An ambitious, multilayered thriller that unfolds amid the frozen landscapes of the Russian front during WWII, "Silence in the Snow" reps helmer Gerardo Herrero's best film since 2003's "The Galindez File."

An ambitious, multilayered thriller that unfolds amid the frozen landscapes of the Russian front during WWII, “Silence in the Snow” reps helmer Gerardo Herrero’s best film since 2003’s “The Galindez File.” Setting a forensically detailed murder investigation against the messy backdrop of war is a neat concept the film fully exploits, and while the script squeezes in a couple of plotlines too many and there’s too much labored dialogue, the result successfully blends genre excitement with historical intrigue. Domestically, the first weekend’s B.O. reception for “Snow” was chilly, but this distinctive, well-made item merits a warmer welcome offshore.

After the end of the Spanish Civil War, Gen. Franco dispatched 18,000 Spanish soldiers, collectively known as the Blue Division, to Russia to help the Nazis combat communism — a historical fact that’s rarely, if ever, been handled in Spanish cinema. The opening scene shows a hauntingly surreal, and scientifically questionable, tableau (similar to one in Guy Maddin’s “My Winnipeg”) when private Arturo Andrade (Juan Diego Botto) comes across a herd of runaway horses frozen in a lake. Alongside them is a dead man with a line from a child’s nursery rhyme carved into his chest.

Commanders Zarauza (Francesc Orella) and Navajas del Rio (Adolfo Fernandez) assign Republican Andrade, a cop in civilian life, to solve this politically sensitive case with the assist of grouchy Fascist sergeant Espinosa (Carmelo Gomez). The deepening friendship of Andrade and Espinosa shows how war can soften as well as intensify political differences.

At first suspicion is aroused that the dead man was an Allied collaborator, but that’s quickly discounted, as Andrade sets about uncovering the truth via a satisfyingly tricky plotline that involves forensics, old photographs, letters and Russian roulette. The discovery of a second body, carved with the rhyme’s second line, suggests that the Division is harboring a serial killer as the story starts to encompass past atrocity and present revenge in a manner redolent of “The Secret in Their Eyes” (also produced by Herrero).

Nicolas Saad’s script takes time to flesh out the bare bones with a wealth of detail about what life is actually like for men who’ve been taken from their homes to live in subzero temperatures. A beautifully shot Russian roulette session is truly disturbing, and introduces the troubling moral idea that if you’re going to die in a war anyway, you might as well have some control over when it’s going to happen.

It’s an extreme situation, and the minds of some of the soldiers, like Guerrita (Andres Gertrudix) and eye-patched Tiroliro (Sergi Calleja, supplying one of Spanish cinema’s more memorable madman laughs) have spilled over into psychosis. Botto and Gomez make an engaging duo, with Gomez delivering his most convincing perf in some time. Meanwhile, despite a perfunctory attempt to deepen Andrade by showing him in a brief relationship with a local Russian femme, Botto has little room to play the role as anything more than an efficient investigation machine.

Atmospherics and period detail are superb. Alfredo Mayo’s attractive widescreen lensing makes the most of the snow-covered, sunlit Lithuanian expanses where the pic was shot, while occasional larger-scale, high-impact scenes, including a couple of aerial bombardments, are authentically brutal.

Silence in the Snow

Spain-Lithuania

Production

An Alta Classics (in Spain) release of a Tornasol Films, Castafiore Films, Foresta Films, Zebra Producciones, Lietuvos Kino Kinostudija production in association with TVE. (International sales: Latido Films, Madrid.) Produced by Gerardo Herrero, Carlos Rodriguez, Jose Velasco, Javier Lopez Blanco. Executive producers, Antonio Saura, Mariela Besuievski. Co-producers, Ramunas Skikas, Antonia Nava. Directed by Gerardo Herrero. Screenplay, Nicolas Saad, based on a novel by Ignacio del Valle.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Alfredo Mayo; editor, Cristina Pastor; music, Lucio Godoy; art director, Edou Hydallgo; costume designer, Lena Mossum; sound (Dolby SRD), Eduardo Esquide. Reviewed at Alta Films screening room, Madrid, Nov. 16, 2011. Running time: 114 MIN.

With

Juan Diego Botto, Carmelo Gomez, Jordi Aguilar, Victor Clavijo, Francesc Orella, Sergi Calleja, Adolfo Fernandez, Andres Gertrudix. (Spanish, Russian, German dialogue)

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