Unlocking historical doors sealed for decades, Manuel Palacios’ “Bars in the Memory” balances analysis and emotion in its thorough study of the persecution of nearly a half-million political prisoners held in concentration camps in Spain by the Fascist regime of Gen. Francisco Franco. The extent of the network of prison camps will stun most non-Spaniards, but it is the human faces of the survivors that lends docu a special grace and power. Hotly debated at its San Sebastian premiere, pic had limited local theatrical release in November, followed by national tube airings care of Sogecable. Plenty of fest bids are in its future.
Pic reps a widening of the current national discussion about the extent of Franco’s damaging policies, which Palacios (“Gitano”) and an array of historians, writers, journalists and ex-prisoners make clear amounted to nothing less than the mass extermination of left-leaning Spaniards opposed to Fascism.
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Palacios uses personal sources, as his relatives were long-term prisoners whose records had been locked up for years. Recent legislation has helped bring the records into the light, with this docu as a result.
While most fiction and non-fiction accounts of the period stress the Civil War itself, the war is only the prelude to the key focus of “Bars”: what happened after the war, when Franco’s Nationalists vanquished the short-lived Republicans, sentencing upward of 500,000 people to brutal prison terms in 100 camps across Spain.
In tandem with totalitarian policies that bred state terror and an unholy marriage between the militarized government and the Catholic Church, a strategy to execute, torture or grind down the imprisoned political opposition was essentially Franco’s version of Hitler’s “final solution” — though Palacios makes this connection less explicit than he could.
The gallery of historians and writers (including Jorge Semprun) is impressive enough, but it is the group of now-elderly former prisoners, sturdy and stalwart while recalling their darkest times, that brings the hidden history fully to life. Through details, such as Josep Subirats recalling constant thirst as the worst part for him, the pain and suffering is starkly felt.
The tragedy is capped with the cruel irony of how an economically blitzed Spain used the prisoners’ labor to build badly needed public works projects, as well as anti-Republican war monuments.
Pic breaks away from the standard montage of talking heads and archival footage (generously assembled) with inserts of a blackboard filled with chalk-written statistics and maps, as well as tracking shots down endless cabinets stuffed with prisoners’ files. Narrator Rosa Maria Mateo’s serious-toned voice ideally compliments the dark era’s visual evidence.