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Spain’s Civil War film canon needs new urgency

Plenty of excellent movies about this traumatic period in Spain’s history have been made. New drama ‘The Sleeping Voice’ isn’t one of them.


Carlos Saura's '¡Ay Carmela!' A fine contribution to the large body of work based on the Spanish Civil War.

It’s a terrible thing to have to say, but maybe the time has come for a moratorium on films about the Spanish Civil War.

Last week saw the release of The Sleeping Voice (La voz dormida), an adaptation of Dulce Chacón’s novelised account of the vengeance exacted upon Republican women in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War by the Franco regime.

In late 1939 in Ventas prison in Madrid, a group of women await the firing squad for having supported the Republican cause, or for having husbands, brothers and fathers who did. Among them are Hortensia, who fought with the militia and is pregnant by her husband Felipe  – still at large – and who has been told she will be shot after she gives birth. Then there is 16-year-old Elvira, who was caught trying to leave Spain with her mother; Tomasa, whose husband, four sons and daughter-in-law were murdered. Outside the prison, Pepita, Hortensia’s sister, is a maid at the house of a wealthy family with military connections, and who acts as a go between for her sister and her husband.

Chacón’s often harrowing novel shed new light on the Civil War by using the testimonies of women who were imprisoned under the Franco regime, as well as accounts of others who died during the war. A bestseller in Spain, it was voted Book of the Year, and its sober depiction of this dark period in Spanish history was rightly hailed for its combination of vivid intensity and historical authenticity.

It’s hard to know where to begin addressing the inadequacies of the film version. Where the original is subtle and understated, director Benito Zambrano’s film unfolds like a Mexican soap opera, with far too much talking — a result of the crass and simplistic script. Every opportunity to add depth or insight is missed, and every opportunity to plunge into sentimentality or hysteria seized upon.

Aesthetically, the film also fails: the lighting is mostly single source, thus depriving the scenes of any atmosphere; the music is maudlin and anachronistic. In short, it looks and feels like it was made on a shoestring with a borrowed camera.

Last year brought us Black Bread (Pa negre), which took the top prizes at the Goya film awards and will be representing Spain in the Oscars, Zambrano falls into the same trap as Agustí Villaronga in Black Bread: he doesn’t seem to understand that the only way to address tragedy of this profundity is to downplay it. Both directors fail to connect us with the characters, although that of course is also largely their fault for choosing actors whose appeal lies in their on-screen attractiveness and who quite simply lack the register of emotions or maturity to handle the task before them.

In short, the film does the book a disservice, and more importantly, shows a lack of respect for the memory of the people to whom these terrible things happened.

In light of this and other recent efforts — and with no sign of any slowdown in output, perhaps the time has come for Spain’s filmmakers and producers to ask themselves if they have something to add to the opus before accepting a commission on a Civil War-related topic. Which is not to say that there isn’t a great film out there, just that The Sleeping Voice isn’t one of them.

Anybody interested in the subject would do better to take advantage of the already existing stock of movies, documentaries, television series, books, novels, and of course the testimonies of those who lived through that period.

Decent movies about the Civil War? Try the following: El Perro Negro: Stories from the Spanish Civil War, directed by Péter Forgács. Made in 2004, it uses the home movies of two men from opposite sides of the Spanish Civil War — a Catalan industrialist and a student from Madrid — to weave an intimate and insightful composite portrait of the conflict.

Saura’s sharp focus

Carlos Saura’s ¡Ay Carmela! and The Hunt (La caza) are also worth seeing. The former, made in 1990, follows a struggling Republican stage troupe that accidentally strays across enemy lines. The latter was made in 1966 about a rabbit hunt led by three Nationalist veterans on a Civil War battle site that brings the past sharply back into focus, 30 years after the event.

La guerre est finie (The War is Over) is a little seen movie by Alain Resnais from 1966 exploring the consequences of a veteran Republican fighter’s ardent dedication to the overthrow of Franco’s regime.

And finally, arguably the best film about the Civil War to date: Butterfly (La lengua de las mariposas). Based on a collection of stories by Manuel Riva, and directed by José Luis Cuerda, Butterfly views the build-up to the Spanish Civil War from the quiet distance of a prematurely wise eight-year old boy. This delicate coming-of-age story follows young Moncho’s apprenticeship in love, heroism and treason as his tiny village is gradually polarised into two camps. Legendary Spanish actor Fernando Fernán Gómez is especially memorable in the role of the boy’s iconoclastic schoolteacher and mentor.

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Published: Oct 28 2011
Category: Culture, Featured, Films, Spain News
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
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3 Comments for “Spain’s Civil War film canon needs new urgency”

  1. With all do respect to the great Spanish directors who’ve taken on the wrenching and sickening tragedy that is a country self destructing (Berlanga is the name that comes to mind). I personally think it took a foreigner to really focus on the grotesque absurdity of the complicit malevolence of trusted institutions (read: church and army) and the fraternity of truly super humans, some from faraway lands of safety, willing to die for the freedom of those they barely know and understand (both literally and figuratively). Ken Loach’s “Land and Freedom” is the masterpiece here.

  2. Magnet Françoise

    Je cherche des films sur le franquisme, mais sous-titré en français ou en version française et particulièrement des films de Basilio Martin Patino: les trois documentaires, caudillo, très chers bourreaux, canciones para despues de una guerra et aussi des films plus récents sur la guerre civile. Merci de m’aider.
    Françoise Magnet

  3. Il doit y avoir l’équivalent des Cahiers du Cinéma avec des archives ou d’une Cinématèque Centrale, je dirais…!

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