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Oro (Gold)
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by Jay Seaver

"Seeking golden cities in the jungle is safer for audiences than explorers."
4 stars

"Oro" opens with the aftermath of carnage, not bothering with any sort of build-up suggesting honorable intentions or excited curiosity for this set of conquistadors seeking a fabled city of gold. No, director Agustin Diaz Yanes leaps straight into cynical, cutthroat territory, and while that means there's less high adventure to hook an audience, there's still enough in the way of thrills to keep an audience excited.

That first scene takes place in April 1528, as Spanish soldier Martin Davila (Raul Arevalo) has just survived another battle with the natives, having set out from Puerto Cristo to find Tezutlan, a native city with roofs of gold on the other side of a wide river and mountains, described by the sole survivor of a previous expedition. This one is led by Don Gonzalo (Jose Manuel Cervino), though defers much the actual logistics to Lieutenant Alferez Gorriamendi (Oscar Jaenada), a fearsome officer who would intimidate even without his large, well-trained dog. Along with soldiers from every corner of Spain, the party includes Pater Vargas (Luis Callejo), there to spread the word of God to the "savages" of the Indies; Licenciado Ulzama (Andres Gertrudix), a scribe reporting on the expedition for the emperor; Mediamano (Juan Carlos Aduviri), a native guide; plus Doña Ana (Barbara Lennie), the Don's younger wife, and her maidservant La Parda (Anna Castillo). Though the servant seems to have found a paramour in Martin's comrade Iturbe (Juan Jose Ballesta), the former seems less satisfied with her mate, locking eyes with Martin even as Gorriamendi also shows interest. With weeks of traversing the jungle to go, this would be a volatile situation, and that's before one of the Don's men arrives from the city to say that another expedition has been sent with the additional goal of arresting Gonzalo.

As with a lot of foreign movies that make their way to the United States quickly rather than being carefully positioned and sold to a wider audience - Oro arrives just three weeks after its Spanish opening - this one probably has a fair amount more resonance in its native land than it does here, capturing something specific. In this case, it's a great deal of talk about how Spain is far from a unified, cohesive nation, something that perhaps strikes a chord as Catalan votes for its independence. Martin's opening narration describes how Spanish people in the army tend to congregate with others from their region, despising the rest until there is an immediate threat, at which point they will fight together. It's a thread that is pervasive throughout the film, reinforced as every conversation between two people seems to start with the first asking the second where he is from, and references to towns and regions on the other side of the Atlantic dot conversation, seeming to pop up most gratuitously when things are at their most tense. It is no wonder that the party seems to reach the verge of disintegration quickly, or that the sympathetic characters (such as they are) seem to be the ones with the weakest connection to their regions - Martin, who is from Trujillo but who figures he will never return, and Ana, whose origins are initially the subject of some speculation.

They also seem, at least to my ear which is relatively uneducated where Spanish dialect is concerned, to have the most generic accents, but that and their less extreme positioning compared to some other characters doesn't make them bland or boring. Raul Arevalo's Martin sometimes threatens to fade toward the background compared to the characters with the more aggressive machinations, but Arevalo makes him strong enough to center the film, able to sell a level of decency that could seem either foolish or anachronistic. There's a genuine chemistry between him and Barbara Lennie, who helps show that Ana has a similar ability to stand a step or two back and see things from a different perspective, though she's also able to show a certain fierceness which comes across as both appropriate and unusual for the time. Much of the rest of the cast gets to play broader: Jose Manuel Cervino carries the Don as a petty tyrant well enough that the audience never actually has to find out whether he is being pursued for actual crimes or if he's just part of a system that awards violent opportunism, an interesting contrast with Oscar Jaenada, whose Gorriamendi is commanding enough that the resentment is initially easy to ignore Luis Callejo and Andres Gertrudix are interesting contrasts as the priest and the scribe; Callejo captures a man who knows how to keep his hypocrisy obvious but not overt, while Gertrudix plays Ulzama as not quite cognizant of the how his literacy and thus control of the soldiers' reputations allows him to survive (or at least, being smart enough to not make a thing of it).

It's inevitable that this party will tear itself apart, but Yanes and co-writer Arturo Perez-Reverte (whose short story serves as the source) don't make it a grim, inevitable thing; there's often the sense that this could have been a thrilling, gung-ho adventure if things had been pushed a bit in a different direction: Though much of the violence is cold-blooded murder, the bits where two opponents can square off and fight are well done. The staples of jungle adventure are also thrilling, from a river crossing where the party must be wary of caiman alligators to the spears which seemingly come out of nowhere. The jungle is a frightening and random place in this film, and half of the people who die do so in a way that comes out of nowhere, but the filmmakers use this unfairness well - it's a warning not to take things for granted, not a narrative cheat, and any comparison between European plundering and native respect for the land is implicit rather than overt moralizing.

It's a nicely put-together movie as well; it may not be quite so visually striking as The Lost City of Z, but the filmmakers do a nice job of allowing the jungle to close in without the audience quite realizing it: Open spaces large enough for a lot of people to gather and pitch tents are harder to find as the film goes along, and settlements start to feel like oases even if they are not filled with gold, while clothing and armor seem appropriately used and mismatched. The score by Javier Limon Maza shifts from being atonal, incomplete, and confusing to having a more distinct native sound (or what viewers will think of as Native American) when the party enters an area where the jungle itself is less a factor than its inhabitants.

"Oro" may play better in Spain than North America, which makes it an odd one to get a quick release here, but even with that sort of focus, it's still an anti-swashbuckler worth checking out: Just the right sort of nasty and ready to take its characters out without a moment's notice and the minimal amount of leavening to give the audience a rooting interest.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=31902&reviewer=371
originally posted: 12/04/17 13:03:44
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  01-Dec-2017 (R)



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