Joxean Lasa and Joxi Zabala were two 20 year-old Basque activists living as refugees in France in 1983 when they were kidnapped by Spanish Guardia Civil officers in plain clothes and taken back to San Sebastian where they were tortured in secret. Eventually they were taken across Spain to the hills of Alicante where they were shot and buried in quick lime. This was one of the first actions associated with GAL, the officially-sanctioned Spanish ‘anti-terrorist’ squad. The bodies were discovered but not identified in 1985 and it was 1995 before a local Alicante Police Commissioner re-opened the case after reading a newspaper story about GAL.
Director Pablo Malo’s film has been described as a ‘docudrama’ as he constructs a narrative which parallels the ensuing legal investigation in 1995 and the re-constructed events of 1983. This is very definitely a powerful film, from the rapid editing of the title graphics and the dramatic orchestral score through to the scenes of torture and murder which I found impossible to watch at times (the film has an advisory ’18’ certificate). The narrative begins with a brief local radio studio scene which attempts to represent some kind of ‘truth and reconciliation’ scenario. When it flashes back to the French city of Bayonne and the kidnapping and murders of a whole group of ETA activists it seems that it will be a story from the Basque Nationalist perspective. The dialogue offers a mixture of Basque and Castillian Spanish. The ‘balancing’ forces in the narrative are the presence of the Alicante investigator and the statements about the high numbers of police and army assassinations carried out by ETA (in 1983 the Guardia Civil claim that at least 48 such killings took place). Nevertheless, the lead character is the Basque lawyer Iñigo played by Unax Ugalde, who in 1995 agrees to pursue a private prosecution on behalf of the dead men’s families.
The ¡Viva! brochure suggests that the director drew inspiration from Jim Sheridan’s In the Name of the Father, Ken Loach’s Hidden Agenda and Bloody Sunday by Paul Greengrass. Certainly there is a parallel between the Irish and Spanish struggles and the reconstructions of events but I was reminded more strongly of a film like Battle of Algiers in terms of the torture scenes and the attempted even-handedness and of other Spanish and Argentinian films in terms of the ‘disappearance’ of activists. There is a seemingly deliberate ploy in the script to balance Iñigo’s partisan lawyer with the brilliant young legal specialist Fede who is hired to do the paperwork and to find the links and the weaknesses in witness statement. Iñigo Gastias, the young actor who plays Fede has a very innocent-looking face and when he challenges Iñigo it is difficult not to be affected by his sense of what is ‘right’. While the narrative never actively supports the actions of the Spanish state, it does work hard to raise questions about how justified the Basque activists are in their approach to the investigation.
A title card at the beginning of the film tells us that most of the characters are the ‘real’ historical characters and that the others are based on similar historical characters who have been ‘fictionalised’ for dramatic effect. I certainly found the story convincing. End credits told us what happened to the police officers (and local governor) who were prosecuted and how long they actually served in prison – which didn’t seem very long.
The visual style of the film is based on a preponderance of tight close framings with fast-cutting for action scenes. At the start of the film it did take me a few moments to adjust, following the action and trying to read the subtitles that were on the screen for only a brief moment. Playing on the biggest screen at HOME at this space made for a riveting opening but I think that it could alienate audiences without much knowledge of the geography and the political struggles of the Basque country. When the title ‘Baiona’ came on screen it took me a few moments to realise that this was Bayonne and that we were in France (Wikipedia tells me that this is the Gascon name for the city).
The film has generated interest (and I presume controversy) in Spain after a modest cinema release and has also been seen in festivals internationally. I believe it is on Netflix in North America. It doesn’t attempt to explain anything about the politics of Basque nationalism but as a crime procedural/courtroom drama it works very well with strong performances and crisp presentation of the story. I wish I had been able to attend the introduction to this film on Saturday and the Q&A with the director that followed the Saturday screening.
Trailer with English subs:
The different language cinemas of Spain are not necessarily known for the work of female directors and so this second film by the Catalan director Mar Coll offered a rare treat during the ¡Viva! Weekender at HOME in Manchester. The ‘her’ that everyone wants to do their best for is Geni (short for Eugenia), a 38 year-old middle-class woman in Barcelona who we first meet in her doctor’s office. She has clearly suffered both physical and mental damage as the result of a traumatic accident – though the precise nature of this is not revealed until much later in the narrative. Eventually we realise that Geni is not making the progress back to ‘normal’ bourgeois life that is expected of her. In a marvellous performance by Nora Navas, Geni is revealed as unable to be as articulate as she once was and to have become forgetful and lacking in the kind of confidence and social skills she needs to return to work as a legal executive (it isn’t clear if she is actually qualified as a lawyer).
Geni is married to Dani, an architect and she is part of an extended family with a wealthy father and grown-up siblings, though one of her sisters is also in some form of therapy. All the family attempt to ‘care’ for her but none are able to appreciate how she feels and consequently they seem to be trying to erect a cocoon for her within which she will find a way to return to normality. Her one chance of ‘breaking free’ comes when, by chance, she meets an old school friend who she hasn’t seen for twenty years. Mariana (Valeria Bertuccelli) is a ‘wild’ Argentinian who claims to have travelled the world but who is now trying to get a job that will allow her to live abroad permanently. Perhaps Geni can join her in some way? In practice this proves quite difficult. The narrative has an open ending that didn’t please a couple of people sitting behind me but seems the best outcome in the circumstances. The dissatisfied audience members thought that the film was depressing but as another of their group said, “this is reality”.
I ‘enjoyed’ the film mainly because of the central performance and I felt that I had come to understand how she felt. It occurs to me that many of us don’t face the same questions until we retire – when we don’t have the constant pressures of work (or running a home) to pre-occupy us. I’m not sure if it is better or worse to confront the pressures to conform when you are 38 than it is when you are 68. Reviews of the film refer to it as a ‘tragi-comedy’. I did think it was sometimes like the ‘comedy of embarassment’ that I personally find hard to watch. Most of the time I felt anger on behalf of Geni rather than laughter at the situation. The weakness in the film is that the other characters don’t get much opportunity to make their case, apart from Mariana. She says that Dani is a bit of a ‘dickhead’. That may be true but we can’t be sure from how we see him behave – he does try to fulfil the caring role but spurns Geni’s demands for intimacy. I don’t mind the open ending but we do need a bit more about who he is and a bit more about the rest of the family as well.
I can’t remember much distinctive about the look of the film but the soundtrack has some lively jazz, including Django Rheinhardt. I’m grateful for Rebecca Naughten’s usual perceptive review for pointing out that Mariana ‘erupts’ into the narrative in a red coat. She is also the means by which Geni watches a rather wonderful B movie which the subtitles refer to as ‘What Have We Done to Deserve This?’ – a reference perhaps to the early films of Pedro Almodóvar, suggesting that Mariana might really have been having fun (she appears in the film as a nun)?
The screening of Tots volem el millor per a ella was preceded by a 10 minute short, Somos Amigos (We Are Friends, Spain 2014). This classy widescreen effort hones in on the current period of austerity with a wry tale about ‘downsizing’ and the imperative to never mix ‘friendship and business’. The director Carlos Solano is listed in the HOME brochure as a former student of Mar Coll. I presume this was at ESCAC (Escuela Superior de Cine y Audiovisuales de Cataluña), part of the University of Barcelona.
Researching Tots volem el millor per a ella, I discovered that it had already shown in the UK at the ICA as part of the ‘Catalan avant-garde season” – though it isn’t really an avant-garde film – and in Birmingham as part of a season of Catalan, Basque and Galician films. It would be good if it got a wider UK release.
Trailer (in Catalan with Castillian subs – please correct me if I’m mistaken):
The third and final part of the annual ¡Viva! Festival at HOME in Manchester starts today and runs until Monday 9th November. It features five new Spanish features plus a range of events with talks, intros and Q&As.
The annual Spanish and Latin American Film Festival has been split in three this year because of the move from Cornerhouse to HOME. The weekend begins on Thursday 5 November with Felices 140, a new Spanish film about the eternal question “Can money buy you happiness?” This film shows again on Monday 9th November.
Requisitos para ser una persona normal (Requirements to Be a Normal Person, Spain 2015) plays on Friday and Saturday. Also on Friday and Saturday is Pos Eso (Possessed, Spain 2014) an animation by SAM who is described as a veteran of Aardman Animations. This gets a 1 hour intro from Steve Henderson, Editor of Skwigly Magazine, on Saturday afternoon. Saturday also sees a talk and a Q&A associated with the Basque film Lasa eta Zabala (Spain 2014).
It’s a busy period and so we can only attend one day and we aim to report on Sunday’s screenings of Lasa eta Zabala and Tots volem el millor per a ella (We All Want What’s Best For Her) (Spain 2013).
There are Catalan and Castillian language cafés on Sunday and Monday and a Spanish language film study day on Tuesday. Download the ¡Viva! Weekender brochure for more details.
There are few Spanish and Latin American films getting a UK release these days so this is an essential festival. We support ¡Viva! whenever possible.
Marshland is a brilliantly executed crime thriller that grips throughout its whole 105 minutes. It has an arresting and original title sequence and its use of landscape and local culture is terrific. It’s only after several hours of reflection that I’m beginning to develop some doubts and they are mostly about the script. The trio of director Alberto Rodríguez and his co-writer Rafael Cobos plus cinematographer Alex Catalán, and indeed most of the creative team, have worked on two previous crime thrillers, all set in Andalusia. With Marshland they seem to have moved up a notch and the film has won several Goya Awards in Spain. The film’s USP is its historical setting in that difficult period following the death of Franco and the struggle to establish a real democracy in Spain at the end of the 1970s. The two detectives assigned to the case of a pair of missing teenage sisters in the marshlands of the Guadalquivir delta are a mismatched pair. Juan is an experienced officer from the fascist past and Pedro is a younger man committed to a democratic future. Juan has all the old tricks for ‘persuading’ witnesses to talk but Pedro, aiming to be ‘straight’, tends to annoy the locals with his challenges to ingrained ideas. The two men keep their distance from each other but they gradually learn how to work together. This latter is in some ways what the film is about – what must it be like to live in a country that has just ‘awoken’ after a nightmare of forty years? That person you meet, that person you work with might have all kinds of skeletons in their cupboards. How much do you need to compromise in order to get things done? Can you compromise and still stay true to a democratic ideal?
My slight worry about the film is that though this social sub-text should perhaps be the central concern of the narrative, instead the team seem more interested in making an American-style serial killer thriller. Most commentators have referred to the HBO series True Detective. I must be the only person who hasn’t seen the series which I understand begins in a similar environment in Louisiana and which also refers to a ‘cold case’ seventeen years ago that is now seen as re-opened with the detectives’ work on the original crime under scrutiny. Not having seen this model, I’m inclined to think of David Fincher’s work on Seven (1995) and Zodiac (2007) which both have a similar sense of period design, an almost fetishised sense of crime scenes, and an anger and commitment that drives the isolated investigator. The problem for me with Fincher’s Hollywood models is that they tend towards being ‘personal’ rather than ‘societal’ in scope – they are like gruesome puzzle narratives in which the narrative agents (police, journalists) suffer. They don’t say that much directly about the society that produces the crimes.
I prefer to think about Marshland in relation to other European crime thrillers police procedurals, especially Mediterranean narratives from Southern France and Italy (although to be pedantic this is technically an ‘Atlantic’ thriller). What is most important is that the two detectives come into a conservative, almost feudal, community from outside. I’m not sure how clearly this is explained in the script (the subtitles may miss nuances). There is a reference to a letter Pedro has sent to the press criticising the slow pace of change. Juan’s problems are revealed later in the narrative. Certainly there is a sense that they are being sent to this rural backwater from Madrid rather than to big city cases. Pedro hopes that success in the case will get him posted to a Madrid investigations team. When the two men come into contact with the local Guardia Civil they begin to realise that there are unwritten rules about crimes and relationships that are not necessarily investigated thoroughly and that assumptions are made about witnesses and victims of crimes. Although they are generally very different in style and tone, there is something of Inspector Montalbano in the way in which the local police operate in a community where many people know a lot but aren’t talking. The detectives also realise that this case is being pursued (where others have been neglected) because ‘somebody knows somebody high up’.
I’m most tempted by the potential links between Marshland and the South Korean film Memories of Murder (2003). Bong Joon-ho’s masterpiece also begins in the ricefields with crime scenes in ditches and fields and local police officers feeling overwhelmed before a ‘big city cop’ arrives. Bong’s film is also set in the past – the 1980s – and deals with the investigation of a real crime. But his film seems both more comic, more brutal and more stark but also more ‘humanist’ and much richer in its political analysis – and it refuses the conventional ‘narrative closure’ of the crime film. But perhaps I’m being unfair – there are other aspects of Marshlands that also contribute meanings and the central feature of the narrative – young girls wanting to leave the region to have a future and being easily seduced by those offering opportunities – is in itself part of a social critique. Juan has a medical problem and this may be the reason he appears to hallucinate. On two occasions a single bird appears in a scene incongruously – rather like the cow that Vinz sees in La Haine (France 1995). Or are these merely signifiers of the mystical nature of life in the marshes? There is a woman in the narrative who is said to have ‘second sight’ – and she certainly knows something about Juan. There is also the wonderful credits sequence which uses photographic images created by the artist Hector Garrido. These (see the image above) are aerial photographs of the delta that make it appear more like a painting of the human brain. According to this web review of the film the overall visual style is also informed by the work of Atin Aya who took photographs of the people and landscapes of Andalusia between 1955 and 2007.
The cinematography is one of the strongest elements of the film. Besides the extraordinary aerial shots, the landscape gives opportunities for action framed in long shots across marshes and ricefields. The colour palette has been adjusted and the lashing rainstorms help to create the perfect environment for chases. One car chase was the most compelling I’ve seen for some time.
So, there is plenty to admire here and I’ll happily watch the film again to look out for the aspects of the script that I might have missed in the lead up to the action film ending. I think my real concern is with UK distributors and exhibitors. Marshland opened the week before Theeb, the Jordanian film I’ve written about on The Global Film Book blog. Both films are among the best I’ve seen this year but whereas Theeb opened in only 13 cinemas, Marshland has been much more visible in 32, playing once or twice a day in my nearest arthouse. I hope that Marshland becomes appreciated as a Spanish crime film rather than just an interesting subtitled alternative to Hollywood.
Marshland‘s UK trailer with examples of cinematography and use of aerial photographs: