Monday, December 24, 2012

SCN: In his powerful THE SLEEPING VOICE, Benito Zambrano probes the post-Civil War

When Americans hear about movies set in women's prisons, we tend to imagine campy exploitation films. Spaniards, I suspect, have a bit of a different reaction -- at least those who still remember the Spanish Civil War and the years immediately afterward, which unfortunately stretched into decades. THE SLEEPING VOICE (La voz dormida), a new film from the talented writer/director Benito Zambrano (Habana Blues and Solas), co-adapted by Ignacio del Moral from the novel by the late Dulce Chacón, begins with an alarming scene set in a women's prison in 1940, in which one large group of women are taken out to the courtyard to be executed by firing squad. One of them has difficulty finding the strength to stand and walk, and what she says about leaving her family will tear you apart. What's left of you after this scene, the remainder of the movie will make mincemeat.

Not that The Sleeping Voz is especially violent or bloody. Señor Zambrano, shown at right, does what he must to make the necessary points, but because so much of his film takes place inside this prison, in which he situates not only his women but us viewers, the movie forces us to experience what it is like to suffer without -- or at least with very little-- hope and to be nearly powerless. As we soon see, one's only power here is to refuse: to say "no" to the Eucharist in church -- seeing as how the Catholic Church in Spain at this time capitulated almost entirely to the Franco/fascist side -- or to scream aloud your most precious belief in that moment before you are shot.

TrustMovies has seen many, many histories of Spain during this period -- several are usually part of each year's Spanish Cinema Now series, with this year no exception -- but few have affected him as deeply as this new film. The reason, he believes, has to do with the fact that all we see here is from a woman's point of view, showing us how everything -- every single thing from life and limb to one's own offspring -- is no longer your own. As one person tells another, "In the new Spain, even your dead don't belong to you."

The story concerns two sisters, Tensi and Pepita (played by Inma Cuesta and María León, shown at far and near left, respectively). Pepita has come to Madrid from Cordoba to find work  so that she can visit and help Tensi, who is pregnant and in prison. Think of Franco's Spain as something with a level of evil somewhere between our McCarthy-era blacklisting witch hunts and what Hitler's Germany did to Europe's Jews. In post-Civil War Spain, the cruelty, torture and death meted out to Communists and supposed Commie sympathizers affected husbands, wives and entire families.

When the movie focuses on the imprisoned Tensi (above), it is at its darkest, and Ms Cuesta is truly riveting. This actress possesses such a grand combination of ferocity and deep feeling that she simply commands the screen at all times.

When its gaze comes to rest on Pepita, at right, who has taken employment in the home of a wealthy bourgeois family, the film opens up to embrace something other than prison life and thus frees us, at least momentarily, from our cell. Zambrano treads a wise path between the two women and their locations, which keeps us from giving in to total despair. Ms León proves a smart and feisty performer, lending her character strength that, early on, she had no idea she possessed. (This actress -- as versatile as she is good -- is just about unrecognizable from the role of the daughter she played in SCN's Carmina or Blow Up.)

The men on hand, including the very attractive TV actor Marc Clotet, above, are either those working for the return of the Republic or Franco's minions. Yet even here, and regarding both men and women, the filmmakers allow for human frailty. While some of the people we meet, including the military brass, prison guards, priests and nuns, are black indeed, others fall somewhere along the usual bell curve of mankind's character.

This film is a perfect memorial to the horrors and the institutionalized barbarity of the Franco era, the likes of which we've rarely seen in this particular manner until now. It played twice at Spanish Cinema Now, but I hope that there will be some further distribution here in the U.S. This is a slice of foreign history of which American audiences should find more than a little frightening, interesting and worthwhile.

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