Spains Civil War film canon needs new urgency

28th October 2011, Comments 0 comments

Plenty of excellent movies about this traumatic period in Spains history have been made. New drama The Sleeping Voice isnt one of them.

Its 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 Chacns 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.

Chacn’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.

Its hard to know where to begin addressing the inadequacies of the film version. Where the original is subtle and understated, director Benito Zambranos 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 Agust Villaronga in Black Bread: he doesnt 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 Spains 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 isnt a great film out there, just that The Sleeping Voice isnt 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 Pter Forgcs. 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.

Sauras sharp focus

Carlos Sauras 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 fighters ardent dedication to the overthrow of Francos 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 Jos 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 Monchos apprenticeship in love, heroism and treason as his tiny village is gradually polarised into two camps. Legendary Spanish actor Fernando Fernn Gmez is especially memorable in the role of the boys iconoclastic schoolteacher and mentor.

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