'The Grandfather' movie review: Gorgeous, surprisingly effective message of tolerance with strong central performance
The Grandfather / El abuelo 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, took home the 1982 Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award for Beguin the Beguine / Volver a empezar. Its star, veteran Fernando Fernán Gómez, whose film career spanned more than six decades, 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 had perhaps been watching too many Mexican soap operas, for that is the feel he gives to this gorgeous-looking tale of greed and prejudice set in northern Spain near the turn of the 20th century.
'The Grandfather': The return of the Pater Familias
Six-time Goya Award and two-time Berlin Film Festival winner Fernando 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 following the death of his son. Once back home, Don Rodrigo 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?
Admittedly, José Luis Garci's soapish touch doesn't manifest itself by way of crass melodrama; in the sedate The Grandfather, no one throws him or herself on the floor in screaming agony. Instead, it is felt in the film's cheesy sentimentality – not helped by some highly artificial post-sync dubbing.
That said, Garci's film works the way some Mexican soaps – and some old Hollywood movies – work. Much like watching Ruth Chatterton in Frisco Jenny, Margaret Sullavan in Only Yesterday, and Gail Patrick in Women in Bondage, I ended up thoroughly enjoying The Grandfather despite my better judgment.
Time travel with Fernando Fernán Gómez
But then again, how could I resist Best Actor Goya winner Fernando Fernán Gómez's star turn as the grouchy grandpa, betrayed by those he had helped in the past, and torn between ancient, narrow-minded traditions and his love for his granddaughters, regardless of their progeny?
And if Garci's touch is somewhat stilted at times, The Grandfather is immensely helped by Raúl Pérez Cubero's magical lens and by Manuel Balboa's haunting score, both of which perfectly evoke the spirit of northern Spain's rugged coast. With their assistance, The Grandfather magically transports us to a time and a way of life that, for the most part, have long since disappeared.
The Grandfather / El abuelo (1998)
Dir.: José Luis Garci.
Scr.: José Luis Garci and Horacio Valcárcel.
From Benito Pérez Galdòs' 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.
Fernando Fernán Gómez: Multitasking multi-award winner
 Fernando Fernán Gómez won his six Goya Awards for his work in various capacities. 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; Best Director and Best Screenplay for Voyage to Nowhere / El viaje a ninguna parte.
Besides his Best Actor Goya for The Grandfather, he also won the award as Best Supporting Actor for Fernando Trueba's Belle Epoque (1992) and in the Best Adapted Screenplay category for Lázaro de Tormes (2001), 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). Additionally, he was presented with an Honorary Golden Bear at the 2005 festival.
The Grandfather movie cast info via the IMDb.
Fernando Fernán Gómez The Grandfather movie image: Miramax / The Walt Disney Corporation.