- The Grandfather movie (1998) review: José Luis Garci’s sentimental – and great-looking – period family drama delivers a surprisingly effective message of tolerance chiefly thanks to Spanish cinema veteran Fernando Fernán Gómez’s grandiose central performance.
The Grandfather movie review: Imposing central performance turns soapy family drama into compelling message of tolerance
Upon its 1998 release, José Luis Garci’s period family drama The Grandfather / El abuelo boasted an impressive pedigree:
- It’s based on a novel by Benito Pérez Galdós (1843–1920), considered by some one of the greatest Spanish writers of the last couple of centuries.
- Filmmaker Garci had taken home a Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award for Volver a empezar (1982) and a Best Director (Spanish Academy) Goya Award for Course Completed (1987).
- Horacio Valcárcel, who co-wrote the screen adaptation with Garci, was a two-time Goya Award nominee.
- Star Fernando Fernán Gómez, whose career dates back to the early 1940s, was the winner of multiple awards, including four Goyas (in various capacities) and two Berlin Film Festival Best Actor honors.
- Two of Spain’s most well-regarded actors, Rafael Alonso and Fernando Guillén, were featured in supporting roles. The former was about to receive an Honorary Goya (at the 1999 ceremony); the latter – whose daughter, Cayetana Guillén Cuervo, is The Grandfather’s female lead – was a Best Actor Goya winner.
- Cinematographer Raúl Pérez Cubero was a three-decade film veteran while composer Manuel Balboa was a Goya nominee.
Add up all that talent and prestige, and the result must have been a cinematic masterpiece.
Well, not exactly.
José Luis Garci had perhaps been watching too many Mexican soap operas, for that is the feel he imparts to this morality tale about the dangers posed by traditions whenever they become obstacles to the manifestation of tolerance and compassion.
Yet, despite its tonal missteps The Grandfather proves itself an effective message movie. That’s in large part the result of Fernando Fernán Gómez’s commanding performance, in combination with Raúl Pérez Cubero’s and Manuel Balboa’s first-rate work.
The return of the pater familias
Set in Asturias near the turn of the 20th century, The Grandfather stars Fernán Gómez as the elderly and now-impoverished aristocrat Don Rodrigo, El Conde de Albrit, who returns from the Americas to his northwestern Spanish village following the death of his only son.
Once back home, Don Rodrigo discovers that his son had left a revealing letter: One of his two daughters was actually the product of his English-born wife’s affair with a (now also deceased) painter.
Intent on uncovering the identity of his “real” granddaughter – the one who shall perpetuate the family’s bloodline – 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 her father-in-law to a monastery.
Living like a mendicant, Don Rodrigo still manages to teach a lesson or two in dignity and honor to the bourgeois and religious leaders who have taken control of the area. But what about his own issues?
Sooner rather than later, the elderly patriarch will have to come to terms with his own intransigence. What’s more important, his love for both of Doña Lucrecia’s young daughters or his views on “family honor”?
Low-key soap opera
In all fairness, José Luis Garci’s soapish touch isn’t manifested by way of crass melodrama; in the sedate The Grandfather, no one throws him/herself on the floor in screaming agony. There’s no hair-pulling or teary-eyed explosions either.
Instead, Garci’s touch is felt in the film’s conventional sentimentality – e.g., the portrayal of the two granddaughters, Nelly (Alicia Rozas) and Dolly (Cristina Cruz) – made even more artificial by some botched post-sync dubbing.
That said, The Grandfather works the way some Mexican soaps – and some old Hollywood movies – work.
For instance, those who, despite their loftier judgment, have enjoyed watching Ruth Chatterton in Frisco Jenny, Bette Davis and Mary Astor in The Great Lie, or Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson in All That Heaven Allows, should also enjoy the goings-on in The Grandfather.
And really, how could one resist eventual Best Actor Goya winner Fernando Fernán Gómez’s star turn as the irascible grandpa, betrayed by those he had helped in the past, and torn between ancient, narrow-minded traditions and his affection for his granddaughters, regardless of their progeny?
Besides, as mentioned further up The Grandfather is immensely helped by Raúl Pérez Cubero’s magical lens and by Manuel Balboa’s evocative score, both of which conjure the feel of northwestern Spain’s rugged coast. With their assistance, José Luis Garci’s drama transports us to a time and a way of life that, for the most part, have long since disappeared.
In all, The Grandfather is as much a must-see – and as deserving of its nominations for multiple Goya Awards and for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar – as any other imperfect but well-crafted and captivating message movies of past and present.
The Grandfather / El abuelo (1998)
Director: José Luis Garci.
Screenplay: José Luis Garci & Horacio Valcárcel.
From Benito Pérez Galdós’ 1904 novel.
Cast: Fernando Fernán Gómez. Cayetana Guillén Cuervo. Rafael Alonso. Agustín González. Cristina Cruz. Alicia Rozas. Fernando Guillén. Francisco Piquer. María Massip. Emma Cohen. Francisco Algora. Juan Calot. Concha Gómez Conde.
Cinematography: Raúl Pérez Cubero. Film Editing: Miguel González Sinde. Music: Manuel Balboa. Production Design: Julián Mateos. Producer: José Luis Garci.
“The Grandfather Movie (1998) Review” notes
Multitasking multi-award winner Fernando Fernán Gómez
At the 1987 Goya ceremony, he took home three statuettes: Best Actor for Mambrú se fue a la guerra (“Mambrú Went to War”), which he also directed; and Best Director and Best Screenplay for Voyage to Nowhere / El viaje a ninguna parte.
Additionally, Fernán Gómez had won a Best Supporting Actor Goya for Fernando Trueba’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar winner Belle Epoque (1992).
Two years after his Best Actor Goya win for The Grandfather, Fernán Gómez would take home his sixth Goya – in the Best Adapted Screenplay category – for Lázaro de Tormes (2000), which he co-directed with José Luis García Sánchez.
Fernán Gómez’s two Berlin Film Festival Best Actor wins were for Juan Estelrich’s The Anchorite / El anacoreta (1976) and Jaime de Armiñán’s Stico (1985). He was also presented with an Honorary Golden Bear at the 2005 festival.
13 Goya nominations
 The Grandfather would be shortlisted for 13 Goya Awards – including Best Film, Director, Actress (Cayetana Guillén Cuervo), and Adapted Screenplay – topping one category: Best Actor for Fernando Fernán Gómez.
Moreover, The Grandfather topped four (Spanish) Cinema Writers Circle Award categories: Best Film, Director, Actor (Fernando Fernán Gómez & Rafael Alonso), and Actress (Cayetana Guillén Cuervo).
For the record, the 1998 Goya Awards’ Best Film was Fernando Trueba’s The Girl of Your Dreams / La niña de tus ojos. The Best Director was Fernando León de Aranoa for Barrio.
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The Grandfather movie cast and crew info via the IMDb and other sources.
Rafael Alonso and Fernando Fernán Gómez The Grandfather movie images: Miramax | The Walt Disney Corporation.
“The Grandfather Movie (1998) Review: Commanding Central Performance Conveys Seductive Message of Tolerance” last updated in March 2021.