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Extraordinary life of Spanish explorer Ali Bey set for cinema

Adventurer, Orientalist, spy: the remarkable story of Spanish explorer Ali Bey al-Abbassi is to be told on the silver screen for the first time, two centuries after his death.

Extraordinary life of Spanish explorer Ali Bey set for cinema
The illustration of "Ali Bey" from the book of his travels. Photo: Wikipedia CC

Born in Catalonia in 1767, Domingo Badia y Leblich posed as an exiled Arab prince and became one of the first Europeans to set foot in Mecca.    

Yet despite mixing with the Spanish royal family, Napoleon's top officials and some of the most notable European intellectuals of his age, he has been all but forgotten since he died in 1818.

“It's surprising that no film has yet been made on Ali Bey,” Moroccan filmmaker Souheil Ben Barka said during a break on set.   

The Spaniard “was a seducer. No one could resist him,” he said.


Moroccan film-maker Souheil Ben Bark will bring the 200 year old story to the silver screen. Photo: AFP

With a budget of $17 million (€15 million), the veteran director's dramatisation of the explorer's life is set for release in five languages and 40 countries in late 2018.

After learning Arabic and serving in the Spanish army, Ali Bey was charged by Spain's King Charles IV with overthrowing the Sultan of Morocco.   

On the suggestion of Napoleon's great diplomat and foreign minister Talleyrand, he posed as an exiled Abbasid prince, born in Syria, raised in Europe, his father persecuted by the Ottomans.

The explorer spent two years in Morocco, but he was exposed and had to flee. He set out across North Africa, posing as a Muslim on pilgrimage.    

After meeting Romantic-era French writer Chateaubriand in Cairo, in 1807 he reached Mecca, some half a century before British explorer Richard Burton's famous journey there.

'Courageous, enterprising, cunning'

Ali Bey spent time in the Holy Land and Constantinople before heading back to Spain, where he worked for Napoleon.   

But he was seen as a traitor and forced to take refuge in France.   

He published a French memoir of his travels before setting off for Mecca again, apparently as a spy working for French King Louis XVIII.   

He only made it as far as Syria, where he died suddenly in 1818.    

Historian Christian Feucher said dysentery was probably to blame, with a remedy based on roasted rhubarb prescribed by a French doctor in Damascus having little effect.

But others believe he was poisoned by his mistress, Lady Hester Stanhope, a British aristocrat who had converted to Islam.    

“She could not cope with learning that her hero was a spy, not a descendant of the caliph and the prophet as he claimed to be,” said Ben Barka.    

There is little doubt, however, that Ali Bey was “courageous, enterprising, cunning and adventurous”, Feucher wrote in a 2012 book on the explorer.   

“He captivated the great scholars of the time in Paris and London,” Feucher told AFP.

Yet despite his extraordinary life and mysterious death, Ali Bey has received little recognition apart from a street in Barcelona bearing his name.  

Ben Barka hopes to change that with his film starring Spanish actor Rodolfo Sancho.

Writing the screenplay for his film took more than three years, he said.    

Shooting started in Italy in February, but much of the film was shot in May in Morocco — in the desert dunes of Merzouga, the Roman ruins of Volubilis and the sumptuous houses of Rabat and Casablanca.

Director of seven feature-length dramas, Ben Barka has already been contacted by producers hoping to adapt the drama for television.

By Herve Bar / AFP

FILM

These were the five stand-out Spanish films of 2019

Dramatic, warlike and familiarly comic – the 231 Spanish films released in 2019 offer a remarkable variety of genres but very few truly memorable moments.

These were the five stand-out Spanish films of 2019
Photo: Sara Robertson/Flickr
Andrej Klemencic chooses his selection of the five stand out films of the year in Spanish cinema.
 
Pain and Glory
 

As he ages, Almodovar as name outgrows Almodovar as filmmaker and he becomes some kind of Spanish Martin Scorsese – revered when reverence is overdue.

Besides being flushed with nominations and awards when already lacking the something more, whatever, in Almodovar’s case that may have been, both directors have in common that the narrative in their films is delivered in such a way that even with no mastery at play, the experience is always a very filmic one and the viewer is kept entertained at all times.

Almodovar’s latest is no exception as a portrayal of a middle-aged film director, based to a certain point on his own path, who struggles with a colourful palette of obsessions, is dynamic enough and interesting enough to make for reasonably enjoyable viewing. Antonio Banderas performs expectedly well as one who lost touch with creativity and is through humorous and melodramatic circumstances seeing it come back to life.

Colour is vivid, and the supporting actors, including Penelope Cruz, paint a lifelike picture of the post-war Spain of director’s childhood and link it to contemporary Madrid. The lost Spain comes to life so vividly that one could almost recommend the film based on those sequences alone.

Rosalia also features singing beautifully by a river.

While at War

The second major film of the year is “Mientras dure la guerra” by Alejandro Amenabar. As with Almodovar, this director is becoming a household name around the globe. Despite the fact his breakthroughs, in Spain and internationally were colour suspense, Amenabar takes up one of the quintessential topics of contemporary Spain – the Civil War – and turns it into an hour and three quarters of more than passable filmmaking.

The film centers on Miguel de Unamuno,  an intellectual, writer, professor, who at the beginning of the Civil War was the rector of Salamanca University. The film on the one hand explores his inner struggles as he tries not to take sides, and on the other the viewers are shown how Franco emerged as the leader from a group of rebelling generals.

On the first front, the film makes it painfully clear that the Spanish Civil War, in the beginning, a battle between the nuances of grey, some darker and some containing more light, rather that a battle between the unquestionable good and absolute evil. The second interesting insight it provides, is that it attributes Francisco Franco’s ascent to power to a chain of events which seem to be more a fruit of chance rather than of meticulous planning to overthrow the system.

The aged intellectual de Unamuno is in the end forced to take sides, but in his rebellion whose aftermath takes place in a scene in which he is being driven with Franco’s wife in a car, much is said about what lies behind the veil of secrecy that makes so many Spanish ways mysterious to an outsider.

Santi Prego, the actor portraying General Franco is frightfully good and brings the character to screen in a way almost disturbingly real.

Elisa y Marcela

From director Isabel Coixet, considered by some as the leading art-house force of Spanish cinema comes a story of two women Elisa and Marcela who fall in love just before the 20th century begins and live their odyssey from La Coruña, via rural Galicia and Portugal to Argentina.

During one part of their struggle, one of the women takes on a man’s identity so the couple could get married in order for the village voices to leave them alone. Their marriage was never annulled and presented hope for many.

The director shot in black and white. Large landscape stills contrast the emotional and physical intimacy between the women. Some of the ways in which the director chooses to create the dynamics of their first encounters are beautiful and have as backdrop the pure waters of Galician beaches, the forests, mist and frequent but playful rain.

Greta Fernandez is convincing as the only seemingly fragile Marcela while Natalia de Molina does not do as good a job failing repeatedly to move out of the stiff, provincial theatre-like acting, not at all infrequent in Spanish films and on TV. Additionally, as many Spanish film actors for a reason that defies logic, seem not to be taught to enunciate, you will, with Elisa and Marcela, as with a vast majority of films made in Spain, welcome the subtitles even if you are a native speaker.

At some stage in the second part of the film, it becomes quite clear that Coixet is no grand filmmaker as she fails to recognize that some of the staggeringly static moments should never have made the final cut, and this makes the otherwise watchable film not quite easy to recommend wholeheartedly.

Who Would You Take With You on a Deserted Island?

Two couples, a Madrid apartment, a TV film and closeted homosexuality as the main topic. This unpretentious work is the second feature by director Jota Linares and talks about four youngsters moving out of a shared apartment after a decade or so of flatmating.

Different to the bravery of Elisa and Marcela, the same sex relationship between two characters is hidden from the viewers for the large part of this Netfix flick as well as from the remaining two roommates themselves.

Predictably enough, drama ensues as the revelation is made and the relationship between the four takes on a dimension seemingly leading into a tragic crescendo. Yet there is a half twist in the second part making the film not as predictable.

The four actors move between Greek tragedy and a modern urban drama. The interiors are naturalistic, and the direction does not get in the way of the narrative.

As a curiosity, actress Maria Pedraza who until accepting a role in the non-highly-rated series Toy Boy was seen as one of the rising stars of the Spanish cinema, pairs here for the third time with Jaime Lorenta with whom she shared TV screen in series Money Heist (2017) and Elite (2018).

Los Japon

Ocho Apellidos Vascos goes to Japan losing much of its humour along the way.

Since the film from 2014 with English title “Spanish Affair” capitalized on a long list of prejudice the residents of the Basque Country seem to have of Andalusians and vice versa, grossing more than 75 million dollars in box office, Spanish filmmakers have been trying to replicate the successful recipe.

While Ocho Apellidos Vascos was genuinely funny, its first sequel, Ocho Apellidos Catalanes was much less so, and the third attempt at stereotyping, this time moving to international waters, echoes little of the sparkles the original film brought.

This time an Andalusian, a descendant of a Japanese who centuries ago moved to a town close to Seville, turns out to be the only heir to the Japanese throne. He and his family move to Japan and you can pretty much figure out the rest.

Series of jokes, some a bit funny, are based mainly on basic stereotypes and are followed by jokes based on even more basic stereotypes and so on.

If you for some reason find Dani Rovira, the star of Ocho Apellidos Vascos irresistibly funny and you crack at every Andalusian joke you just may be able to get through the film.

 

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