This post may contain spoilers. Read at your own discretion.
Before author Stephenie Meyer revived the vampire craze, Robert Pattinson landed the opportunity to play one of history’s most well-known and immensely disliked pioneers of art. The title derived from one of Salvador Dalí’s paintings, “Little Ashes” is a film about the passionate relationship between poet Federico García Lorca and artist Salvador Dalí and is set during a time when extreme social conservatism still had a vice-grip on Spanish society.
University commences for the intelligent youth of Spain. Federico García Lorca (played by Javier Beltrán), followed by his friend film student Luis Buñuel (played by Matthew McNulty), saunters to the supervisor of the university dorm with a copy of his new book. People appear to react in awe to their presence, hinting at the idea of a high status in the institute.
Arriving on campus is an eighteen-year-old Salvador Dalí (played by Robert Pattinson). The moment he steps out of his car, it is revealed he is wearing clothing considered very peculiar to the rest of the university students. He is shown to his room, and for the initial part of the academic term, he keeps to himself by drawing and painting. However, there is already apparent attraction — or mutual curiosity, at least — between Salvador and Federico.
His self-imposed solace is broken when Luis walks into his room while he is painting, introducing himself shortly after sizing up Salvador and interrogating him about his name, academic major, and other areas of interest. Luis yells for the other members of this elite circle of unique thinkers — including Federico — to enter Salvador’s room. It is act of initiation into the group, and the two central characters are formally acquainted.
Salvador rapidly changes his physical image to become accepted, and the result is positively received by his new peers. In spite of his pressed clothes and carefully oil-slicked hair, there is an inner filth in Salvador. In a society where etiquette is highly valued, inconsistency with good manners was met with condemnation. Federico, though a writer with a published work to his name, has a lot to hide. Spain, during the twenties and thirties, various forms of social conservatism had a stronghold on Spanish society, and modern ways of thinking is viewed as dangerous. Federico harbours many of these thoughts, and to further malign himself with his conservative Spanish Catholic upbringing, he is also gay. An extremely closeted one, at that. During a social gathering, Salvador abruptly outs him, so to speak, by making him recite one of his poems that casts a blanket of unpleasant silence to all those partaking in the meal. The rush of that open rebellion causes Federico and Salvador to become closer, and they begin to spend more time together. They share their bizarre ideas and aspirations for the future.
In time, Federico and Salvador’s close friendship causes Luis to become intrigued. Feeling that he is becoming the third wheel of this friendship, he takes off to search for his ambitions. During the holidays, Federico goes to Salvador’s hometown, where he is embraced by the family, and the two continue to hone their respective skills in total isolation. One night, the friendship escalates to another level.
Their relationship ends as quickly as it becomes intimate. Salvador, frightened over the one night they almost consummate their relationship, flees Spain for Paris to find his niche as an artist. He leaves behind a hurt Federico with many unanswered questions. In order to heal from the heartbreak, Federico proceeds to follow through with his travelling theatre idea to promote his liberal ideals. His project is a success, and while on tour, he reconciles with Luis.
Federico gets back in touch with Salvador after some years, and decides to visit him in Paris. The one who answers the door is a different Salvador Dalí than he remembers — and in the worst way possible.
There isn’t not much to spoil about this film, because it is based on people who did exist. “Little Ashes” is a film that particularly interested me because the Federico García Lorca and Salvador Dalí are pinnacle figures of my IB Higher English class and my college freshman Art History class, respectively. It is through this film where I learnt of their association. Though writer and director of the film may have taken some liberties in certain parts of that pocket of history, it is an interesting take on the battle of Spain’s freedom from the shackles of intellectual, political, artistic, gender, and romantic oppression.
I’ll be honest: I am not a Robert Pattinson fan. He does not capture my attention as Cedric Diggory in “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire”, and I’m still nursing the mental wounds I sustained from being dragged by a guy to see “New Moon”. (You know who you are.) But I also don’t hate him. He has consistently given me the impression of an actor who happened to capture the appeal of fans from various age groups, particularly those with an overly romanticised notion of the undead. The latter is clearly a question of taste, but he moves the bar slightly upward in “Little Ashes”.
In general, I think Pattinson’s performance is not half bad. But his attempt at the Spanish accent is not only inconsistent, but the most successful instances pass as dreadful. On the upside, there is one scene where I found Pattinson’s acting noteworthy.
The scene takes places towards the end of the film, when the execution of Federico has been confirmed. Federico and Salvador’s friends have gathered in one of their old haunts and are listening to the official statement on the radio. Magdalena is the first to openly react to the news, and the scene shifts to Salvador combating with his own. Holding a paintbrush dipped in black paint, he proceeds to fill his canvas with a grievous flourish, going over the same areas obsessively in almost and ironically like that of Piet Mondrian until his emotions can no longer contain himself that he sinks into the wetness in tears, staining his pressed clothing in the colour of mourning. Back in Madrid, their friends drink to their fallen comrade. Salvador is then summoned by his wife, Gala, blissfully unaware of the tragedy that just unfolded, to meet a guest. His clothing and face, now bearing the inverted print of his painting — such that his mustache almost looks like part of the black mess — remains unclean. He grabs his cape, and in the true Dalí-an manner, proceeds downstairs to meet the visitor. (To watch the scene, it is available on YouTube.)
This film comes off more of as a coming-of-age film that explores homosexuality between two men in unversity, and does not do enough justice to the characters as figures of our history. I love the roaring twenties fashion used during the film, and the acting in general pans out as average. If anything, “Little Ashes” reminds me, as someone in the creative industry, of the many who made hefty sacrifices to give artists not only the freedom to be creative but also the freedom to live.