September 12, 1997
'The Disappearance of García Lorca': Tracking Down the Killers of a Poet
hen movies try to grapple with the lives of famous writers, they tend to be terribly starchy and self-consciously reverential. ''The Disappearance of Garcia Lorca,'' an elaborately contrived thriller focusing on the death of the Spanish poet and playwright Federico Garcia Lorca, who was executed by fascists in 1936, hews solemnly to the mold.
Heaven knows, the movie, directed by Marcos Zurinaga, is well-meaning and on the side of good literature and freedom of speech. One thing it accomplishes that films about writers often fail to do is provide a rudimentary introduction to the author's work. Early in the film, there are scenes of García Lorca (a seriously miscast Andy Garcia) wildly declaiming some of his more incantatory verses. The film also includes a fragment from his expressionistic play ''Yerma,'' in which a woman delivers a blistering atheistic tirade, scandalizing a strait-laced 1930's theater audience.
But these excerpts are skimpy literary trimmings on a pretentious political thriller that repeatedly jumps back and forth between the mid-1930's and the mid-1950's and ends up making little sense. One major problem is that the film's literary namesake remains a remote figure appearing only in flashbacks that reveal next to nothing about his life (the screenplay barely alludes to his homosexuality).
As portrayed by Mr. Garcia, who exudes his traditional roughneck machismo, García Lorca fits the same stock movie image of the Poet as Sensitive Superman as Omar Sharif's Dr. Zhivago. Mr. Garcia's García Lorca has flashing soulful eyes and a fiery spirit and stands up to the fascist brutes who terrorize his family. He begins the film as a romantic hero and ends up a martyr.
The film's main character, Ricardo (Esai Morales), is a dewy-eyed Spanish-born journalist whose family fled to Puerto Rico during the Spanish Civil War. Ricardo grew up idolizing García Lorca, whom he met backstage when he was 14, and the poet autographed a book, then called after him, ''Don't forget me.'' Shortly after that, Ricardo's best friend and fellow García Lorca worshipper, Jorge Aguirre (Gonzalo Penche), was accidentally shot to death by fascist troops during a street fracas. Jorge's father, a stern military colonel of ambiguous political persuasions, had railed against his son's adoration of the ''pansy'' poet. Now 20 years later, Ricardo has returned to his hometown of Granada to look into his idol's death, and Colonel Aguirre, who was a friend of his father's, has appointed himself Ricardo's guardian.
Once it has dispensed with high-toned literary frills, the movie turns into a stiff overly schematic cat-and-mouse game in which Ricardo finds his life increasingly imperiled as he sleuths around. The film tries to create suspense by shifting direct responsibility for the murder from one shady character to the next and builds toward an overblown bullfighting sequence in which scenes of Ricardo being stalked by thugs are intercut with a matador, who may have witnessed García Lorca's murder, twirling his cape in the bullring.
''The Disappearance of García Lorca'' has a hollow cliche-ridden screenplay that allows its characters not a glint of humor or any other idiosyncrasy. It tries to inject some warmth by having Ricardo fall in love with Jorge's sister Maria Eugenia (Marcela Walerstein), but their combined heat couldn't light a match. The vapidly pretty Mr. Morales has all the spontaneity of an angelic Sunday school student carefully reciting biblical chapter and verse.
One indication of the movie's fatal self-seriousness is found in its glimpses of Ricardo's reporter's notes. His reminders aren't the hurried scrawl of a working journalist but elegant little notes executed in a fussily perfect schoolboy script.