DVD Review: Guernica humanizes an iconic tragedy, with mixed results

3 out of 5 Stars

Rated R. Directed by Koldo Serra. 

Starring James D'Arcy, Burn Gorman, Maria Valverde and Ingrid Garcia Jonsson.

Available now on DVD and VOD.

Pablo Picasso painted Guernica in response to the bombing of the city of the same name in April of 1937, during the Spanish Civil War. At more than 11 feet tall and 25 feet wide, it's a staggeringly impactful piece of art, its twisted human and animal forms a mute indictment of the atrocities of war as well as a reminder of the innocent victims war always claims. Initially received with very mixed reviews, Picasso's Guernica has since become a universal symbol for peace movements, and perhaps an immortal artist's best-known work.

It takes — erm, well, let's call it "confidence," then, to appropriate the word and all that goes with it for your dramatic wartime romance movie; when you make a move like that, you'd better be fairly sure you've got another Casablanca on your hands.

Spanish director Koldo Serra's Guernica, which chronicles the last few days leading up to the city's bombing via the relationship between a grizzled American journalist covering the war and the Spanish propagandist empowered by Franco's Nationalist government to censor his dispatches, is no Casablanca. It is, however, executed in a moody, dated style that pays loving tribute to that classic, and often transcends its own more obvious flaws to become, intermittently, an emotionally compelling bit of cinema.

James D'Arcy plays Harry as a stand-in for real-world journalist George Steer. He overdoes the world-weariness to a distracting degree, though this may be an attempt to pay homage to the exaggerated performances of the movies of the '40s and early '50s — most of the male roles here are delivered with similarly cliched melodrama. Bored with the canned tours of the Basque countryside designed to show Franco's new Spain in the best possible light, he's barely engaged, until censor Teresa (played to perfection by Maria Valverde) intrigues him with her brains, strength and beauty. Their mutual attraction blossoms against a backdrop of more committed journalists finding their way to the front lines, a superior fascist functionary with his own designs on Teresa (and a mission to reveal someone in his department as a rebel spy, whether true or not), and a German bomber squadron that's clearly gearing up to do some serious damage.

Guernica's biggest problems are its pacing and performances, which, while seemingly designed to evoke Hollywood's golden age of wartime drama, are practically guaranteed to put off contemporary audiences. The lack of pretty much any element of surprise is another issue; everyone knows what's coming, and the one twist that comes as the movie ratchets itself up is minor. Still, its tropes and cliches became such because they worked, and worked well, for a long time — it's difficult not to find yourself engrossed in the story, predictable though it may be, even as you're tempted to roll your eyes or make little "yup, I knew it" sounds as the action unfolds. It's also difficult not to lose yourself in the film's tense, brutal and extended climax.

Movie fans in search of fast-paced action, indie verve or heavily stylized tone would do well to look elsewhere for satisfaction. Those who still put on some of the old black-and-whites from time to time and sit back with a box of tissues, however, will likely enjoy Guernica's reverent genre exercise. And everyone should take note of the film's unarguable high point: the 29-year-old Valverde, who, as the bold, passionate and conflicted Teresa, is simply luminous in every scene.

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