Beneath the briny, where Davy Jones’ Locker is home to the bodies of thousands of dead sailors who lost their lives on the high seas, there be treasure. Frank Wild (Stanley Tucci) has never let go of his boyhood dreams of roaming the world turning up buried jewels and ships’ figureheads and letting pieces of eight run through his light fingers, although he has come up with some distinctly adult ploys to make that possible. Are they legal? Perhaps extra-legal would be the right expression. Think black ops. At the very least, there are some shady characters involved, the kinds of people captured by long lenses in police investigations.
In the first episode of La Fortuna, a six-part series that is an American-Spanish co-production written and directed by Alejandro Amenábar and premiered in the official selection at the San Sebastian Film Festival, Wild’s deep-sea salvage company Atlantis is celebrating its recovery of a huge haul of gold and silver coins from a wreck near Gibraltar that is believed to be that of La Fortuna, a Spanish ship blown up by the British in 1805. La Fortuna was known to be carrying gold gathered all over South America to fund the Spanish war effort. Wild and his crew claim to have found it by chance. Now the Spanish government wants it back.
Amenábar has based his script on a popular Spanish graphic novel called El Tesoro del Cisne Negro, by Paco Roca and Guillermo Corral, which was in turn based on the real story of the Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes, a Spanish frigate sunk in 1804 by the British navy and salvaged by a Florida company called Odysseus Marine Exploration in 2007. The Spanish government fought a succession of legal battles over several years to recover the 600,000 coins, estimated at the time to be worth $500,000.
Mostly, however, this is the story of the unlikely A-Team who get the job done. Alex (Alvaro Mel) is a callow and buttoned-up new graduate recently recruited into the culture ministry and singled out by the minister for his enthusiasm; Lucia (Ana Polvorosa), a free-wheeling rebel working in historical preservation; and Jonas Pierce, (Clarke Peters) an American specialist in marine law with a puzzlingly passionate commitment to the Spanish cause. Once Wild and his virago of a legal adviser (T’Nia Miller) lay claim to the coins, Spain has only seven days to make a counter-claim in the American courts. They’re up against it, which is exactly where wily Wild wants them.
This is a strange, soupy hybrid of courtroom drama, Indiana Jones fantasies and an Iberian version of The Office; the Ministry of Culture, which is the locus for most of the action, is morally righteous but a right muddle, which Amenábar milks for needed laughs. Otherwise, there isn’t so much a dramatic arc to this story as a tidal flow and ebb, waves of events breaking gently on the narrative’s shore.
Legal wrangles go back and forth repeatedly while, behind the scenes, Alex and Lucia kindle, smother and then re-kindle a relationship. Jonas Pierce and Wild also have a relationship, as it turns out, that goes back to student days, when Jonas lost his brother to one of Wild’s mad schemes. This time, like every time they rub up against each other, it’s personal. Not that it feels especially personal; emotions are stated rather than felt.
La Fortuna is never less than watchable, but it is never emphatic enough to be compelling. Even a car chase involving two huge semi-trailers and some feral drivers armed to the teeth with weapons and machismo, which promises to be a climactic Fast and Furious thrill, fizzles almost instantly, dissolving into the flow of events. The tone is reflective, and often ironic; Guillermo Corral, a former director-general of the Ministry of Culture who wrote the graphic novel, said at the time that his interest was in writing about the business of government.
Along the way, there is also a good deal of sententious moralizing about the importance of heritage and culture to any decent society and to the land of Velasquez and Cervantes in particular. “Culture is our oil,” says the Minister for Culture (Karra Elejalde) solemnly, after pointing out that the huckstering United States doesn’t have a cultural ministry at all. Well, that’s true enough.
But you can’t tell a story about the importance of cultural patrimony, surely, without acknowledging that colonial Spain was itself a world-beating plunderer; museums full of pre-Columbian booty in every major Spanish city are the living proof of that. When Spain finally won against Odysseus in 2012, Peru intervened with a last-ditch attempt to stop the treasure being transferred, pointing out that the coins were pressed at the Lima mint from gold mined in South America. Amenábar tidies that away with two lines of dialogue. Perhaps that’s a story for another day.
La Fortuna will premiere later this year on Movistar+ in Spain as well as AMC+ in the U.S., Canada, Latin America and the Caribbean.