DVD Review: Stella Cadente


★★★☆☆
The brief three-year reign of King Amadeo of Savoy is the unlikely focus of Lluís Miñarro's Stella Cadente which is new to DVD from Second Run. Miñarro's mischievous period piece is a wryly offbeat drama that explores the opaque crevasse of loneliness and despair in a hallucinatory and unhurried fashion. Amid the violent social upheavals of 1870 Amadeo of Savoy (Àlex Brendemühl) was elected King of Spain. He comes to the role with big ideas, declaring himself a "Republican king", determined to make a change by focusing on education and the redistribution of wealth. Sadly, public opinion in Spain is still strongly against the monarchy and Amadeo's trusted advisers insist that he abdicates post haste.

When Amadeo refuses to give up his rightfully claimed crown, the metaphorically castrated king finds himself confined to a remote rural castle with only his loyal assistant (Lorenzo Balducci) and a few servants for company. What transpires is a lurid and surreal journey through the castle's lonesome halls and a glimpse into the madness that consumes a king unable to wield the authority of his position. Director Miñarro mounts his absurdist historical drama within an audaciously ornate framework of deadpan humour, anachronistic musical numbers and a blatant disregard for rational thought. An erotic charge of intellectualism runs parallel to the film's exquisite period aesthetic, resulting in a curiously watchable amalgamation of high art, historical revisionism and childish mischief.

Eschewing conventional storytelling techniques in an attempt to explore the psyche of its regal protagonist, Stella Cadente feels more like a performance art piece than a period biopic, positioning itself within a surreal labyrinth rich in lurid imagery that's totally disorientating. From a jewel encrusted tortoise crawling into the frame, to the sight of a man engaging in carnal relations with a melon, Miñarro's extravagant tale evolves into a sensory trip back through time that's hard to dislodge from your subconscious. Whilst this salacious bravura and opulent disregard for conventional storytelling is a welcome contrast to some of the dreary and uninspiring historical epics we've seen, the wilfully obnoxious approach employed by Miñarro can, at times become overbearing.

Comparisons could be made with Albert Serra's farcical Story of My Death, which explored the transition from enlightenment to the passions and frivolity of romanticism. However, whilst Serra's films plunge into the darkest depths of depravity, Stella Cadente is a much more carefree excursion in the annals of history. Sadly the films crisp digital camera work makes it hard to immerse yourself entirely within the narrative, with this inability to suspend your disbelief making events feel more like a staged play than a hallucinatory representation of the past. Miñarro's idiosyncratic vision of a despondent monarchy may fail to ultimately coalesce, but it's certainly a unique and perplexing experience to savour.

Patrick Gamble | @PatrickJGamble

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