Alejandro Amenabar’s TV debut is a contemplation of the value of culture
In treasure-hunting films, the great achievement by characters is in becoming immensely wealthy after having beaten the puzzles and tricks set before them. Little attention is paid to who the treasure truly belongs to, and whether simply taking it is just as bad as the looting that pirates perform. Such is the central question at the heart of Alejandro Amenabar’s first miniseries La Fortuna (2021).
La Fortuna is the true story of a sunken Spanish ship carrying treasure from the Americas in the 19th century. In the 2010s an American treasure-hunter named Frank Wild (Stanley Tucci) discovers the wreck at the bottom of the Gibraltar Straight. However, when the Spanish government gets wind of it, it decides to battle for the property rights of the treasure. Thus, the lowly government employees at the Ministry of Culture, Alex (Alvaro Mel) and Lucia (Ana Polvorosa) are tasked with figuring out a way to reclaim the treasure.
Amenabar is a director that has always been fascinated with identity throughout his films, whether it be the nature of reality (Open Your Eyes (1997), The Others (2001)) or how we define ourselves as a culture (Agora (2009), While at War (2019)). This fascination comes to a head as the Chilean-Spanish director explores the clash of Spanish and American cultures in La Fortuna. Amenabar’s shift to a televised structure is a rather smooth one, taking advantage to not only dole out his social commentary, but also dig into the type of difficult romances that he’s always adored.
Amenabar deftly sets the stage for arguing and counter-arguing culture and the value that nations place behind it. Doing this within Spain, where the sense of cultural pride seems more like an underground movement, is particularly affecting. While Pedro Almodóvar’s newest film Parallel Mothers (2021) seeks to show the importance of history and truth in healing a traumatic past, La Fortuna seeks to show that reclaiming your history and pride can be equally healing and cathartic. What is a nation without its culture? Simply some lines in the sand and a shared tongue? It is this macro question regarding national identity that is at the core of La Fortuna’s explorations. Curiously, Amenabar diagnoses that the people who truly appreciate Spanish culture most are foreigners who visit, as exemplified by the Americans in the series. It is the wakening of a sense of cultural identity that becomes the rallying call for the Spanish characters.
Within the sociological commentary in La Fortuna, Amenabar is also able to craft affecting character stories for Alex and Lucia. As with much of Amenabar’s work, the timed use of comedy with his characters is key to endear them to viewers. Such is the case with Alex and Lucia, but also with smaller roles such as the Culture Minister (Karra Elejalde) and lawyer Jonas Pierce (Clarke Peters). The use of these nuggets of humor humanizes the characters, giving a complexity that many screenwriters struggle to construct throughout long speeches. As such, viewers become equally engrossed in the fate of the treasure as that of the character relationships.
Amenabar brings forth a mix of talent in La Fortuna. We have veteran English-speaking actors such as Tucci and Peters mixed with the up-and-coming stars of Polvorosa and Mel. As with any Amenabar film, the emphasis on understatement and subtlety is primed above big showcases. This is particularly appreciated with Tucci, who can make his character appear less of a villain than a frustrated man. However, Amenabar does let one cast member run wild, and viewers are all the more thankful for it, this being Elejalde. Elejalde only has a handful of scenes in the series, and yet can retain such a memorable presence through his deep dive into humor and bombast, that you miss every scene he’s not in.
In the end, La Fortuna is a strong television debut for Amenabar that continues his thematic exploration national identity, providing an interesting companion piece to his previous film While at War, which dealt with the Spanish Civil War. The rather deft cross-cultural commentary at Americans and Spaniards, and solid character construction makes La Fortuna a true find of a series.