Based on a wildly popular historical novel of the same name by Ildefonso Falcones, La Catedral del Mar (The Cathedral of the Sea) has a lot going for it. Everything was shot on location, the production values are impeccable (especially the breathtaking cinematography), and the cast is excellent. I love sweeping epic stories that meld the lives of regular people against the background of history and politics. It totally delivers on that point.
It also, very much to its credit, shows 14th century Spain with a very diverse population, which is quite accurate.
I’ll get to the however in a minute.
The story begins with the death of a serf whose son Bernat (Daniel Grao) has put off marriage because he gave up part of his inheritance for his sister’s dowry. Once his father is gone, a neighbor offers him his daughter Francesca (Natalia de Molina). Bernat and Francesca fall in love at first sight and the wedding is a joyful event.
Until the neighboring lord shows up and demands his right to the bride’s first night.
Yeah, that’s bad, but it gets worse. To prevent Francesca from claiming later that she gave birth to his bastard, the lord insists that Bernat rape her, too. To prevent more of the lord’s men from raping his new wife, he complies.
You think the Red Wedding in Game of Thrones was upsetting? That’s tiddlywinks in comparison, folks.
The lord is not through being a monster. After Francesca gives birth to a son, he insists she nurse his legitimate son and doesn’t let her attend to her own child. Her son, named Arnau, conveniently has a birthmark that runs in Bernat’s family, so there’s no doubt he’s his child. Bernat sneaks into the castle and steals him. In the process, he accidentally kills another servant. He runs away to Barcelona and begs for shelter from his sister and brother-in-law (Nora Navas and Ginés García Millán).
His brother-in-law is a successful member of the burgeoning bourgeois class in Barcelona, who happens to owe his status to Bernat giving up his inheritance. He reluctantly agrees to allow him and Arnau to stay with them. If he evades his lord for a year and a day, he becomes a free citizen of Barcelona and no longer a serf. They agree to raise Arnau with his cousins.
His cousins make Jane Eyre’s snotty cousins look positively sweet in comparison. When the youngest son dies after an ill-advised nocturnal journey to the beach, his cousin Margarida blames Arnau. The father, who can’t punish Arnau because his wife is fond of him, instead whips the children’s nanny to death.
This is where a pattern to this show begins emerging: women are constantly and explicitly brutalized. The scene of the whipping is needlessly graphic (with the actress nude on top of everything else).
Yes, I know. Women were and still are brutalized by patriarchal societies. I object to the way it’s used to spur the stories of the male characters rather than the female characters.
At this point it’s becoming obvious that the hero of the show is not Bernat, but Arnau. He finds a boy roaming the streets named Joan, whose mother has been permanently locked up by his father for adultery. He visits her daily to talk to her as she gently caresses his hair through a window.
Arnau and Joan become as close as brothers. They run into some men called “bastaixos” who bear stones from a distant quarry on their backs for the building of a magnificent cathedral, dedicated to the Virgin of the Sea. Both boys, virtually motherless, become devotees of the Virgin. Arnau is accepted into the guild by the bastaixos, and Joan is given an education by the priests, with an eye to making him a priest as well one day.
Adult Arnau (Aitor Luna) and Joan (Pablo Derqui) find their lives diverging. Arnau’s life takes surprising upturns. All the events of the 14th century are ticked off: expensive, ruinous wars, the Black Plague, the ruling class double-downing on its exploitation of the vassal class, scapegoating and progroms against the Jewish population, and finally, the Spanish Inquisition.
And of course there’s love and betrayal and heartbreak and all that good stuff you expect in this kind of story.
I really wanted to love this series, and might have if it didn’t debase almost every major female character and some of the minor ones, too. One act was SO awful, SO out of character (yes, even worse than the wedding scene in the opening episode), that I was screaming at the screen, “Oh! Oh! I’m disappointed! So disappointed in you!”
Which is a pretty good word to sum up the series: disappointing. So, no, I can’t heartily recommend it. But the scenery of my beloved Spain is a knockout.