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'Cathedral of the Sea' Series Review

This smaller scale Netflix collaboration sets the standard for future historical dramas.

Released: 23rd May 2018 (Spain)

Created by: Hugo Arbues and Abel Viton

Number of Episodes: 8

Where to Watch: Netflix

Starring: Aitor Luna, Daniel Grao, Pablo Derqui, Michelle Jenner, Andrea Duro, Gines Garcia Millan, Ali El Aziz, Nora Navas, Alain Hernandez, Lucia Diez and Jorge Kent

High fantasy and historical dramas have certainly exploded in popularity in the current; Game of Thrones, The Last Kingdom, Vikings; these are just some of the franchises that have enthralled viewers with an enormous amount of money put into their production. For Netflix however, a smaller scale series from Spain was released; La Catedral Del Mar has managed to set the standard for all similar productions to follow.

Based on the book by Ildefonso Falcones and taking place in 14th Century Spain, the series follows a Serf (an agricultural farmer tied to a lord in the feudal system) named Bernat Estanyol (Daniel Grao) whose marriage to Francesca (Natalia de Molina) ends in brutal humiliation. To escape the endless gaze of the abusive lords, Bernat flees with his son Arnau to Barcelona. From here we follow the young Arnau (played by Aitor Luna) from boy to manhood, with intimate glimpses at the experiences that shape him into the man he becomes and how he fits into Christian society. The plot is driven by the laws and politics of the time, most notably the injustices faced by the poor and mistreatment of women; as the characters encounter these hardships, the plot twists are layered in a way that feels natural. Various conflicts engulf the city and new players enter the scene as things go on, but we always stay with the main characters. The titular Santa Mario Del Mar acts as an anchor for the series, growing and changing its caretakers over time; it also serves as a centerpiece of both the characters hopes and dreams alongside their religious faith. With that said though, the series has a bit of trouble managing transitions. As we’re treated to several decades worth of narrative, some forward shifts can feel rather abrupt; it may have been better to move the chronology forward between episodes.

Cathedral of the Sea (COTS) is powerfully acted from top to bottom; each member of the cast conveys their character with a multi-dimensional conviction that really pulls the viewer into their individual struggles. What makes Arnau such an excellent protagonist is how he has been shaped and moulded by his life experiences; when he aims to improve the lives of those around him, you believe in his conviction. Yet he is still imperfect, a fact that applies to every character in the series; Arnau’s brother Joanet (Pablo Derqui) dedicates himself to serving the church but finds his loyalties and faith tested while his lover Analis (Andrea Duro) often finds herself at the mercy of the men in her life. The series offers an even mix of humble and selfish characters along with others in the middle. Often, they each have their own motivations, and this causes them to make desperate, occasionally irrational decisions. But when the characters do this, the audience understands why they go in the direction they do. There’s a brilliant amount of effort given to fleshing out and understanding the characters and because the cast all embody their roles so completely, there’s hardly any disruption to the series’ hook on the viewer.

Recreating both the splendour and squalor of its time, Cathedral of the Sea is very bold in its setting depiction; it’s a beautifully crafted window into history, drawing a stark contrast between social classes while reinforcing the often-harsh nature some individuals found themselves in. It certainly doesn’t shy away from these moments of suffering and while the series isn’t nearly as violent as other similar medieval settings, the moments of bloodshed are often horrific. It shows a higher focus on thematic engagement, rather than pure shock value and for a single eight-episode series this works much better at engaging the audience. The series makes heavy use of a grayscale colour scheme, often relying on natural lighting from candles and other light sources to frame the proceedings, while the music uses booming drums to convey the power held by Barcelona at the height of its power. The costume design is equally impeccable, ranging from rags to highly detailed gowns and robes worn by the nobles. The only real weak point is a lacking set of CGI effects for the battle scenes, but because the series doesn’t focus on these sequences too much, this is easily dismissed. All in all, Cathedral of the Sea feels incredibly authentic and the ways in which it presents the setting only makes it even more absorbing.

La Catedral Del Mar is a hugely impressive effort all around; it’s clear that both the cast and production team were passionate about recreating an important moment in their country’s history while also delivering a long series of highly emotive characters that you really come to care about. It’s sure to pave the way for other smaller scale historical dramas in the future.

Rating: 4.5/5 Stars (Brilliant)

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