Epic subject-matter is trimmed ruthlessly down to audience-friendly size in Luis Llosa's English-language thriller, "The Feast of the Goat." Less a feast than a somewhat rushed, but thoroughly enjoyable, three-course meal, pic is incident-crammed, punchy and often gripping fare that dovetails its multiple stories with clinical skill. However, unlike the Mario Vargas Llosa's source novel, which explores the slow-burning psychological damage engendered by unlimited power, pic sacrifices nuance to narrative. Film goes out March 3 in Spain, and offshore prospects look solid beyond Hispanic territories thanks to pic's universal appeal.
In 1992, lawyer Urania Cabral (Isabella Rossellini) returns from the U.S. to the Dominican Republic which, to the bafflement of her family, she fled 31 years earlier. She has come to confront her father, Agustin (Paul Freeman), formerly a high-ranking politico in the government of Rafael Leonidas Trujillo (Tomas Milian), onetime dictator but now 80 years old and infirm.
Flash back to a 1940s' New York lecture hall, where Galindez (Gary Piquer), having denounced the Trujillo government, is arrested and flown back to the DR to meet his fate. When the case threatens to become an international incident, Trujillo has a witness, Tivito de la Maza (Jose Guillermo Cortines), killed.
Tivito's brother, Antonio (David Zayas), having visited Agustin for assistance and failed, plots revenge against Trujillo. He is one of a group of plotters waiting on a road one night in 1961 to assassinate the dictator. Much of the pic is dedicated to the plotters backstories.
In a spectacularly cruel touch, for instance, Trujillo first forbids Amadito (Juan Diego Botto), from marrying Luisa (Sharlene Taule), the sister of a subversive (Frank Perozo), and then forces Amadito to execute the brother. Both Amadito and the condemned man's father (Murphy Guyer) join the plotters.
Pic teems with stories and characters that are juggled well, and it adds up to a gripping, if breathless, couple of hours. Script manages to suggest much about the relationship between the personal and the political, and about the hollowness of power, but no space is created for reflection. Llosa's background as a director of no-nonsense action-thrillers is clear throughout.
Thesps are efficient. Milian is tops as the whimsical old tyrant luxuriating in his own physical and moral decay. Other standout perf is from Freeman as Agustin, particularly as he starts to break down toward the end. Trujillo's vicious right-hand man, Abbes (Shawn Elliot), is one of the novel's most memorable characters, but his dramatic potential is not exploited. Rossellini, who appears only in the 1992 scenes, is fine but looks isolated.
Javier Salmones' lensing makes the most of the widescreen format and of the rich colors of the Dominican Republic locations, particularly in outdoor scenes dedicated to Trujillo's vast, absurd rallies. Music is efficient.
Camera (color, widescreen), Javier Salmones; editor, Alejandro Lazaro; music, Stephen Warbeck; art director, Salvador Parra; sound (Dolby Digital), Peter Glossop. Reviewed at Cine Palafox, Madrid, Feb. 14, 2006. (In Berlin Film Festival -- Berlinale Special.) Running time: 125 MIN.