Screen darling Robert Pattinson does it up delightfully as a young, dramatic Salvador Dali in the movie LITTLE ASHES (2008). Centering on a group of young creative geniuses in 1920s and 30s Spain, this cinematic gem was inspired by Dali’s end-of-life recollections of his university days in Madrid. Javier Beltran as Federico Garcia Lorca and Matthew McNulty as Luis Bunuel each smolder on screen, especially Beltran. I always imagined Lorca as brooding and darkly sensual and Beltran is lusciously all that. The chemistry between Lorca, Dali, and Bunuel is electric– intensified by the Roman Catholic-imposed culture of sexual repression in which they lived, painted, wrote, and made films. Within the universe of this fictional screenplay, based on some actual events, it becomes evident that these beautiful men’s passion for each other runs deep into orgiastic fantasy territory. A love triangle develops when the younger Dali arrives on the scene, disrupting a pleasant, underlying tension between close friends Lorca and Bunuel. Homophobia informed by self-hatred plus jealousy consumes a left out feeling Bunuel (McNulty), which is painful yet believable to watch.
Lorca and Dali enter a tender romance, becoming each other’s inspirational muses for a time. The world soon seems to cradle them in one continuous 3D painting and rhythmic poem. A few particularly exquisite scenes had me both smiling and tearing up, such as when Lorca strokes a contented Dali’s hair while reciting poetry to him as the two lounge on a cliff above the ocean. This made me think of a Pre-Raphaelite painting by Waterhouse, only with men in it instead of a mermaid. Later, they swim together under a full moon, clearly blissed out with life and each other. While this imagery may sound cliche/overused, it is actually fresh and effective in the movie, thanks to such artistically compelling filming, writing, and acting.
The true tragedy of Lorca is honored here in LITTLE ASHES. As I had heard and briefly read in my youth, he was a poet of deep compassion, courage, and integrity cut down so young (aged 38). We are again living in a time and place where telling the truth and resisting greed and oppression are increasingly dangerous but in urgent need of doing.
On the other side of the coin, Pattinson’s wide-eyed Dali is self-absorbed, materialistic, and sexually repressed, albeit talented and entertaining. He is an embodiment of hyper consumerism and a number of today’s public figures who we should best not fully emulate or obey.
I didn’t know what to expect from LITTLE ASHES and was pleasantly surprised and deeply moved in places. I was left wanting more, such as more scenes of the men dancing together (to thrilling period music) instead of sublimating so much of their actual longings through dancing and sexing with women. But, I remind myself that I am meant to feel that way, just as the men in the movie felt…all the time. And then I remember how grateful I am for my relative, hard-won freedom to at least live openly with another man, which no gay or bisexual men could do in early and mid twentieth century Spain.
Tender, genius men creating great art and loving each other, however awkwardly, makes for terrific cinema in LITTLE ASHES. I think I just watched a classic.