Documentary Review — “Salvador Dali: In Search of Immortality,” three hours earn an “incomplete”

 The endlessly fascinating figure of artist, provocateur and artistic bon vivant Salvador Dalí has been dissected on film before, but rarely with the detail that “Salvador Dalí : In Search of Immortality” does.

It’s a psychological biography, emphasizing the childhood trauma that drove him, the paranoia that he fed on (not always his own) and the psyche behind the 20th century’s greatest surrealist painter.

Few artists turned themselves into the grand, dapper-to-the-point-of-foppish public figure Dalí did. He set out to outrage and often succeeded.

An early fascination with film and a lifelong love affair with “media” ensures that there is a treasure trove of footage of Dalí painting, creating “performance art” before the phrase had been coined, and being interviewed by the likes of Mike Wallace, Dick Cavett and others, a wit with a flair for self-promotion, a walking “meme” before that was a thing.

His obsession with fried eggs, which manifested in many a wilted, draped image (clocks, most famously) in his art, his insistence that he remembered the “paradise” he experienced “in utero,” his pointed decision to “make myself seem eccentric to set myself apart” are all explored.

The film is packaged here in chapters covering his early years, 1904-1929, or from Dalí’s birth, near Barcelona, up to his arrival as an international sensation in Paris, climaxing with the avant garde short film “Un Chien Andalou (An Andalusian Dog),” made with his friend and art school classmate, future film legend Luis Buñuel.

“It had neither Andalusians nor dogs,” Dalí famously quipped. “I shall be a genius and the world will admire me,” he predicted. And to ensure that he stood out, even before that happened, “I let my hair grow long, long as a girl’s,” inspired by his favorite Grand Master, Raphael’s long-haired self-portrait.

Other chapters cover his years of rising fame with his muse, Gala, and his enfeebled final years after her death.

Using archival interviews blended with opinions of the principal in-house experts of the painter’s museums (in conversation with the filmmaker at significant Dalí “sites”), and lots of voice-over narration from Dalí’s autobiography, letters to and from his wife and muse, Gala, his many friends and admirers, we gain a deep understanding of the autobiography that drove the work. The older brother with the same name who died before Dalí was born haunted him his entire life.

There are clips from some of the filmmakers he worked with (Hitchcock, most famously, but he planned an animated film, “Destino,” with Walt Disney and did sets for productions of Luchino Visconti), and archival interviews with other admirers. Thanks to all that, and generous samplings of Dalí’s art, we get a very good picture of his sources of inspiration and the obsessions of his life, which of course drove his art.

But despite the lengthy running time, there’s little of the “personal” Dalí, the scandals of his life and late career (allegedly signing canvases when his hand was too shaky to create the art attributed to him), his flirtation with fascism and endorsement of the Spanish dictator Franco, stealing another man’s wife only to cheat on her with others over the decades.

There’s next to nothing of his New York years, famous and cutting quite the figure, friend to Mia Farrow and anybody who was anyone in the swinging ’60s into the ’70s.

The film, Gala-Salvador Dalí Foundation-produced and thus officially endorsed by his estate, had a theatrical release that was ran just under two hours. In this new form, it’s half again as long if not necessarily more illuminating. You could make a pretty interesting Dalí documentary on what they chose to intentionally leave out.

Most fascinating here are the scenes set at his house at Portlligat, on the extreme northeastern Mediterranean coast of Spain, of the castle Púbol he bought for his wife and muse, Gala, and his hometown, Figueres, where he built his Dalí Theater-Museum, the most immersive Dalí experience of any museum featuring his work.

There’s also a discussion of his relationship to Picasso and an extended look at his closest famous friends, the poet Federico García Lorca, filmmaker Buñuel and painters Joan Miró and Juan Gris.

So what’s here is engrossing, if somewhat repetitious, with so many letters, so many interludes with the hand-picked home-team experts as to take on an air of tedium.

And that’s the last word you’d think to associate with Salvador Dalí.

MPA Rating: unrated, nudity

Cast: Salvador Dali, Alfred Hitchcock

Credits: Directed by David Pujol, script by Montse Aguer, David Pujol. A Film Movement+ release.

Running time: In three parts, 174 minutes

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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