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Tirant lo Blanc (2016)

Don Quixote and Byzantium might seem like strange bedfellows and yet there is a clear link between the two. That’s because Cervantes was inspired in the writing of his great work by the Valencian novel Tirant lo Blanc, which he referenced several times. That brief brush with fame has ensured that Tirant has never dropped into the musty obscurity which so many of the other chivalric romances have. Perhaps that is why in 2006 the Spanish director Vincente Aranda chose to adapt the book and bring the Byzantine struggles of the 14th century to life.


The book itself was written by the Valencian knight Joanot Martorell and posthumously finished by his friend Marti Joan de Galba. It tells the story of the eponymous knight, who travels from his native Brittany on chivalric adventures before being recruited by the Byzantine Emperor to fight off the Turks threatening Constantinople. There he is made a Megaduke, falls in love with the beautiful daughter of the Emperor, and defeats the Turks before dying shortly before he is able to marry his beloved.


In contrast to many of the chivalric tales then in vogue, its characters are more realistic, it dispenses with the most romantic flourishes, and features detailed descriptions on the intricacies of waging a medieval campaign. Like many medieval works of fiction, the plot tends to ramble on and is often highly episodic but full of incident and character. Few readers will be able to forget the abrupt change in tone when Tirant beheads a black gardener who he suspects is romping with his beloved, only to become full of passion when he realises he was wrong; about the headless menial there is not the least contrition.


Nonetheless it is a fascinating insight into the 15th century. Written only a few years after the Fall of Constantinople, it bends history to have its hero throw back the Turkish assault and kill the Sultan. The actual siege of 1453 was rather more notable for its lack of Latin support for the Byzantines. Perhaps the shock at the fall of the last great stronghold of the Roman Empire after over a millenia and the contrition of the West can be measured in the way Martorell creates an alternative history where it survives, thanks to the fighting skill of the Latins.


In order to do this, Martorell drew on the story of the Roger de Flor and his mercenary Catalan Company. These hardy soldiers, drawn from the ranks of the unemployed warriors left after the close of the War of the Sicilian Vespers, were hired by the Byzantine Emperor to fight the Turks which they did so successfully that Michael IX Palaiologos, the Emperor’s son, sent a group of Alan mercenaries to murder de Flor. The Company survived this treachery, defeated several armies sent against it, and eventually moved to Greece where they defeated the Latin duchies there and established themselves. Their decendents were conquered by the Turks in 1456, only shortly after the fall of Constantinople itself.


This then is the source and the history on which the 2006 film was based. With a budget of 14 million euros, a European cast with some good actors in it, and a successful Spanish director - albeit one not well known outside of Spain - it seems promising on paper. Unfortunately the film’s many good points are submerged by the director’s libido. Yes, this is a European film with artistic pretensions; and if we learn anything by the end of the film it’s definitely that the director is a boob man. It isn’t to disparage the boobs, many of which do sterling service, but once they come out the film rather loses its way and settles into a series of unrobings.


The film does have its merits. The costuming is lavish, dreary stereotypes about scheming eunuchs and muddy peasants are avoided, the chivalry of the romance is faithfully reproduced - as is the rather earthier goings on among their attendants, and the sheer uniqueness of the story and its setting mean it retains interest throughout.


However the film suffers two great flaws. One of these is clearly the budget. When most of the action takes place at the court, this is less of an issue. Once the story moves beyond the walls of Constantinople however we are faced with battles which the budget cannot provide. The result is some rather awful camera-work which, in attempting to disguise the lack of extras, only serves to emphasise the issue. Slowing down the individual blows so they take on an abstract, blurred look reduces the tension and, in the climactic fight when a hobbled Tirant fights an equally disabled Sultan on his knees, lends an unfortunate comedic edge to the proceedings.

The other great flaw is that the romantic-political intrigue becomes so overly sexualised that it ends up feeling less like a medieval romance and more like a melodramatic telenovela. With so much of the plot invested in the endless attempts to secure the maidenhead of the heroine, the story bogs down in repetition. That said, it has to be admired for it's vivid depiction of disabled medieval sexuality. Injured in the legs and unable to stand, Tirant is finally able to achieve his wish with the help of his knights who hold him up and move him 'in and out' of his beloved in one of the more memorable sex scenes in film history.

Ultimately this film is a curiosity. It is always a cause for celebration to see a medieval book adapted for cinema. For a lover of Byzantium it also provides an interesting look into how the Latin West saw the Eastern Roman Empire. Unfortunately it is not an especially good film, nor easy to find, and therefore it is perhaps more advisable to read the book than watch the film. 

I didn't find the DVD on Amazon or any online store, not even on eBay, so for all interested in courtly intrigue in the Byzantine Empire, you can by the book the film is based on for a bargain on Amazon.

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