The extraordinary double agent at the center of the artful documentary “Garbo: The Spy” never comes into sharp focus as a definable character — and that makes perfect sense for one of the 20th century’s masters of deception.
The inspiration for Graham Greene’s “Our Man in Havana” and a key engineer of the Allied invasion of Normandy, France, Juan Pujol is nothing less than fascinating. “Garbo: The Spy” takes a fittingly inventive approach to the story of an operative whose MI5 code name reflected his supreme talents as an actor.
Born into a bourgeois Barcelona, Spain, family in 1912, Pujol could have led a comfortable life, but he was determined to play an active part in Europe’s increasingly tumultuous history. There’s something almost comical about the way his espionage career developed, after multiple rejections by British intelligence. By the time the Brits enlisted his services and dubbed him Garbo, Pujol had become a trusted source of (dis)information for the Nazis with his network of intricately imagined fictional sub-agents.
Director Edmon Roch makes some smart conceptual choices that honor his subject’s self-invention and mystery. Talking-head experts are unidentified until almost halfway into the film, and Roch interweaves evocative excerpts from well-known movies, some of them romantic depictions of Pujol’s World War II machinations.
When Pujol appears late in the film, the effect is deeply moving, the mystery undimmed. Roch laces the closing credits with additional information, but it’s clear that this is a life beyond the scope of a single film.
“Garbo: The Spy” is a compelling introduction.
“Garbo: The Spy.” No MPAA rating. In English, Spanish, Catalan and German with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes. At Laemmle’s Music Hall 3, Beverly Hills.