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'La Fortuna' puts a new spin on the biggest sunken treasure ever

Oscar-winning director Alejandro Amenábar says the 6-episode miniseries, starring Stanley Tucci, dives into how history can bring people together.
T’Nia Millern and Stanley Tucci in AMC's "La Fortuna."
T’Nia Millern and Stanley Tucci in AMC's "La Fortuna."Teresa Isasi / AMC

On the surface, "La Fortuna" is a legal drama about the biggest sunken treasure ever and the fight to claim ownership, but Oscar-winning director Alejandro Amenábar says it also tells a deeper story about history and how it can bring people together.

“What the series values is not so much a pile of gold and silver coins, but what the wreck represents,” he told NBC News. “It is still part of history, and therefore part of the culture, heritage and identity of each country.”

The six-episode miniseries, which premieres Thursday on AMC+, was adapted from the Spanish graphic novel "El tesoro del Cisne Negro" ("The Treasure of the Black Swan"). And the book is loosely based on the true story of a Spanish frigate that was sunk by the British navy off the southern coast of Portugal in 1804.

Then, 203 years later in 2007, Odyssey Marine Exploration — a deep-sea treasure hunting company in Tampa, Florida — recovered 595,000 gold and silver coins from the 19th century wreck. 

And this ultimately triggered an international legal battle over the ownership of the treasure, which drives the story of the miniseries.

Because of the international scope of the case, characters in the miniseries speak both in English and Spanish. And while telling a story with multiple languages can be challenging, Amenábar says that it can also offer viewers new opportunities to connect with others.

“I am a director who likes to build bridges between people who are different,” he said. “My intention whenever I make a film, either in English or in Spanish, or in this case literally a mixed product, is that viewers identify directly with the main characters.”

On screen, a young Spanish diplomat named Álex Ventura (played by Álvaro Mel) teams up with Spanish civil servant Lucía Vallarta (Ana Polvorosa) and maritime law attorney Jonas Pierce (Clarke Peters) to take on the American treasure hunter Frank Wild (two-time Golden Globe-winner Stanley Tucci) in court.

Amenábar has won nine Goyas (Spain’s national film award). But Americans likely know him most for his 2004 biopic "The Sea Inside" a drama starring Javier Bardem about assisted suicide that won the Oscar for best foreign film. In 2001, Nicole Kidman starred in his gothic horror film "The Others," which earned almost $210 million in box offices worldwide

Finding common heritage in a graphic novel

Paco Roca co-wrote "The Treasure of the Black Swan" with Guillermo Corral, who is now the Spanish ambassador to Estonia. 

“I think it’s a classic adventure story about pirates and treasures and sunken ships. But it’s an adventure told from another perspective, the officials who watch over the heritage of a nation,” Roca said.

The Spanish comic book creator explained that he met Corral on a trip to Washington, D.C. And while he had already known about the case from media coverage, Corral offered a unique perspective as a member of the diplomatic team that had defended Spain’s interests. 

In the process of creating the graphic novel, Roca says that both he and Corral drew inspiration from classic adventure stories such as Robert Louis Stevenson’s "Treasure Island" and Hergé’s "The Adventures of Tintin."

Amenábar, similarly acknowledges the Belgium comic "Tintin" as an influence. Though, he says that this came indirectly through one of his film idols — Steven Spielberg. 

"When Steven Spielberg presented 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' in Europe, he has shared this at some point, he was told that the movie reminded viewers here of 'The Adventures of Tintin,' which at the time he was not familiar with and then finally ended up making a movie about 'Tintin.'"

Both on screen and in the graphic novel, Amenábar and Roca say the story emphasizes grounding larger-than-life adventures in everyday reality. 

“We wanted adults who had enjoyed adventure stories as children to go on another adventure now,” he said. “An adventure that has the essence of pirates and treasures at the bottom of the sea, but seen from a realistic perspective.”

And this realism, he says, could help readers — and now viewers — understand how the history of one treasure could connect the fate of millions of people in Europe and the Americas. 

Just four years after the Spanish frigate was sunk, Napoleon invaded Spain, triggering the start of the independence movements in Latin America.