As both intimate history and elegaic poetry, “El Perro Negro: Stories From the Spanish Civil War” is a remarkable, one-of-a-kind work that will follow the same career trajectory as many of the better recent documentaries — fest crowds, crix raves, awards aplenty and, with any luck, a lingering place in the common consciousness.
Using the established m.o. of director Peter Forgacs, “El Perro Negro” uses period amateur filmmaking to create an illuminating story of the Republican era that includes the conflicting interests of money and labor, which festered all through ’30s Spain. Treatment is far more thorough than the usual romantic accounts of the much-mythologized time, a la “For Whom the Bells Toll,” which told the story of a freely elected government crushed under the fascist jackboot.
“El Perro Negro” evokes names long lost to the violence of the era, including Catalan wool merchant Jose Salvans i Pierra and leftist Jose Ernesto Diaz Noriega, men who found themselves on opposite sides of an international conflict, and whose cinematography provides Forgacs with the foundation for his movie.
Their imagery is unimaginable anywhere but in the film cans of the period: family gatherings, marketplaces, people playing at revolution and executions, and the various mundane aspects of life, which, given Forgacs’ context, are magnified, even glorified.
Salvans and Noriega aren’t the only amateur directors whose film is included here, but they are the most prominent and, in Salvans’ case, the most poignant: By default part of the moneyed elite, Salvans was fairly apolitical but was murdered nonetheless by one of the more brutal members of the Franco resistance. Noriega, who was taken prisoner, managed, even during his imprisonment, to shoot film.
Much of “El Perro Negro” is like a Robert Capa photo in motion, although Forgacs would probably refuse such a compliment simply because Capa’s record of the Spanish Civil War has become so synonymous with the shorthand version of the conflict. “El Perro Negro,” strenuously evenhanded, is deliberately unsentimental. As result, it feels honest and true.
Transfer and look of the antique footage — notably, the obscure 9.5mm film introduced in the ’20s by Pathe as homemovie stock — is superb.