Shot in Costa Rica in 1988, 'El Dorado' is one of a rare breed, a Spanish film about its own role in America in the 16th century. However, this film doesn't tell a story of glory and conquest, but one of failure and slow descent into madness.
The story is about an expedition down the Orinoco river in 1560, undertaken by Spanish soldiers with the aim of finding the famed land of El Dorado, where gold is supposedly plentiful. I suppose that it is not a spoiler to say that the place doesn't exist and that what the expeditioners find is something completely different.
The film is 142 minutes long, and not exactly action-packed, so a prospective viewer should realise that the leisurely pace is meant to reflect the utter boredom provoked by the long and uneventful days in the journey, but these 'dead' days, as in many expeditions, are punctuated by moments of high intensity and tension in which the travellers will have to react to the challenges thrown at them by the jungle... or by themselves. In this sense the film is a study on how to face (or not) insurmountable obstacles in extreme conditions, in particular when greed, pride and lust are thrown into the mix.
The filming on location does half the job for the film-makers. The river and the jungle are like one additional character, and one can feel the stuffy Old-worlders slowly stewing under their heavy shirts and armour as the days pass. I find a bit of fault with the way Lope de Aguirre, the main character, is played. The film goes for understated menace from a quietly unscrupulous man, which ends up adding to the slowness of the film. Of course, that's the director's choice, but I feel that a bit of energy and feeling of danger coming from the villain of the piece would have been welcome.
All in all, it's an effort that meant a lot for Spanish cinema in the 1980s, having been filmed only four years before the 5th centenary of the discovery of America and just a decade into full democracy after the Franco dictatorship. But it if has to be enjoyed, one must come with 'Apocalypto' Mode firmly shut off.
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