Retro Film Review: Land and Freedom (1995)

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Those who view history as nothing more than a boring collection of unchangeable facts forget that each of those events could be interpreted in thousand different ways, often gaining completely different meaning with each new generation. Example for that could be found in Spanish Civil War (1936 - 1939), one of 20th Century's best documented, most romanticised and most misunderstood conflicts. While some see it as a noble example of democratically elected government standing up to fascist aggression, others praise Franco from rescuing Spain from Communist dictatorship. Debate about the causes of the conflict and the reasons why it ended the way it ended rages to this day. One of the most passionate and extraordinary arguments in that debate could be found in Land and Freedom, 1995 war drama directed by Ken Loach, British filmmaker known for his uncompromisingly leftist views.

The plot begins in present-day Liverpoool where Kim (played by Suzanne Maddock) discovers that his recently deceased grandfather used to fight in Spanish Civil War. The plot then shifts to 1936 when David Carr (played by Ian Hart), young unemployed worker and card-carrying member of Communist Party, decides to volunteer as a soldier for Republic against Franco's fascist forces. He comes to Spain and ends up in small unit of POUM, local leftist militia. The unit is made of volunteers from all over the world, people of different ideologies who speak different languages, have very little weapons and even less clue about modern warfare. But they overcome all those difficulties with their idealistic zeal and David decides to stick with them, partly because he fell in love with Blanca (played by Rosana Pastor), one of the women in the unit. However, when the unit goes into its first major battle and liberates mountain village from the fascists, David's idealism is going to be put to the test and he would discover that the war between Franco and Republic is not the only war he is going to take part in.

Films that explicitly and unapologetically adopt certain political position are quite rare these days. Those that take political position similar to Land and Freedom are even rarer, since that position is far left from the European political mainstream. Ken Loach and his screenwriter Jim Allen try to explain why Spanish Republic has collapsed and use arguments that had been introduced many decades before by putting major blame on Stalin and intrigues of his agents and followers behind Republican lines. This is nothing new, but the novel thing is in Loach and Allen attacking Stalin from the left. In their view Spanish Civil War was something more than struggle between democratically elected government and fascist rebels - it was splendid opportunity for genuine socialist revolution. Masses of Spanish workers have begun to take over factories, expropriate and collectivise land and the success of their militias in the initial stages of conflict showed the potentials of new society. But Stalin didn't like that, fearing that the revolution would distance his Soviet Union from Britain, France and USA, so he decided to suppress that movement in order to meet concerns of his potential capitalist allies. That amounted to counter-revolution and fratricidal conflict that opened way for Franco to claim undeserved victory.

Of course, plenty of people would disagree with Ken Loach's views (and the author of this review is among them) but few of them could deny Ken Loach's big talent in expressing them. Land and Freedom is powerful political statement that doesn't look manipulative or preachy. This is due to Loach's excellent directing technique and some methods he claims he had adopted from 1930s POUM. Just like those idealistic militiamen used to elect their own officers and make democratic decisions instead of being subjected to subordination and military discipline, actors on the set had the right to change script and improvise dialogues. All that resulted in lot of spontaneity on the screen and many scenes that look almost like being taken from documentary. Loach, film maker with great experience in making films with shoestring budgets, uses raw emotion on the screen in order to compensate the lack of spectacular scenes. The best example is liberation of the village - in strictly military terms rather minor affair, but epic in its dramatic dimension. Sometimes Loach gets carried away and allows the film to meander,especially in the scene that depicts the meeting between the peasants and militiamen during which all sides passionately discuss land collectivisation. The romance between David and Blanca is also somewhat distracting, although Ian Hart and Rosana Pastor, just like the rest of international cast, play those roles very well.

Politics behind Land and Freedom is definitely not going to be everyonee's cup of tea, but this powerful film serves not only to remind today's audiences of past mistakes, but also as a way to show that past, as well as present and future, can always have fresh alternatives.

RATING: 8/10 (+++)

(Note: The text in its original form was posted in Usenet newsgroup on May 22nd 2003)


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Critic: AAA