A creative docu on one of the many extraordinary true stories that have grown out of Spain’s tortured 20th century, “30 Years of Darkness” is a real gem, fusing interviews, analysis and some terrific animation into an intriguing whole that plays like an intelligent thriller. The titular 30 years were those Manuel Cortes spent after 1939 in his own home, fearful of being killed by Franco’s Nationalist forces; and though 30 years behind closed doors may not be the most exciting premise, Manuel H. Martin does it full moral and dramatic justice. Docu merits play at beyond Spanish-themed fests.
The story of Cortes and men like him has been brought to light previously in books by Jesus Torbado and the late Ronald Fraser, both on hand here to inform this docu, which liberally draws from their work.
Cortes (voiced by Juan Diego) was the socialist mayor of a small town in southern Spain when Franco’s Fascist troops invaded the region. He escaped with his family but soon split from them, knowing that he, his wife and his daughter would be killed if found together.
After fighting for the Republicans, Cortes returned home to his family when the war ended, expecting a spell in prison, but on being told by his father that practically all the other mayors in the region had been killed, he decided to become a “mole,” as those who hid at home during the dictatorship were called. The pic’s various commentators are quick to point out that Cortes had at no point killed anyone. He hid from everyone except his immediate family, and for the first year, even his daughter was unaware that he had returned. The docu successfully evokes the perpetual fear that he will be discovered by authorities that hangs over his impoverished wife Juliana (voiced by Ana Fernandez).
The pic is especially good in detailing the paranoid, morally blurred day-to-day existence of the post-war years in Spain, when neighbors would inform on neighbors to establish their pro-Franco credentials and so ensure survival. When Cortes changes houses dressed as a woman in 1944, the story of his 350-yard nighttime trip trembles with tension. Through the years, remarkable events pile up, some adventurous (involving failed escape attempts to France), and some tragic (Cortes was unable to attend the funeral of his granddaughter, a blow from which he never recovered).
Cortes’ story is interspersed with others about men like him, using interviews with eloquent and impassioned historians, writers and family members that are sometimes moving, and practically always compelling. The pic also mixes in appalling period footage and sequences of effectively rendered still graphics and moving-camera animation that re-create what’s being discussed. (There were no photos of Cortes’ family available — all had been self-destroyed.) Finally, in 1969, there is an opportunity for real catharsis when the government offers amnesty to moles who turn themselves in.
Beyond the specific story, the docu is a worthy addition to a burgeoning canon of material about Spain’s appalling Fascist past, much of which remains unknown, and a critique of the injustice and absurdity of the Civil War. The only real quibble is Pablo Cervantes’ sometimes over-the-top score; elsewhere the use of sound is superb.