In 16th century Central America, a rapidly diminishing band of Spanish deserters trek through the jungle. They follow a hand-drawn map purporting to lead to El Dorado – the fabled city of gold. Surrounded by territorial indigenous tribes and deadly wildlife, the greatest risk to their survival will ultimately come from within.
Back in 2006 writer/director Agustín Díaz Yanes scored a sizeable Spanish hit with Alatriste, an adaptation of the popular Arturo Pérez-Reverte novel. More than a decade later Yanes returned to the novelist to adapt another of his works with Gold (Oro in Spanish). It is a much bleaker and, I suspect, less commercial work. Fans of the period and setting, however, are likely to have a great time with it.
The film is told from the perspective of professional soldier Martín Dávila (played in a nicely understated fashion by Raul Arevalo). It is through his eyes that we witness the other key characters. The rogue expedition is commanded by the aging and brutal Don Gonzalo (Jose Manuel Cervino), who has any soldier that questions his orders violently garroted and their bodies left to rot where they fall. He has, against all sense, insisted on bringing along his much younger wife Dona Ana (Barbara Lennie), and her presence has caused deep resentment among his men. That resentment finds its most potent form in Lieutenant Gorriamendi (Oscar Jaeneda), an ambitious second-in-command with traitorous designs on the top job. The obvious result of these characters’ respective behaviour gives the entire film a sense of inevitability to it. The question is never what will happen, so much as when and how?
Gold also presents an appropriately ugly depiction of Spanish colonialism. The soldiers think nothing of massacring an entire village of indigenous Americans and setting their buildings on fire. The expedition is accompanied by a fire and brimstone priest who is met with impatient disdain from the soldiers to whom he is supposed to be preaching. In a story of such violent extremes it occasionally breaks out into pitch-black humour. In one early scene a soldier makes it halfway across a river before he is snapped out of shot by a passing caiman. It is so sudden and marked with such an explosion of blood that it perversely funny – particularly once Don Gonzalo calmly orders a second terrified soldier across.
The film’s episodic nature may frustrate some viewers, but the ongoing series of misfortunes gradually push the characters to extremes. They become filled with a growing combination of futility and sheer bloody-mindedness. While violent and bleak, the film frequently looks beautiful. Paco Femenia’s cinematography draws a rich contrast out of the predominantly green palette. Javi Limón Maza and Javier Limón’s musical score is restrained to the point of ambience.
Gold is an evocative and broadly effective film, but it is almost irredeemably dark and miserable. This is not a happy story. There are few clear-cut heroes and an awful lot of villains. It is, in the end, a well-crafted journey to a horrible place. Your enjoyment essentially boils down to how horrible you like your cinema to be.