A pleasant “old-fashioned” production when it was released, The Mask of Zorro has become, twenty-five years later, a surprisingly melancholy object, encapsulating in its purple horizons, its funny pirouettes and its duels with speckled foils, a certain idea of entertainment. Would the perfect antidote to our times be wearing a wolf and an Andalusian hat?
The Mask of Zorro can be seen again this Sunday at 9 p.m. on Arte.
Zorro will not have survived the 20th century. Created around twenty years before his alter-comics, Batman, the cunning fox who rules the roost now belongs to a submerged world, that of station novels, serials and Wednesday afternoon TV shows. His super-masked descendants have taken over the entertainment, self-defense and children’s bedroom industries.
Today, Monterey, the town of Don Diego, therefore rather evokes an operating system for MacBook, the surname of Vega refers to a duo-brother from the Top 50 and it is impossible without Google to affirm with certainty that Torpedo is not It’s not actually called Tornado. So yes, of course, there remains the song (made in Disney) and the name (which he signs at the point of the sword), as if forever intertwined in the collective unconscious, but not much else .
Modest Spielberg production from the end of the 90s, The Mask of Zorro of Martin Campbell celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. With the passage of time, it seems to have taken on a certain consistency, probably due to the rarefaction of this type of spectacle. It sees itself not only as a film of the 20th century, but above all as a film which says goodbye to this century, a bit like another Hollywood summit released a few weeks earlier, Titanic.
A Bondian Zorro
Campbell also starts from an ambition quite close to that of Cameron: to seize a genre which is living its last hours (the disaster film on the one hand, that of cloak and dagger on the other) and squeeze out the last drops before leaving room. The Zorro ofAntonio Banderas will therefore visit less the mythology of its hero than that of a genre of which he was once the incarnation (from the Douglas Fairbanks era to that of Tyrone Power, let’s say). And then go away. Without hurrying.
It starts very strong, with a Bondian prologue (Campbell has just come out of the success of GoldenEye), where we witness the last stand of a young father Zorro, once again delivering poor Mexicans from the Spanish yoke. We can guess from the first close-ups the clear eyes ofAnthony Hopkins behind the mask (the somersaults performed in the air allow you to be less categorical about your identity) and you will have to believe hard as iron in this de-aging particularly rudimentary if you want to have a little fun.
No chance of Hannibal Lecter crossing swords with such flexibility, that’s for sure, but what’s the problem? From the outset, it’s as if the film is asking us to lay down our weapons and pretend. As if an old Englishman, knighted and trained by Laurence Olivier, could really play a hidalgo swordsman in the prime of life. As if time had stopped somewhere in the early 1950s, between Scaramouche And The Prisoner of Zenda. As if the conventions had never changed since.
We go back to Zorro
After this succulent introduction, The Mask of Zorro will allow himself to send Don Diego de la Vega to the penal colony, his wife ad patres and his young daughter into the clutches of his worst enemy. An ellipse of twenty-five years then informs us that this story will not be (completely) his, but rather that of the fiery Alejandro Murrieta (played by Banderas), whom he will train following his successful escape and his declared osteoarthritis. .
This removal of the Don Diego myth, and his installation as a simple aging mentor, will be almost the only concession that the film will grant to its time. It must be put into perspective all the more as it is also a very faithful adaptation of the last novel written by the creator of Zorro, Johnston McCulley, at the end of the 1950s.
In fact, we are witnessing a strange industrial idea: relaunching the “brand” while taking over the last official adventure of the character (eight years later, Martin Campbell will realize that he is all the same more convenient to start from the origins with Casino Royale, reboot model with a contemporary twist). Zorro is dead, long live Zorro: so much for the high-concept, this thing that 90s loved so much.
Don Diego’s batcave
And after that, it’s time to get down to business. Not so serious after all, since The Mask of Zorro is so obsessed with sounding old-fashioned that he sometimes resembles good old Mel Brooks. Here, the color of the skies systematically reflects the moods of the heroes, the stalls of the Mexican markets display the juiciest fruits seen since Genesis, and the big bad (who is called Mr. Love) collects the heads of his enemies to display them in huge jars filled with formalin.
However, it is never presented as a fetishistic style exercise, just as a formulation, a language in its own right. All this works very well because each cog in the production line benefits from extraordinary care. THE matte paintings, very visible, are beautiful to tears, each stone of Don Diego’s batcave was lovingly cut by some kind of genius, the silk of Banderas’ shirt sends shivers and certain waterfalls seem designed to make Jackie Chan scream with rage ( summit: Zorro jumping from the roof of the fourth floor to land like a charm on his horse, all captured in a single and inexplicable static shot). All this is of course guaranteed without digital images, but this is not a pre-Nolanian posture, simply obvious. This Zorro is not here to rant, just to have fun.
The end of an era
And yes, we don’t make films like that anymore. That’s the whole project, to make us feel that the curtain on the screen is going to fall. After the fun, the sword duels and the pirouettes, there will be a world that will be swallowed up. When old Don Diego de la Vega takes his last breath just after the final skirmish, it is the Titanic which sinks in dead silence for Cameron and the 20th century which tiptoes away.
The industrial intuition was the right one, adapting the last novel in the saga to give birth to a terminal object. The plan was followed to the letter. Made of a material that will never be used in films again, The Mask of Zorro yet seems barely aware of its melancholic grandeur. It is more and more palpable as he takes more of the bottle and we see that no one has dared to do something like this again.
25 years ago, Spielberg predicted the future of Antonio Banderas on the set of Zorro
Part of its beauty lies in that. We can then wonder, but not for long, about the existence of this late sequel (The Legend of Zorro in 2005 by more or less the same team) which methodically reversed the established course (by succumbing to one-upmanship, to winks, to digital technology, to branding fever). We can also pretend we’ve never heard of it (in fact you’ve all forgotten it) and watch The Mask of Zorro like an authentic one-shot, a story that fundamentally calls for no other.
At the end, the old Zorro is no more, and the new one preferred to become a dad, because it’s still less tiring. There is no longer any question of emerging out of the night and even less of running towards adventure at a gallop. The fox has returned to its burrow, soon everyone will have forgotten it.