Nothing like an old-fashioned street fight. With pointy swords!

Alatriste is a 2006 movie, at the time the most expensive Spanish movie ever made, and it slid under the radar for just about everyone. That’s in spite of its star, Viggo Mortenson, who is as comfortable as ever in period duds and swinging a sword around. Of course, everybody is speaking Spanish the whole time (this is a subtitled movie) but you shouldn’t let that stop you from seeing it.

Because it’s not exactly a Hollywood film, Alatriste follows a narrative arc that is a bit more on the episodic side than your standard 3-act piece. The story, of a soldier turned mercenary who fights many battles for many reasons and picks up friends and enemies along the way, covers a pile of years and finds its central characters in many different circumstances. As such, it might feel a bit long or like it should have been a TV series. This might count as a flaw, really, but I found that the richness of the setting coupled with the action, grand romance (in the literary sense of the word), and subtle character work made up for it. That and apparently the movie is an adaptation of 5 books, which accounts for that episodic texture.

Even though I call it episodic, there is a central plot that ties the movie together and gives it a through-line. During a battle, Alatriste’s friend dies and asks him to foster his son and raise him up as a warrior and soldier like they are. There’s an element of philosophy about what a man is and the role of combat in a proper man’s life, but it’s not very insightful and sort of coasts on the waters of manly valor and heroism that tends to populate stories like this.

Viggo makes even floppy hats and cartoonish mustaches look badass. In fact, the way they pulled off the costume design is one of my favorite elements of the movie.

While there are big battle scenes, the movie is most at home on the dirty and dangerous streets of 17th Century Madrid. In its commitment to authenticity with a requisite level of lived-in grunginess, the movie gives us a great setting that reflects the groundedness of the story. This is definitely a tale of political intrigues, important men, and their pawns… yet it doesn’t feel as if it’s trying to be grandiose in the same way something like Gladiator or Kingdom of Heaven does. In its way, Alatriste is more like the recent Game of Thrones. I keep wanting to use the word “realistic” but it doesn’t quite apply. There’s simply a more roughspun feel to the characters, locations, story, etc than is present in many Hollywood movies. An honesty about the decadence and nature of war that is unThis is not in itself a virtue, but it certainly lends itself well to the genre. It provides a nice counterpoint to the movies that are more about spectacle and the scale of history.

Alatriste is about a man’s relationship to an adopted son. That the feel of the movie is a more intimate one makes sense. I definitely think the approach of using a conventional “historical epic” setting but doing a character study or drama or whatever is to be encouraged. There is a sort of commonality in historical epics, especially if they have elements like big battles, swordfights, etc. It’s nice to see those elements used to tell a slightly more unusual story.

This movie will appeal to you if you can handle subtitles, like Viggo, and have an appetite for historical movies that include large  amounts of violence, intrigue, and a pretty good father-son story. Inigo (Unax Ugalde… awesome name) eventually becomes a badass in his own right but the road there isn’t always very smooth, especially when his relationship to Alatriste is strained by rivalries, old enemies recurring, love, etc. Their whole thing is the heart of the movie.