Brit helmer Ken Loach’s most ambitious film to date Land and Freed om follows a Liverpudlian to the Republican trenches and political treachery of the Spanish Civil War. Despite a slight windiness in its political discussions, pic’s superb performances, gentle humor, human warmth, action sequences and beautifully teased-out love story should make this one of the must-see art movies of the year.
Script by Jim Allen, who most recently penned Raining Stones for Loach, covers much the same historical terrain as George Orwell’s celebrated account of the conflict, Homage to Catalonia. One crucial difference is that the protagonist here is a salt-of-the-earth Liverpudlian who lacks Orwell’s political articulateness, even though he comes to share his indignation. By May 1937, instead of fighting Franco, the Republicans were divided in Barcelona into bitter, rival groups – the militia and anarchists on one side, the Communists on the other.
Young Communist Dave (Ian Hart) decides to go to Spain to fight fascism. He falls in with a French kid and is sent to fight with the militia on the Republican front in Aragon. However, while training some volunteers, Dave’s 1896 Mauser blows up in his face. Hospitalized in Barcelona, he enters a delicately portrayed relationship with Blanca (Rosana Pastor), a militia woman from his unit.
Loach and Allen’s thesis is that the attempts by Spain’s working class to effect a revolution were systematically destroyed by a Stalinist-controlled Republican government, abetted by the Spanish Communist Party, because of Stalin’s desire to appease the capitalist West.
Hart and Pastor give outstanding, understated perfs as Dave and Blanca, and other thesps are solid. Though never arid, the film’s political gabfests may prove overlong for some. Loach’s real triumph, however, is to get the viewer rooting for characters in a conflict that, for most, is as remote as the Trojan War.