Film explores the vast network of spies and informers deployed under Franco to stifle any shadow of dissent.

Francisco Avizanda’s brilliant debut feature, “Forever Waiting,” set in 1953 Spain, explores the vast network of spies and informers deployed under Franco to stifle any shadow of dissent. Unlike “The Lives of Others,” which centered on a professional information-gatherer, “Waiting” zeroes in on an amateur — a pretty young secretary at a radio station, one of thousands who betrayed fellow citizens for God, country, advancement or simple survival. As played by a chillingly opaque Caroline Bona, Gilda reps the ultimate offspring of the fascist state. Austere pic would require strong critical support to reach wider auds.

An orphan raised by church and state to obey unquestioningly, if cynically, Gilda spends her spare time listening at doors and noting what people let slip in conversation, ever ready to sneak names to her “uncle” (Jesus Noguero), the chief of police. (The hints at childhood sexual abuse by cops and cardinals register as less horrific than Gilda’s jaded acceptance of it.)

Gilda’s ambition is simple, and she clings to it with the obstinacy of the dispossessed: to get a job as an announcer at the propaganda-spewing Catholic radio station where she toils as a secretary.

Avizanda often films his heroine in closeup, but her lovely mask of a face — Bressonian, but without the soul — is beyond interpretation, less because she adeptly hides her feelings than because she appears to lack any inner life. It is hard to empathize with her even when she is being exploited, since she displays no empathy toward others.

Avizanda’s genius lies in his ability to portray Gilda (the reference to the Rita Hayworth noir is deliberate) as both monster and victim. The myriad exchanges she brokers with others become power games with varying stakes and styles. Her concierge’s chummy complicity proves no match for Gilda’s dispassionate blackmail, and even Franco’s master manipulator ultimately underestimates the ruthlessness of his pretty pawn.

Jon D. Dominguez’s lensing of Madrid’s massive, drably grandiose architecture is an apt fit for the impenetrable Gilda. On the soundtrack, march-like pasadobles, popular at the time, musically mark out the beat of joyless collectivity. Nevertheless, Avizanda’s overall vision of Franco’s Spain never quite equals his sure-handed grasp of his unforgettable main character.

Forever Waiting

Production

An Izaba Films, Muxika production, in co-production with Fair Films, ETB. (International sales: Izaba Films/Muxika, Madrid.) Produced by Elisabeth Perello-Santandreu, Francisco Avizanda. Directed, written by Francisco Avizanda.

Crew

Camera (color), Jon D. Dominguez; editor, Santos Salinas; music, Goran Kajfes, David Osterberg; art director, Idoia Esteban; costume designer, Juana Buendia; sound (Dolby digital), Imanol Lopez, Ivan Mayoral; sound designer, Pedro Barbadillo. Reviewed at Montreal World Film Festival (competing), Sept. 2, 2009. Running time: 122 MIN.

With

Carolina Bona, Jesus Noguero, Albert Prat, Alfonso Torregrosa, Jose Maria Asin, Carmen Leon, Carmen San Esteban. (Spanish dialogue)
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