The Grandfather

on October 08, 1999 by Bridget Byrne
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   This lengthy portrait of a struggle between love and honor is full of wisdom and humor, but never fully quickens into a work of sustained emotion. The secret at the heart of this story, set in Spain circa 1900, provides a solid backbone that sustains interest despite the slow unfurling. But the events that surround the title character's dilemma seem too often indulgent set pieces which, though acted with charm and sensitivity, stifle rather than elate his journey to the truth.
   The "Grandfather" role is played by Fernando Fernan-Gomez, refreshingly free of the sort of cute old codger antics that one might expect. He's as comfortable with the faded old grandee's weaknesses as with his strengths, and aware that his good and bad characteristics are entwined by the bonds of history and mores into a complex whole which can be spiteful as well as admirable. Much amusement can be found in his musings in company with Rafael Alonso, who plays the dispirited old school teacher hired to tutor the count's pretty young granddaughters. This partnership plays interesting tricks on all our established notions of the old knight and his faithful sidekick.
   There is much spirit in the constant exchange of verbal insult, whether between the count and Cayetana Guillen Cuervo as his antagonistic widowed daughter-in-law or the sycophantic bunch of unworthy townsfolk which pay her homage as she schemes to keep her secret. Agustin Gonzalez puts on a good turn as the most venal of her factotums.
   The production values waver between scenes that have the ease and beauty of reality--particularly those on the beach and cliffs near the family's estate--and those which seem false and slightly shoddily contrived. Overall the mood, heightened by director Jose Luis Garci's taste for the languid, remains a little leaden in this stately movie which was nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar in 1998. Like the people it profiles, it wants to be more august than it is. It really only springs to life when it forgets its pretensions, enjoys its ironies and relies on its strong collection of character actors to tweak the strings of the heart.    Starring Fernando Fernan-Gomez, Rafael Alonso and Cayetana Guillen Cuervo. Directed by Jose Luis Garci. Written by Jose Luis Garci and Horacio Valcarcel. Produced by Luis Maria Delgado, Valentin Panero and Enrique Quintana. A Miramax release. Drama. Spanish-language; subtitled. Rated PG for thematic elements and language. Running time: 145 min.
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