Spanish cinema’s over-exploited genre of Civil War dramas receives a welcome injection of the contemporary in David Trueba’s evocative, understated “Salamina Soldiers.” Based on a surprise bestseller by Javier Cercas, pic threads together a complex weave of past and present in an open-ended tale on history’s impact, and eschews the facile moralizing that tends to blight Spanish helmers when they tackle the subject. The potential of 34-year-old Trueba, evident in his feature debut, “The Good Life” (1996), is realized in this third feature. B.O. looks set to be solid at home, where film opened March 21, and pic’s calculated attempt at striking a universal chord could see “Soldiers” setting up camp in some offshore arthouses.
Following the breakup of a relationship, blocked writer Lola (Ariadna Gil) is leading a frustrated, motiveless existence, a point nicely underlined in a class she gives on creative writing, during which she ironically stresses the importance of motive in character creation.
She’s assigned to do a Civil War piece on Rafael Sanchez Mazas (impassive-looking Ramon Fontsere), a real-life fascist writer and ideologue who was supposedly assassinated by Republican troops but who in fact was offered shelter by three men he dubbed the Friends of the Forest.
Lola’s research reveals that, after Mazas’ escape, an unknown young Republican soldier (played by Alberto Ferreiro in B&W flashbacks) had Mazas at gunpoint but let him escape. Lola decides to find this unknown soldier, who turns out to be a man called Miralles (vet Joan Dalmau) in the present day.
A friend puts Lola in touch with the son of one of the Friends of the Forest, and here pic springs the dramatically bold gambit of Lola interviewing the real-life individual (Joaquim Figueras), one of four actual persons used during the movie. Device turns the film from simply another trawl through Civil War history into a study of how the imagination is compelled to fill the gaps which history leaves blank.
In almost thriller-like style, Lola slowly edges toward the truth, putting her investigation before her personal life as her creative juices start to flow again. Closing section memorably sets Lola’s aching need for the truth against an old man’s determination to let the past alone. Everything in the tale, which spans 60 years, has led to this moment, and the result is 15 minutes of highly charged, emotive cinema.
A couple of less successful modern-day storylines are entwined with all this. One involves Lola’s friendship with lesbian fortune-teller Conchi (Maria Botto). The exuberant Conchi offers a necessary counterpoint to Lola’s self-control and supplies most of pic’s humor, but she barely contributes to the story’s development. There’s also Lola’s flirtation with creative writing student Gaston (Mexican thesp Diego Luna).
The potentially awkward shuttling between past and present, B&W and color, is complex but unobtrusive, with brief early glimpses of Mazas’ escape later extended into complete scenes. Perfs are fine across the board. Gil (helmer Trueba’s wife) teases rich nuances from the role of Lola, which on paper must have looked dangerously glum and directionless. Gil turns the writer’s investigation into a metaphor for her personal search for meaning. Both Fontsere and the underrated Dalmau are compelling.
Lensing by Javier Aguirresarobe shifts between edgy, docu-style handheld work for the present, and stylized light and shadow for the past, in which he beautifully evokes the damp countryside of the Spanish-French border where much of the action takes place. Score comprises low-key selections from a variety of classical music pieces. Song over the closing credits is a poignant version of the well-known Spanish paso doble, “Suspiros de Espana,” by flamenco performer Diego El Cigala.