Arde Madrid! (Burn Madrid Burn!) -- With Help From Ava Gardner

Sandra Bertrand


Charismatic, enthralling, gorgeous, irrepressible and maddening—you could work your way through an alphabet of adjectives, and they’d all fit one of the most memorable film stars of the 20th century.  With Ava Gardner as the central character of MHz’s award-winning eight-part Spanish TV series (with subtitles), who needs a plot?


Of course, Arde Madrid!— co-written and directed by Paco Leon and Anna R. Corta, starring American actress Debi Mazar (Entourage) as Ava—has a story of sorts, with all the bawdy absurdity you could ever wish for and enough sex to keep binge-watchers awake well into the night.  But even with a Venus fixed squarely in the firmament, a few stellar players to light up the sky never hurts.


Ana Mari, played with deadpan precision by Inma Cuesta, is a prim, club-footed Catholic school teacher recruited by the Franco regime of the early 1960s to spy on the film star. Along with Manolo (Paco Leon), a vain and bumbling loser, they present themselves on her doorstep as a married cook and chauffeur team.  The farce grows like a bevy of clowns spilling out of a Volkswagen. 



There’s Ana Mari’s schizoid brother, in and out of enough tight spots with the authorities to put his sister in this compromised position.  Add to this combustible mix the innocent and pregnant housemaid Pilar (Anna Castillo), the former General Peron, exiled from Argentina with a new wife, then a gangster or two, a missing necklace (Ava’s naturally), transvestites, and a drunken flamenco party to spice up the tale.


Questionable perhaps if this frolicsome but thin house of cards would hold fast for eight episodes without Debi Mazar’s deliciously camp performance as Ava.  It’s a risky part to play when the entire plot revolves around Spain’s obsession with the star.  Mazar, thankfully, is up to the task. If she is a little less statuesque, a little less elegant in this reincarnation, she is as tough and tender, as hard-edged and lovable—drunk or sober—as we could ask for.



In an ET interview with Katie Krause, Mazar thanked Frank Sinatra. When she met Sinatra (Ava’s second husband) 27 years ago backstage at the Greek Theatre, he told her she reminded him of the actress and that convinced her she was up to the challenge.  She lived in Spain for several months to prepare for the part, soaking up the Castilian world in the script.  Ava, she felt, was “a woman ahead of her time.”


There are enough allusions to the star’s life in this tale for a younger audience to be intrigued.  References to her great affection for “Papa” Hemingway are well founded.  Ava made three films based on his stories: The Killers with Burt Lancaster, The Snows of Kilmanjairo with Gregory Peck, and The Sun Also Rises with Humphrey Bogart, forming a fast friendship with the author.  Mazar’s free-wheeling character defends her “Papa’s” philosophy that “it’s the castration of desire that is indecent.”


Mazar as Ava is joined at the hip with her dog in the film.  In Lee Server’s 2006 biography, he quotes Ava as saying about her beloved pet, “She bites photographers at the airport, just like her mistress.”  In the time period of the story, Ava is 40 and Mazar, now middle-aged in her own career, manages to project through her feisty, who-gives-a-damn attitude, a world-weariness that is spot-on.  In the same biography, she admits her love of Spain was largely because “it has the same faults as I do,” but that “I stayed there for too long.”



Still, however long or short her stay, Ava Gardner made an indelible impression on the Spaniards—her love of the bullring, and bullfighters in general, both her beauty and sensuality were a perfect fit for the male-dominated culture.  


It’s easy to see why the filmmakers chose her as their subject.  Enhanced by Ale Acosta’s score, the black-and-white cinematography is first-rate, providing a La Dolce Vita feel to the entire series.


The winner of a prestigious Rose d’Or Award for Best Comedy or Drama, this Mhz Choice series should be a hot topic of conversation for seasons to come.


(Arde Madrid! premiered May 5, 2020, on Mhz TV.)


Author Bio:

Sandra Bertrand is Highbrow Magazine’s chief art critic.


For Highbrow Magazine


Image Sources:

--Courtesy of Mhz TV

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