irish writer Ian Gibson making serious investigations into this area, particularly on the subject of García Lorca. Morrison’s film however relies rather more on the untrustworthy memoirs of Salvador Dalí, a man who never said or created anything in his mature years that wasn’t for money or effect. The film then takes Dalí’s descriptions of a number of awkward, fleeting and perhaps not entirely consummated homosexual encounters between himself and Lorca as the keystones of the film and factors that would influence the direction that they would subsequently follow, with a homophobic Buñuel - shown beating up queers in the park - falling out with them in disgust at their liaison, or perhaps jealous of their closeness until he is able to lure Dalí to Paris with him.
Faced with the choice of showing men at desks writing or painting on a canvas in periods of deep emotional fervour or simply talking to each other about how they are going to change the world, Morrison’s approach is a brave one. There is certain a number of such incidents - the over-dubbed flatly-intoned Spanish poetry recitations in particular never coming to life on the screen - but this is well balanced with a viewpoint that shows a human side to the characters and the mutual attraction between several extreme and driven personalities. These personalities are generally large enough to compensate for the rather shapelessness of the film and general lack of drama - Robert Pattinson’s current fan popularity in particular looking like being a key piece of casting as he acquits himself well throughout the range of Dalí’s personal traits, initially shy but later developing grand mannerisms and amusing twitchiness.
The emphasis on the did-they-or-didn’t-they love affairs however are ultimately to the detriment of the deeper political and anti-establishment motivations of the characters which are barely alluded to and not given sufficient weight for the tragedy that is to later occur. Perhaps budgetary concerns come into play, with only some stock footage of the beginnings of the Civil War, radio announcements, and a poorly delivered sequence of Lorca’s off-screen arrest, but the impact of his assassination is nonetheless partly achieved and fully felt, if not on the level of its political, social and cultural significance, at least on the level of a human tragedy.