Set in fifteenth century Spain, when the nation was at the height of its imperial power and in the grip of the Inquisition, Day of Wrath (not to be confused with the 1943 Carl Dreyer classic) concerns the slaying and mutilation of several noblemen in a provincial town. Downtrodden local sheriff Ruy de Mendoza (Christopher Lambert) attempts to investigate but runs into a wall of silence seemingly orchestrated by Friar Anselmo (James Faulkner), chief inquisitor and part of a mysterious cabal of masked men out to blackmail the new governor, Lord Francisco del Ruiz (Brian Blessed). As the killings and cover-ups grow increasingly widespread, Mendoza probes the past of the first victim, who was married to the woman he first loved: Carmen de Jaramillo (Blanca Marsillach). He discovers the dead nobleman’s ancestral line does not appear on any official genealogical history. But in attempting to uncover a vast conspiracy, Mendoza is entangled in a web of deceit that threatens the lives of his wife (Szonja Oroszlán) and children.
One of those ambitious European efforts sadly lost in the slipstream of international distribution, Day of Wrath is a British-Hungarian co-production exploring a secret aspect of Spanish history. It could easily have been another muddled Euro-pudding if the screenplay by writer-director Adrian Rudomin - whose only other credit to date is the Mexican revolution drama Land of Darkness (2005) - were not so intriguing and laden with fascinating historical detail. This fits into the European tradition of period detective tales, somewhat akin to Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose (1986). Although not as multilayered in terms of its subtext, the film still weaves a compellingly dense and ambitious mystery touching on anti-Semitism, political corruption, hypocrisy amongst the ruling classes and the question of whether there is room for rationality in a world where the church defines history, knowledge and truth.
Rudomin’s awkward direction fumbles a few dramatic points and does a poor job staging the action scenes, but he crafts a winningly twisty plot and paints a vivid portrait of a Spain wracked by religious persecution, public executions in the name of Christ and cruelly manipulative power brokers. He wrongfoots viewers by seemingly presenting the conspirators from the offset then steadily subverts our expectations in several instances, notably having the killer himself prove Mendoza’s greatest asset. An ironic twist unveils a fine line between the persecuted and their persecutors, along with the hero’s own link to the crimes. Just desserts are dealt to the villains but, the film hints, at the cost of Mendoza’s soul. To a degree this comes from the blood and breasts school of historical drama, but proves more thought-provoking than your average ribald romp, despite the rampant gore.
Having latterly shed his image as a DTV action hero with an acclaimed turn art-house auteur Claire Denis’ colonial drama White Material (2009), Christopher Lambert is fine as the brooding and vulnerable hero, married to a woman who recoils from sexual intimacy and still in love with the one he lost. Lambert was often cruelly criticised for what was perceived as his vacant stare though this was more the result of his severe myopia than any shortcomings in the acting department. It is nice to see him tackling more ambitious fare. He and Marsillach - whom cult film fans may recognise from Lucio Fulci’s twisted erotic thriller The Devil’s Honey (1986) - spark well in their scenes together and both evidently had a hand in ensuring this film got made. Phyllida Law gives a commanding turn as Mendoza’s mother who, naturally, knows more about the mystery than she lets on while Brian Blessed is on fine shouty form as the seemingly oafish lord governor.