DVD Lope: The Outlaw
Andrucha Waddington’s The Outlaw, or Lope as it’s known throughout the rest of the world, proved highly successful in its native Spain, as one of the biggest grossing pictures of the year, despite an initial sceptical response due to the Argentinian origins of its director. Apart from a few appearances at mostly Spanish film festivals, the film remains mostly unknown in the UK and the rest of Europe, a fact hopefully remedied by its imminent DVD release.
The Outlaw focuses on the life of late 16th century playwright Lope de Vega, Spain’s answer to Shakespeare. Recently returned from the Spanish Armada against the French, de Vega is penniless but optimistic. He borrows a suit from a marquis in order for his mother to think him successful and rich. When she dies, he borrows the funeral costs from a shady moneylender who makes him sign the deal in blood.
Quickly, de Vega realises that his passion belongs to the theatre, as he starts writing his first play. He auditions for the patronage of Velázquez, who will not see him. Only in improvising and reciting a poem to the latter’s beautiful daughter, Elena, is he able to get his foot in the door, even if just as a copywriter at first. Unbeknownst to Velázquez, de Vega alters the play as he deems fit. Naturally, his mentor becomes outraged; however, the public loves this new writer who does not care for the stuffy rules and mannerisms of 16th century theatre.
In the meantime, he embarks on an affair with the sultry, married Elena while writing some verses on the side for an enamoured marquis, who would like to pass them off as his own. The marquis’ bride-to-be, Isabel, turns out to be an old childhood friend of de Vega’s. As de Vega gets more and more drawn in by Isabel’s charm,and Elena gets consumed by jealousy, things become dramatic as de Vega confesses his affair with Elena to Velázquez…
The Outlaw is a highly romanticised account of de Vega; in fact, the figure of de Vega becomes symbolic of the archetypical figure of ‘the poet’ in that he is a romantic, young, gifted hero as handsome as brave, not only skilled in the arts of verses, but equally talented with the sword. If ever the word ‘dashing’ was appropriate, it is in describing this fictionalised version of de Vega.
Rather than concentrate on the creative process of writing, The Outlaw focuses on the romantic entanglements de Vega. The two female protagonists of the film display a surprisingly modern conception of love and sex. Elena refuses to treat her affair with de Vega as anything other than what it is. She repeatedly tells him to “enjoy the present,” harbouring no illusions of a mutual future. Even though the film ultimately fails in resolving this feminist attitude, as it ultimately paints Elena as ‘unnatural’ in her refusal to give up her life in order to satisfy de Vega’s egotistical male attitude, she nevertheless remains a strong character in herself, and independent. Isabel fulfils a much more traditional female role in giving up her reputation, the only female commodity of value in 16th century Spain, for an uncertain life with a poet of no means. Also, the film never touches the religious predominance of Catholic values, which would condemn Isabel in her committing a mortal sin.
Although the film only brushes on the notion of imaginative creation, it nevertheless comes to explore the almost Foucauldian nature of reality as discourse. The characters repeatedly allure to the fact that reality as such does not exist, rather it is either a social or creative construct, a discourse which ultimately proves more ‘real’ than any concept of monolithic truth. As such, Isabel’s father tells her that, fundamentally, reality is what people think it is, not what actually happened.
This concept of truth as being constructed naturally ties in with the concept of writing itself. De Vega dreams of writing a play which becomes more ‘lifelike’; he, however, comes to experience that, in fact, the reverse is true, as his life becomes more ‘play-like’. Elena appears to be the only character fully realising this, as she points out that de Vega not so much falls in love with Isabel as with his own verses written about her. “You stabbed me with your words,” Elena states matter-of-factly, fully realising that in de Vega’s universe, words are infused with power, which renders them absolute. This is not art imitating life; this is life actually becoming art.
The cinematography remains faithful to the domain of the historical period drama in its colour scheme of brown and beige. The film’s semi-modest budget is cleverly used in its focus on the settings of the theatre, clearly inspired by the Globe theatre and a few convincingly busy and dirty streets. The film’s setting is limited; however, never constricted.
Fortunately, the iconography stays away from a sanitised medieval vision.
Fortunately, the iconography stays away from a sanitised medieval vision, as the characters look truthfully sweaty and dirty. The camera roams through the theatre, depicting either the stage or the backstage real with a fluidity which grants the audience a visual freedom, ultimately denied to the protagonists. In this, The Outlaw, again, sticks to the tradition of the omniscient narrator, favoured by the period drama.
What makes The Outlaw stand out from the series of period dramas which appear to have come back into fashion over the last decade are the performances. Alberto Amman plays de Vega with a rugged charm and youthfulness which carries the film. Even in his arrogance, he manages to convey the sense of his character coming from poverty, as he displays the intensity of a man who has nothing to lose. Pilar López de Ayala plays Elena with an independence and sultriness which infuse this rather stereotypical character with a notion of humanity, dominating the screen, while the ever-brilliant Juan Diego shines in his depiction of the threatened and pathetic Velázquez. Even if Leonor Watling seems relatively dull in comparison to the rest of the cast, this should be attributed to the slightly monotone nature of her character rather than to her performance skills.
The Outlaw proves to be a highly entertaining, if decidedly romanticised cinematic account of the life of de Vega. It remains traditional and, as such, secure in its adhering to the classic treatment of a historical figure who has the status of a national treasure in Spain. The outstanding performances, the visual fluidity and the questioning of truth as a construct make for, if not an original, at least a charming viewing.
Film: Storm Release date: 2nd August 2010
Certificate: 15 Running time: 103 mins Director:…
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