Thursday, December 23, 2010

SCN: STARS TO WISH UPON -- Life in a women's prison, under Franco & church

Upon some reflection, it may surprise America film buffs that Spain -- for centuries such a Catholic country-- would have led Europe in certain areas. Chief among these would be a more open sexuality in the country's film and culture, and finally in its laws. (Wasn't Spain the first European nation to OK same-sex marriage?)  And all this without the blessing of the Catholic Church.

Well, Spain and the Church have issues, as literally any Spanish Cinema Now series (currently in its 19th year) makes clear. These stem from the country's long flirtation with and consumma-tion of Fascism via the collusion of the Franco government and the Catholic Church during the period of the Spanish Civil War and onwards though the end of the dictator's reign. While certain annual SCN programs have demonstrated this theme more than others, this year constitutes the most nearly all-Franco-all-the-time series that TrustMovies has yet seen. A fine wrap-up (SCN closes tonight) is provided by STARS TO WISH UPON (Izarren Argia), which offers us a look at Franco's notorious women prison, Saturrarán, which was run by the Church and its nuns.

Written and directed by Mikel Rueda (shown at right), the movie begins with short statements from a number of elderly Spanish women (who presumably were political prisoners) about their time spent in Saturrarán. "Who would imagine that priests and nuns could do such things?" one of the women asks. Another, unintentionally echoing the slogan of the JDL, notes that people must understand "what went on here because this must never happen again." As America's own flirtation with fascism via our Republican Party proceeds apace (ironically, Spain's "Republicans" were the liberal and progessive left), this yearly series seems ever more timely and salutary. Members of the audience with whom I viewed the film yesterday literally shouted out in agreement, from time to time, when one of these political prisoners voiced her antipathy toward either the political regime or the Church. I suspect many more of us sat there in silent agreement with these on-screen prisoners.

Stars to Wish Upon is no women' prison camp classic, however. We hear a few muffled cries of perhaps torture or at least pain, but the worst we see is something called "the well," in which recalcitrant prisoners are made to remain for a day or two (or more) in cold water up to their necks. No, the greatest pain for these women is being permanently separated from their children, which the nuns find wonderfully creative ways of managing -- from starvation and/or refusal of doctor visits leading to death (for sometimes the parent, other times the child) to false promises of reconciliation if a prisoner is willing to "work" for the church.

The closest our movie has to a heroine is Victoria (a smartly held-in performance by Bárbara Goenaga -- shown above, center-left and further above at far left -- of TimeCrimes, from the 2008 SCN), who is a teacher and the widow of a now-dead Republican. Franco's forces treated most who disagreed as traitors, and so entire families were sometimes imprisoned. Here it is two sisters and the young son of one of them. The children quickly become the chief bargaining tool, which the Church happily adopted off to families with the proper religious/political viewpoint, who would then raise the children following the "righteous" path.

The movie is full of of the ins-and-outs of prison life, with the nuns ranging from quietly monstrous to as quietly helpful as possible under the watchful eye of the N-I-C, also known as  the White Panther (played with a remarkable combination of subtlety and iron will by Itziar Lazkano). Filmmaker Rudea succeeds in putting us in the minds and hearts -- and most definitely on the side of -- these political prisoners.  His movie is excellent agitprop, achieving its ends with a blunt force that is often devastating, never more so than at the conclusion. No happy ending can be had here, for the war is but won and decades more of under-the-tumb rule is in store. Yet Rueda and his cast achieve at least the goal of helping older audiences remember, while informing younger ones of their country's checkered history. This will perhaps allow them to understand why "Never again" is the appropriate response to what they have seen.

Stars to Wish Upon plays one more time, closing this year's Spanish Cinema Now tonight at 9:10 at the Walter Reade Theater.

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