A chronicler of unspeakable desire who has attracted a legion of pop culture acolytes, like too many gay artists from his era Federico Garca Lorca was martyred, murdered at the age of 38 in 1936. As the subject of the new film Little Ashes, the Spanish poet and playwright is due for a resurrection and reappraisal. The film is also a high-profile coming-out of sorts for Javier Beltrn, the 27-year-old Spanish actor who plays him. For a Spanish actor its a really big and important role, says Beltrn. Lorca is the most important poet in our history.
Sweepingly romantic and darkly melancholic, Lorcas poetry was filled with vivid images of nature and frequent references to death. His plays tackled thwarted passions and unrequited longing, with a gay subtext barely beneath the surface: Mariposa concerned the ill-fated love between a cockroach and a butterfly; Blood Wedding dealt with a mother in love with her daughters fianc and ended in murder; The Shoemakers Prodigious Wife was a comedy about extramarital flirtation and fantasy (very risqu for 1926). Hes certainly one of the greatest 20th-century poets and playwrights, says Little Ashes director Paul Morrison. In Spain, after Cervantes hes number 1. His plays still seem modern, absolutely alive. Theyre like Shakespeare in that theyre very open to interpretation.
Little Ashes is decidedly focused on Lorcas sexually and romantically pivotal years at university following his middle-class agrarian childhood on the pampas of Spain. He attended the famed Residencia de Estudiantes in Madrid, where he met fellow students Salvador Dal and filmmaker Luis Buuel. Lorca and Dal developed a close friendship, which blossomed into an intense flirtation, then a frustrated affair. They saw themselves as [mythical heroes] Castor and Pollux, says Little Ashes screenwriter Philippa Goslett, twin souls with an innate and complete understanding of each other -- intellectually, artistically, and emotionally.
If you read Lorcas poems, you can see he loves Dal, and a lot of Dals paintings have Lorca in them, explains Beltrn. Lorca was in love with Dal -- but I dont know if Dal really loved Lorca.
To get into character Beltrn studied Lorcas poetry and how it connected to his life story. He was very passionate, he says. To be a homosexual in his time in Spain was to be sick. He didnt speak about homosexuality, but death and sexuality are always present in his poems. I tried to show that in my work on the film.
Little Ashes also stars Robert Pattinson of Twilight fame as Dal. I didnt really know him from the Harry Potter movies, says Morrison. And then he came and did this reading, and he was so lovely and vulnerable and smart in the way Dal was. If he played Dal like the caricature were familiar with, nobody would care that Lorca was falling in love with him. Youd want to say to him, Get the hell out of this relationship -- this guy is trouble. But Robert manages to make this guy really interesting from the start.
In the film Dal and Lorca engage in a tortuous push and pull, but they first come together physically in a scene where they swim naked and kiss under the moonlight. I loved Lorcas closeness to the earth and sky and moon and his love of the texture of the countryside, says Morrison. I tried to get some of that textural feel, to make a sensual film in the wider sense as well as in the specific sense. But as Lorca grows more attached, Dal backs away, and their ill-fated affair eventually ends in a violent, voyeuristic threesome. We didnt have any problems with the sexuality, says Beltrn. On the set the sex was less important than the emotions. The sex scenes are beautiful -- very tragic and very painful.
The film plays a provocative game of What if? in exploring Lorca and Dals relationship, the subject of historical controversy. Lorca never spoke of the affair; Dal referred to it only briefly near the end of his life, in an interview where he talked about how he had attempted to have sex with Lorca but was unable to complete the act because it hurt. Nobody knows exactly what happened [between them], says Morrison. But whats not in dispute is that they were very close. Lorca keeps popping up in Dals pictures over this period, and Dal keeps popping up in Lorcas poetry. Artistically they inspired one another even though they were very different, and their intimacy went beyond a friendship. They at least attempted to have sex a couple of times. As Dal recounts it, he was both attracted to and repelled by Lorcas sexuality. But what was important to me was that the actors inhabited the characters truthfully, that they did something that felt real to them.
So was Dal closeted? I think it would be a mistake to try to pin a gay or straight label to Dal, says Goslett. I think the situation for Dal was complex. He had a profound fear of sexual intimacy, seemingly based in childhood trauma. It seems clear to me that Dal desired to be physically close to Lorca, but because of his psychological hang-ups he was unable to follow through with it. The combination of such a profound emotional intimacy and his inability to reciprocate it on a physical level proved too much for Dal.
The artist left Lorca for a woman; Lorca was devastated. Yet when the two went their separate ways, they found great fame: Lorca published popular books of poetry and studied in New York at Columbia University before returning to Madrid to direct theater. He had a number of affairs (one with another man who left him for a woman) but never really recovered from his love for Dal.
The relationship had a deep and long-lasting impact on both men, says Goslett. It represents a moment in their lives where they could have taken very different paths. For Lorca it marks a great turning point in his work. After falling in love and having his heart broken by Dal, he truly connected with his emotional side. His writing was never the same again. Although Lorca was more overtly traumatized by the way their friendship broke down, I think the loss was greater for Dal. After his departure from the university in Madrid he began to construct the buffoonish, life-as-art persona that brought him such fame in the years to come. It was a mask. And as Lorca often pointed out in his work, the price you pay for wearing a mask is that it becomes increasingly difficult to take it off.
Lorca once described his artistic mission this way: I sought to express the struggle of reality with fantasy that exists within every human being. Seen by the ascendant dictator Francisco Franco as an enemy, Lorca was executed in 1938, forced to dig his own grave. One of the soldiers bragged that he shot two bullets into his ass for being a queer. But his influence lived on: Little Ashes is only the latest cultural artifact to draw inspiration from Lorcas work and life. Previous adapters and fans include playwright David Henry Hwang, who composed an opera about Lorca; Charles Bukowski, who referenced Lorcas life in his poetry; and the Clash and the Pogues, who name-dropped Lorca in their songs. Leonard Cohen, who set one of Lorcas poems to music, cited Lorca as his greatest influence and named his daughter after him.
Like Little Ashes, Lorcas life story ends with a perpetual coda: speculation on what could have been. The tragedy is that he didnt get the chance to write the canon of work he had in him, says Morrison. He could have written 20 more plays. Im sure of it.
For Javier Beltrn, however, this is only the beginning. The Madrid natives debut in Spanish film came in 2008, when after appearing in student theater productions of Shakespeare and Harold Pinter, he was cast in Daniel Torres Santeuginis dramatic short El Paso. This year marks Beltrns triple big break: his lead in Ashes, a starring role in the Spanish television series Zoo, and a turn in the Spanish version of Alan Bennetts The History Boys, appearing as Stuart Dakin. I love movies, and I want to get back in front of a camera, he says. My goal as an actor is to work until I get tired.
He adds that he cultivated this passion playing Lorca in Little Ashes: To me, Lorca was a transgressive man, a distinctive man, a genius, says Beltrn. He was ahead of his time but humble. He never forgot where he came from and what he wanted for his people. The fact that he was killed is something the Spanish will never understand. Hes an important figure because of the emotion in his words but also because he was a genuine man who loved life. I only hope I can live up to him. n
Little Ashes opens May 8.