A Less-than-moving Tale Of Famous Artists At Play

'Little Ashes' ** (2 Stars)

Movie Fixates On Their Love Lives Instead Of Their Cultural Importance

August 07, 2009|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,michael.sragow@baltsun.com

Leonardo DiCaprio survived playing poet Arthur Rimbaud without a hint of eloquence in "Total Eclipse," and Robert Pattinson should be able to live down his portrayal of painter Salvador Dali as a callow youth who becomes a hollow monster in "Little Ashes."

With a trio of charismatic figures at its center - Dali, the poet and playwright Federico Garcia Lorca (Javier Beltran), and the filmmaker Luis Bunuel (Matthew McNulty) - the movie commits the error of scanting their cultural importance and fixating on Lorca's semi-requited love for Dali. Set amid the ferment of 1922 Madrid, "Little Ashes" is the modernist gay equivalent of a bodice-buster. Maybe we should call it a boxers-buster.

The early scenes of these gifted youths converging at the Residencia de Estudiantes set off a rippling anticipation in the audience. You expect to feel the surge of revolutionary art and iconoclastic spirit as they tweak the repressive Establishment and dream of supplanting the ultra-orthodox status quo with new art and ideas.

Director Paul Morrison and screenwriter Philippa Goslett insert a welcome touch of dialectic to the arguments between the rambunctious internationalist Bunuel, who yearns for Paris (and does go there), and the more refined and rooted Lorca, who can't imagine himself creating anything authentic outside Spain. Lorca sees futility and chic in Bunuel's desire to breathe new air in France. Lorca wonders whether there's any point in exercising unfettered creativity in a country that's already free. (After Dali meets Bunuel in Paris, the painter's plunge into egoistic decadence seems to justify Lorca's skepticism.)

In the early sequences, Lorca and Dali do more than dally: They inspire each other. But as the going gets hot and heavy, the two artists shed their summer whites and embrace in deep-blue waters - and the imagery descends to the level of cosmetics commercials.

What is it with Pattinson always playing high-toned teases? In "Twilight" he can't make love to a girl because he's a vampire, and in "Little Ashes" he won't let Lorca go all the way with him (although he does watch the poet have sex with a desperate female). Is the main reason for Dali's reticence the influential Bunuel's scorn for homosexuals?

The movie could use less romantic boo-hoo-hoo and more Bunuel: It's engaging whenever Bunuel acts as ringleader or troublemaker, even when he's blustery and piggish. Reading the section on Madrid in Bunuel's autobiography, "My Last Sight," I had no idea whether it was any more accurate than "Little Ashes," but I got a greater sense of artists at play.

"We used to call [Dali] 'the Czechoslovakian painter,' although for the life of me I can't remember why," Bunuel recalls. He goes on to say, "Along with Federico, he became my closest friend. We were inseparable; Lorca nurtured quite a grand passion for Dali, but our Czechoslovakian painter remained unmoved."

After "Little Ashes," so are we.

MPAA rating: R (for sexual content,

language and a brief disturbing image)

Running time: 112 minutes.

Starring Javier Beltran (Federico Garcia Lorca), Robert Pattinson (Salvador Dali), and Matthew McNulty (Luis Bunuel).

A Regent Entertainment release.

Directed by Paul Morrison. 112 minutes.

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