An accomplished, rangy and affecting piece from a helmer whose best work has its roots in the rural landscapes of his native Navarre, Montxo Armendariz’s “Broken Silence” shows there’s still cinematic mileage in the Spanish Civil War. Pic welds the melodrama of his last movie, the Oscar-nomed “Secrets of the Heart,” to a political storyline, and the result is a beautifully crafted homage to the forgotten of the war. Though the subject these days generally provokes groans from Spanish auds under the age of 50, the movie’s revisionism — focusing largely on the women left at home — gives it a contempo feel. The movie looks set to generate at least decent B.O. at home, where it’s attracted positive reviews. Offshore, Armemdariz’s reputation could help “Silence” generate good word of mouth at fests, with arthouse play possible.
Taking a theme rich in dramatic potential and exploiting it to the limit, film casts a light on the freedom fighters called the “maquis,” anti-Franco guerrillas who disappeared into the mountains when the Fascists won the Civil War (1936-39) and who continued to fight for the Republican cause while in hiding.
In fall ’44, the attractive Lucia (Lucia Jimenez), 21, arrives in a mountain village to work in a bar belonging to her aunt, Teresa (vet Mercedes Sampietro). The town is divided and the atmosphere is nervy: Soon after Lucia’s arrival, a guerrilla is shot and killed by the Civil Guard.
Lucia befriends big-hearted Lola (Maria Botto), and quickly falls for the latter’s blacksmith brother, Manuel (Juan Diego Botto, a fast-improving thesp not given much scope here). However, word is out that the Civil Guard is on Manuel’s trail.
Much of the pic’s central part takes place two years later, when the guerrillas come down from the mountains and free the imprisoned Republicans. After a powerful betrayal scene, the Fascist reprisals begin, and the political climate worsens.
Film’s main strengths are in its understanding of the psychology of fear and of how political divisions can break not only the community but also the spirit. What start out as petty local rivalries become, in such an atmosphere, a matter of life and death, with any political action instantly becoming a further link in a chain of violence.
There’s a freshness to the film which comes from spending more time on the women left behind than on the maquis. The journey of Lola from outspoken idealist to tight-lipped traitor feels completely natural, while the matriarchal Teresa’s struggles to keep things together are destined to come to nothing.
“Silence” is studded with memorable moments. One affecting scene has old man Genaro (Joan Dalmau) receiving letters from his son in Paris; but the letters are inventions, Lucia is told, because Genaro’s son actually died during the war. Likewise, a scene where Lola’s son, Juan (Ander Erburu), is told to start digging his father’s grave for the time when his father is caught. These anecdotal scenes have the ring of truth: Armendariz’s script, the result of much research and interviews with maqui survivors, is as solid as a rock, and perfs are generally nicely nuanced.
There are, however, problems with characterization. The Civil Guard are stereotyped villains and it makes for scenes that sometimes smack of sensationalism rather than truth. The portrayal of the Republicans, however, is balanced; it’s strongly suggested that part of the reason for their political failure was petty infighting.
The relationship between Lucia and Manuel is also problematic. This should have been the pic’s emotional heart, but the storyline dictates that Manuel spend a lot of time offscreen. Dramatically, there’s too little at stake for their relationship to grip and, as Lucia, Jimenez lacks the ability to stamp her authority on an entire picture.
Still, the harsh impoverishment of life in post-war rural Spain is meticulously recreated, and the low-key orchestral score subtly underpins mood. Lensing captures the rich textures of damp, misty and darkly atmospheric mountain landscapes and other tech credits are solid.