Dir/scr: Menno Meyjes.  UK-Spain. 2007. 89 mins.


An intimate take on a notorious real-life love story, Menno Meyjes’s long-delayed Manolete explores the last 18 months in the revered Spanish bullfighter’s life when lower-class beauty, Lupe Sino (Penelope Cruz) troubled his legendary concentration.

Monolete registers as an awkward yet intermittently touching period piece. It deserves additional theatrical slots and should have a long life on DVD thanks to its high profile leads.

Adrien Brody’s uncanny resemblance to the celebrated bullfighter who thrilled 1940s Spain and Mexico probably seemed too good to pass up.  As with the writer-director’s flawed but fascinating Max, about the relationship between a down-and-out Hitler and a wealthy Jewish art dealer, there are guilty pleasures here, even if the subject matter seems simultaneously too rarefied and too passé.

Disadvantaged by a modest March 31 release in France up against a crowded field, this marketing challenge of a movie (it is some three years since it was shot) registers as an awkward yet intermittently touching period piece. It deserves additional theatrical slots and should have a long life on DVD thanks to its high profile leads.

When Manolete is captivated by his first glimpse of Lupe as the two spin through a revolving door in Madrid, the fighter’s right hand man Pepe (Juan Echanove) warns his boss that she’s “trouble” and not for him, insofar as she’s “a singer, an actress and a whore.”  But Manolete is smitten to the core and Lupe, who soon pronounces her soft-spoken suitor “the most beautiful ugly man I’ve ever seen,” is also stirred by something besides his celebrity.  The overtly sensual Cruz delivers as a possible gold-digger who could drive a man mad.

While there are ample, engaging sequences in the bullring, the narrative is a classic ‘can’t-live-with-her/can’t-live-without-her’ tale weighted with sexual ambiguity and a sliver of political pressure. Meyjes is so intent on not spelling out some things (is the shy, feline Manolete a repressed homosexual or does he just love his mother?) andemphasising others (will a frantic Lupe make it to a crucial fight in time?) while toggling back and forth between the climactic events of August 28, 1947, and the 18 months leading up to them, that the viewer is buffeted by locations and emotions, much like the busy protagonists.

Despite some crude language and lusty bedroom action, the film feels like an old-fashioned Hollywood romance… the kind one went to mostly for the pleasure of watching the actors without demanding consistently cogent story-telling.

When Manolete is challenged by popular young torero, Dominguin - “the only man Ava Gardner ever chased” says the narrator - can vivacious, headstrong Lupe successfully compete with what she believes to be her lover’s death wish?

It would be difficult to overstate Brody’s near clone-like features, backed up by newsreel footage of the real Manolete performing before adoring crowds.  Brody’s soulful gaze and physical grace suit the role of a public figure whose habitual detachment is shaken by a love his handlers (and even Franco himself) think is beneath a man of his stature.

Extras and supporting cast boast the right kind of faces for the era, which is lovingly re-created with just enough detail to convince. The score is melancholy, ominous, romantic and syncopated in turn.

Production companies: Future Films, HandMade Films, LolaFilms, Pierce/Williams Entertainment, Sequence Film

International sales: HandMade Films International, www.handmadefilms.com

Producers: Andres Vincente Gomez, Tarak Ben Ammar

Cinematography: Robert Yeoman

Production designer: Salvador Parra

Editor: Sylvie Landra

Music: Dan Jones, Gabriel Yared

Main cast: Adrien Brody, Penelope Cruz, Juan Echanove, Santiago Segura, Ann Mitchell