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Verse Comes to Worse

The Disappearance of Garcia Lorca aims to cover a great deal of ground. It renders, with picturesque splendor, Spain just before its civil war and the dramatic fate of impassioned, iconoclastic Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca during the rise of Spanish fascism. Still, no matter how earnestly it attempts to realize its epic possibilities--not to mention its aspirations as a suspense thriller framed by the search for Garcia Lorca's killer--it's simply not very affecting.

Garcia Lorca, a native of Granada, invoked Andalusian folk poetry and music, Spanish romance and Gypsy ballads in his poetry and drama. His most famous poem, an ode to his friend, "Llanto por Ignazio Sanchez," eulogizes the famous bullfighter. Upon returning to Spain after his theatrical group's successful tour of South America, Garcia Lorca settled in Madrid and devoted himself primarily to drama. As tensions mounted toward the outbreak of civil war, he returned to Granada, where in August 1936 he was captured and shot by members of the fascist Falange. Shrouded in mystery, as are many of the events during that eruptive period, his death seems to have been a private murder under the smokescreen of civil war.

During his tenure in Madrid, Garcia Lorca's plays turned from lighthearted to weighty and tragic, the latter mostly concerned with frustrated love. The Disappearance of Garcia Lorca begins in 1934, at a production of Yerma, one of the three tragedies of that cycle. A young boy, Ricardo Fernandez (Naim Thomas), attends the play with his family and his best friend, Jorge Aguirre (Gonzalo Penche). Though civil war brews across the country, the teenagers preoccupy themselves with the mesmerizing poetry and plays of their idol, Garcia Lorca (Andy Garcia). At the premiere of the expressionistic play, Ricardo's admiration swells when the poet autographs his book and whispers, "Don't forget me."

After returning to Granada, the young devotees learn that their idol has returned to his hometown, and the two scurry off to see him. That very night, the nationalist rebellion overtakes the city, resulting in the inadvertent death of Jorge, a death for which Ricardo blames himself.

Eighteen years later, Ricardo (Esai Morales), now a journalist working in San Juan, remains obsessed by the traumatic events leading up to the Spanish Civil War. He's particularly obsessed with the murders of his beloved poet and of his childhood friend Jorge. In the throes of writing a book about Garcia Lorca, a book that he can't conclude until he discovers the truth, Ricardo resolves to return to his homeland. Only by coming home and deciphering the poet's murder can he quell his own internal unrest. The film then intercuts Ricardo's escapades in pursuit of the truth during 1954 with a fictionalized account of Garcia Lorca's death eighteen years before.

While Ricardo hopes to unearth his past, he returns to a Spain that, under Franco, buries any insinuation of its immediate past, especially the events that engendered the fascist state. Further, enemies of the poet, such as the ominous Centeno (Miguel Ferrer), still pervade the country; their interest in obfuscating what really happened thwarts Ricardo's efforts. Though Ricardo faces sinister warnings, threats, beatings and imprisonment, none of these impediments comes across as being particularly threatening or dramatic.

In fact, the film suffers throughout from a lack of realism and intensity. The problem arises not just during the poorly staged fight scenes but also from the indifference of the actors playing the two key figures: Morales as Ricardo and Garcia as Garcia Lorca. Morales, as the fixated Ricardo, so overplays the naive sincerity of his character--his guileless Ricardo a sort of Dean Cainian Clark Kent--that it undercuts the very sympathy it aims to evince.

Even more problematic is Garcia's portrayal of Garcia Lorca. Garcia leans so exclusively on the dignity of the poet's resoluteness in the face of adversity that it becomes almost incomprehensible why officials would find him dangerous--a fervent-enough republican, artist or even individual to pose any threat to the rising fascist state. The real Garcia Lorca spoke out publicly against the Nazi persecution of German writers, belonged to two anti-fascist organizations and flaunted his homosexuality. Garcia's aloof Garcia Lorca gallantly defends his friends, for instance, but he hardly puts up a struggle when Centeno, the same fascist whom the poet expelled from the theater for disrupting his play earlier in the movie, finally seizes him.

Nevertheless, Ricardo doggedly pursues his quest, accompanied by a taxi driver (Giancarlo Giannini) who offers to drive him around and protect him. Ricardo revisits Jorge's childhood home, where he encounters Jorge's sister Maria Eugenia (Marcela Walerstein)--who, he does not fail to notice, has grown into quite a looker--and Jorge's father, the genteel Colonel Aguirre (Jeroen Krabbe). The colonel keeps a suspicious Ricardo from the military laurels in the library, but Maria Eugenia--who reciprocates Ricardo's interest--agrees to assist Ricardo in his search, directing him to some of the key figures in Garcia Lorca's final hours.

During the course of his chase, Ricardo encounters the sinister Centeno, as well as Nestor Gonzalez (Jose Coronado), who hid Garcia Lorca before his capture but refused to discuss the circumstances. Ricardo also stumbles over Clotilde, a local prostitute who informs Ricardo that the politician Roberto Lozano (Edward James Olmos) accompanied Centeno in the poet's arrest. Those who don't try to exculpate themselves deflect Ricardo's questions, leading him to search through the secret fascist archives in Madrid. The information here, as it happens, contradicts almost everybody's claims.

Centeno's henchmen perpetrate more unconvincing violence and urge Ricardo to leave the country. A local Gypsy's divulgence of the last person to see Garcia Lorca alive, a bullfighter named Gabino (Emilio Munoz), however, renews Ricardo's zeal. Next, Aguirre tries to obstruct the pursuit, arresting him on trumped-up charges and incarcerating him.

A few short frames later, Ricardo sets out for the final hurrah--meeting the bullfighter, the only remaining eyewitness. Centeno's henchmen shadow, intimidate and pummel him. Maria Eugenia and the taxi driver arrive in the nick of time, whisking him away from the scene. The film culminates with a confrontation among the parties at the bullfighting arena, where Ricardo lances at Centeno, Aguirre and the elusive truth while the bullfighter performs his ritualistic ballet. In the end, Ricardo is released from his anxiety; after he symbolically fires a gun (not at the suspected murderers but at the ceiling), he is freed to return to Puerto Rico, involve himself romantically with a woman and live his life with equanimity.

Ultimately, Ricardo's probe seems compelled by the film's Freudian sexual subtext--a vanquishing of the father--and not by the ostensible fictional and historical dramas on the film's surface. When Ricardo admits that in searching for the truth surrounding his idol's demise, he hopes to recoup a lost part of himself, little does he realize that the key he ultimately finds lies in a post-Oedipal awareness of sexual difference. Put that one in your fountain pen and see what it writes.

One of the writers of the screenplay, Neil Cohen, says he aimed to emulate Costa-Gavras's Z (1968) in its use of a politically charged setting that underscores a suspense thriller narrative. His film not only lacks the frisson of a Costa-Gavras work, it also sadly lacks the gusto of its subject. Garcia Lorca, Spain's great poet of this century, drew his inspiration from flamenco, the exotic idiom of the Andalusian Gypsies; the music's captivating romance helped shape the nation's aesthetic. Plaintive and impassioned, flamenco relies on the magical interpretive power of the duende (evil spirit), a parallel to the divine spirit of an artist. While the film's settings capture some of that essence, its story and principal actors fail to beguile.

The Disappearance of Garcia Lorca.
Directed by Marcos Zurinaga. Written by Marcos Zurinaga & Juan Antonio and Neil Cohen. Starring Andy Garcia, Esai Morales, Edward James Olmos, Giancarlo Giannini and Miguel Ferrer.

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