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Released in 1995, Ken Loach's film Land and Freedom is a moving portrayal of a small POUM (United Marxist Worker's Party) militia fighting in the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930s. Its protagonist, David (Ian Hart), travels from Liverpool to join in the fight against Fascism. He falls for a militiawoman, Blanca (Rosana Pastor), and finds that the Communist ideals he stands for are false.
Loach does a superb job of showing an almost forgotten faction of the fight against Franco. The POUM were denounced as traitors by the main (Russian controlled) Communist Party, and forced to disband, their leaders arrested. The film has been criticised for its narrow focus on the small militia, but that is what makes it so wonderful - it is possible to engage with the characters and feel what they feel. We may see little of the Anarchists or the Communist Popular Army, or even of the enemy Nationalists, but we understand what the war is about. Much of the fighting was done by these small militias, who, although fighting on the same side, were often up against each other in terms of arms, members and other supplies.
Loach wanted to show how the Communists betrayed the ideals of the Left in the Spanish Civil War. They said the war must be won before revolution can happen. Understandably, David, a proud member of the Communist Party in the UK, refuses to believe that they could want anything other than revolution - isn't that what Communism is all about? He soon comes to realise, that with Stalin in control of the Spanish Communists and ultimately the whole Spanish Left, there will never be a revolution: Stalin is too interested in forging ties with the West to embarrass himself with a social revolution.
The story is framed by episodes in present day England, following David's death. As his grand-daughter finds his old letters and newspaper cuttings, we see that although there is a difference of sixty years, the fight of the Spanish Civil War is still going on everywhere, it is still relevant.
This film is incredible. Some understanding of the Spanish Civil War and its many complicated parties and militias would help, but even so it is enjoyable and very moving. There are a lot of similarities to George Orwell's "Homage to Catalonia" (which I would also recommend). David is much more idealistic and naive than Orwell, but it is the same fight on the same side, with the same pain at defeat.
Land and Freedom is wonderfully filmed, with an international cast, not even all professional actors. I sometimes found David seemed a little wooden, but I don't think this is down to Ian Hart playing him badly - imagine you are in a foreign country in 1936, you can't speak the language and you're surrounded by very passionate people. I think that this is part of the character, that he isn't entirely at ease in Spain, at least not to begin with.
One thing which many people may not like is the language. The dialogue of Land and Freedom takes place in a mixture of Catalan, Spanish and English, with subtitles in English where relevant. Personally I love this aspect of the film as I speak Spanish so I had no problems following it, and even so subtitles don't bother me. I liked the mixture of languages and the switching between them. I also feel that this is a very accurate device - many of the militia members would have been native Catalan speakers, while a young Englishman rushing over to help in a fit of ideals would probably have had little Spanish.
Land and Freedom is a very moving film. As I have already mentioned, the focus on the small militia, who are fighting for their country and fighting to survive, enables the viewer to engage with the characters. We see them fighting and we see them resting, and we see them trying to help the people they meet. I won't give away the story, obviously you know the overall outcome of the Civil War but I don't want to ruin this small fictional story set in the whole. The film is excellently researched, and it is an historically accurate portrayal of militia life in the Spanish Civil War - and to back that statement up, it was a course text in my Hispanic Studies degree.
I really can't recommend this film highly enough. Whether you know much about the Spanish Civil War or not, it is fascinating and very emotional. This war is often overlooked in European history as it was soon eclipsed by World War II, but it's interesting to know that Hitler did in fact help out Franco in bombing Guernica, essentially using Spain as a training ground for what was to come.
The DVD is currently available from Amazon for £5.98.
Adapted from a review published by me on Amazon.co.uk as Eilidh.
(FILM ONLY REVIEW)
No one can say that Ken Loach is a subtle filmmaker with all his films you are never left in any doubt where his political allegiances lie, very firmly on the left, on the side of the working class everyman. It is no surprise that when he made Land and Freedom in 1995 a film exploring one mans involvement in the Spanish Civil War he approached the film from the leftwing perspective although it would be unfair to say that there was no balance in the story and in actual fact the political dimension explored in the film as the real politics in the war go deeper than simply the right versus left issues.
The story begins in present day Liverpool, after the death of an elderly man David Carr, his young granddaughter decides to sort out some of his belongings. In amongst some old junk is a box full of mementos from a side of Carrs life that she never knew about. Old photographs, letters and other objects slowly reveal how as an unemployed but idealistic young communist in the 1930s Carr felt compelled to go to Spain to sign up and fight along side the Republicans in the civil war. Piece by piece she unravels this secret part of his life and discovers about his love for Blanca a young Spanish woman and the eventual tragedy that followed. As she looks through the things left hidden away for so many years we are transported to 1936 when Carr goes to Spain and joins the POUM (Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista) a Marxist organisation on the Republican side. However on witnessing the disorganisation of the republican forces he quickly realises that ideals alone are not enough to make sense of what is going on in that brutal and bloody conflict.
You dont have to be a pinko leftie to appreciate this film, the politics are never far away but this is also a very poignant and moving love story set in a momentous time in history, which cant fail to touch you on an emotional level.
The Spanish civil war was in many ways a small-scale dress rehearsal for much bigger conflict to follow in the Second World War and beyond. The war was fought between the Nationalists the right wing forces of General Franco and the left wing Republicans or Loyalists that were in favour of the democratic Second Spanish Republic. However the political aspiration of the two combatants made it an ideal theatre for the two new political ideologies of the time Fascism and Communism to flex their muscles at arms length at least. The Nationalist were supported militarily by the Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Portugal as well as other fascist organisations while the Republicans had the support of the Soviet Union, Mexico other communist organisations and the International Brigades which was made up of non Spanish volunteer from all over the worlds who enlisted to support the democratic republic.
The character of David Carr in the story is typical of many young men of the time who felt that the rise of fascism in Europe to be a real threat to freedom and their belief in the force of socialism that had been unleashed to such great effect in the Russian revolution a decade earlier.
The story is taken in part and follows closely George Orwells autobiographical account of his involvement in the Spanish civil war in Homage to Catalonia. Like Orwell Carr believed in the rights of the working class and the struggle in Spain was portrayed as a struggle between the working class and those who chose to oppress them. Living in a time of recession and unemployment in Britain Carr feels betrayed by the forces of capitalism and is keen to align himself with other put upon workers in a wider socialist movement. He travels to Spain and meets many men and women from around the world that have been brought together by this ideal. The characters that makeup the POUM group range from an Irish ex IRA man, an Italian opposed to Mussolini, an freethinking American as well as German, French and Scottish. They are meant to highlight the real sense of camaraderie and common purpose that the war instilled in many people from disparate nations. The inclusion of the female characters in the fighting brigade also shows the role of the feminist politics at the time and the opposition that this created from many within the communist side.
Of course the struggle energised people on both sides of the political divide and at a time when the future horrors of Fascism and Nazism were not yet realised many well- meaning people also supported the right wing forces thinking them as the defenders of freedom against the Soviet Union. This led to situation where members of the same family were sometimes pitted against each other over the cause of a foreign conflict.
As Carr learns more about the situation he quickly realises that the members of the international brigades although true to their ideals where often at odds with each other over the way they should organise themselves. Many did not believe in a formal chain of command and wished to run the combat units as collectives with decision being arrived at by consensus.
Jim Allens intelligent screenplay focuses on the events that befall Carr and his POUM group rather than dealing with the bigger picture of what is happening in the war in general. This makes the story more personal and I think helps to engage the audience with the issues that for most are now just now historical footnotes. Sometimes the script is a little heavy on political rhetoric as for instance a debate ensues between the group and the locals as to whether the land should be owned privately or collectively as part of a Marxist co-operative, but even in these scenes the drama of the situation is just about dominant over the political undertones of the story. Another key scene where a priest is shot by the POUM is also intended to show how divides the Spanish nation was and how the church who allied itself against the communists were at odds with the ordinary peasants who in the past had look up to it for moral leadership.
Allen himself was a committed left winger and was keen to show how in the end the hopes of the young men like Carr were dashed by a lack of focus and agreement on their part as to how progress the struggle as well as in more general terms by the betrayal of Stalin who in the end had probably more in common with the fascist aspirations of Franco and Hitler than the socialist ideals of Carr and his comrades.
As always Loach was keen to get make the film as close to the truth as possible and he instils a great sense of realism in the direction by being economic with cuts letting the story flow naturally and giving the scenes a gritty documentary feel. The dialogue sounds natural and Loach lets the Spanish speak in their own voice so that there are subtitles in some scenes. I also found the reproduction of 1930s rural Spain believable and as far as I could tell accurately described. The performances of the actors add to the realism of the piece. In some case he used ordinary Spanish people to play the roles of the local farmer and workers and he encouraged the actors to adopt and express their own political viewpoint when acting out their roles with the use of some improvisation in some scenes.
Ian Hart is excellent in the central role as is Spanish actress Rosana Pastor who plays Blanca the girl he falls in love with. Hart especially manages to convey in his character the sense of failure and hopelessness that eventually overruns the republican cause.
The final question the film poses is Was it all in vain? and judging from the outcome of the civil war you could argue that it was, Franco remained in power until his death in the 1970s. But I dont think Loach intends this to be the answer. I think ultimately the film is optimistic. We never know if Carr spent the rest of his life regretting what happened and the missed opportunities. However we are told that he hid that episode of his life away from the rest of his family. Now after his death that his granddaughter finds out about his involvement in the war you feel his sacrifice was not after all in vain he was right to make a stand and live up to his principles. His family at least will now honour the memory of what he went through and of the other fallen comrades from the POUM and they will view their grandfather in a different light. History does at least show that ultimately to stand up to Fascist and Nazis was the correct.
CAST & other Details
Ian Hart .... David Carr
Rosana Pastor .... Blanca
Icíar Bollaín .... Maite
Tom Gilroy .... Lawrence
Marc Martínez .... Juan Vidal
Frédéric Pierrot .... Bernard Goujon
Directed by Ken Loach and screenplay by Jim Allen. Runtime: 109 min
Certification: UK: 15
The DVD can be bought from Amazon for £8.97 (+p&p) at the time of writing this review.
Overall the film is a fitting tribute to the men and women who fought for what they believed in many giving their lives for that cause but it is also a reminder that ideals on their own are not enough to achieve a political end. Ken Loach who is committed director strikes a good balance between educating us and presenting us with a thought provoking but moving drama. I think he also manages to emphasise how what is now a purely historical conflict is still important in understanding why the world we live in today is as it is.
Im not sure how successful this was at the box office at the time (I suspect it only got a limited release) but it certainly went down well with the critics picking up many nominations and awards around the world including a prize at the Cannes film festival.
© Mauri 2007
The 1936 Spanish uprising is in full flow whilst in Liverpool unemployed and disillusioned David decides to leave his fiancee and travel to Spain as a volunteer where he meets the beautiful Blanca... English and Spanish dialogue with subtitles.