Awakenings

"Strangers fight for a short time, families for a lifetime," says a character in Broken Silence, Basque director Montxo Armendáriz's vivid period drama about a small town's divided loyalties in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. That brutal conflict set the tone for many of the 20th century's moral struggles, pitting youthful idealism against ruthless determinism and inflicting (for the first time in the history of modern warfare) massive civilian casualties. The long sleep that followed under Franco ended years ago, and this series of 23 Spanish films reveals a cinematic culture now free to explore issues that once polarized a nation.

A retrospective of Armendáriz's six films includes Broken Silence, his most recent. The Basque tradition of fierce independence informs this portrait of the maquis, Republican guerrillas who fled to the mountains to continue fighting in the decade following Franco's victory. The film is set in 1944, when a young woman (Lucía Jiménez) returns to the remote village she left as a child, where a loyal Republican (Juan Diego Botto) becomes her paramour. There's a lush beauty to Armendáriz's clear-eyed vision of crushed hopes and lives shattered by politics.

In the riveting documentary Strangers to Themselves, directors José Luis López-Linares and Javier Rioyo interview survivors of three volunteer armies: the International Brigade, which fought fascism in the Spanish Civil War; Italian soldiers sent by Mussolini to help Franco; and Spaniards who joined Hitler's army to battle Communism at the Soviet front. Their motives were mixed, but whether their side lost or won, they're haunted by a wrenching sense of failure as the winds of history shifted, and gave their triumph or sacrifice another meaning.

The young today are different. At least that's the message behind Savages, Carlos Molinero's drama about lowlifes in Valencia. Almodóvar legend Marisa Paredes stars as Berta, a nurse who looks after her orphaned teenage niece and nephews. She doesn't know that her niece's boyfriend is a drug dealer and that her skinhead nephews commit hate crimes. One day a hard-drinking cop (Imanol Arias) walks into her clinic; she gives him a shot, and he falls for her. The fuzzy, handheld camera work and fast-paced editing are meant to evoke a society on the point of dissolution. But the film's jumbled style can't mask the thin characterizations of its Gen X and Y protagonists.

Armendáriz tackles the problem of Spanish racism far more effectively in Letters From Alou (1990), another of the director's vibrant depictions of secret worlds. Alou (Mulie Jarjue), an illegal immigrant from Senegal, washes up on Spanish shores and is immediately caught up in a semi-hidden network of foreigners haunting the margins of society: selling jewelry in bars, sewing contraband goods in sweatshops at night. Armendáriz finds beauty and joy amid the poverty and degradation that Alou endures with an unbroken spirit.

Madness of Love is the only film to promise the over-the-top passion that we've come to expect from post-Almodóvar Spanish cinema. Vicente Aranda's bodice-ripping costume drama centers on Queen Juana, the 16th-century Spanish monarch who reigned briefly over Castile and Aragon before she was declared insane by her unfaithful husband. Juana's marriage in Flanders, at age 18, to Philip (known as "the Handsome") was an affair of state—before it became, for her, an all-consuming rage of lust and devotion. Pilar López de Ayala gives a stunning performance as the "mad" queen, a roiling mass of sensual feminine impulses. But the real pleasure lies in watching Aranda unfold his perverse vision of love, a harsher taskmistress than duty.

 
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