EL ABUELO / THE GRANDFATHER (1998)
Dir.: José Luis Garci
Cast: Fernando Fernán Gómez, Cayetana Guillén Cuervo, Rafael Alonso, Agustín González, Cristina Cruz, Alicia Rozas, Fernando Guillén, Francisco Piquer
Scr.: José Luis Garci and Horacio Valcárcel; from Benito Pérez Galdòs' 1904 novel
Fernando Fernán Gómez, The Grandfather
El abuelo / The Grandfather is a film with a pedigree. It is based on a novel by Benito Pérez Galdòs, considered by many the greatest Spanish writer of the 19th century; its director, José Luis Garci, won an Academy Award for his 1982 drama Volver a empezar / Beguin the Beguine; and its star, veteran Fernando Fernán Gómez, was one of the most admired actors in Spain. Add to that the stunning work of cinematographer Raúl Pérez Cubero and Manuel Balboa's evocative score, and the sum total should be a cinematic masterpiece. Well, not quite.
Garci has perhaps been watching too many Mexican soap operas, for that is the feel he gives to this tale of greed and prejudice set near the turn of the 20th century.
Fernán Gómez plays the elderly and now-impoverished aristocrat Don Rodrigo, el Conde de Albrit, who returns from the Americas to his small town in the Asturias, in northern Spain, following the death of his son. Once back home, he discovers that his son had left a letter stating that one of his two daughters was actually the product of his wife's affair with a (now also deceased) painter.
Intent on discovering the identity of his real granddaughter, the one who shall perpetuate the family's bloodline and honor, Don Rodrigo clashes with his widowed daughter-in-law, Doña Lucrecia Richmond (Cayetana Guillén Cuervo), a foreigner he had never liked. Not only does Lucrecia refuse to divulge the identity of her "illegitimate" child, but she also tries to commit Don Rodrigo to a monastery against his will.
Living like a mendicant, Don Rodrigo still manages to teach a lesson or two in dignity and honor to both the bourgeois and the religious leaders who have taken control of the area. But sooner rather than later, the elderly patriarch will have to come to terms with his own self-righteousness. What is more important: his love for both of Doña Lucrecia's young daughters or his views on family honor?
Garci's soapish touch doesn't manifest itself by way of crass melodrama; in the sedate The Grandfather, no one throws him or herself to the floor in screaming agony. Even so, it is clearly palpable in the film's cheesy sentimentality – which is not helped by some highly artificial post-sync dubbing. That said, The Grandfather works the way some Mexican soaps work. I ended up enjoying Garci's film despite my better judgment.
But then again, how could I resist Fernando Fernán Gómez's star turn as the grouchy grandpa, betrayed by those he had helped in the past, and torn between ancient traditions and his love for his granddaughters, regardless of their progeny? And if Garci's touch is somewhat stilted, The Grandfather is immensely helped by Cubero's magical lens and by Balboa's haunting score, both of which perfectly evoke the spirit of the rugged coast of northern Spain. With their assistance, The Grandfather magically transports us to a time and a way of life that have long since disappeared.
Note: A version of this The Grandfather review was initially posted in October 2004.