The remarkable fate of thousands of Spaniards exiled to Russia during the Civil War in the 1930s is given an unremarkable examination in this well-intentioned but deja vu-inducing drama. Returning to the Spaniards-abroad theme he tackled in his 2006 sleeper “One Franc, 14 Pesetas,” writer-helmer Carlos Iglesias fails to do justice to remarkable raw materials, tailoring the plot to serve a simple “give peace a chance” message that leaves the human-interest element feeling undernourished. In Spain, where auds are sick of historical rewrites, B.O. has been discreet, but “Spaniards!” could find a home at fests with Hispanic interests.
The earnestly didactic, relentless voiceover lays out the historical context: With the onset of the Civil War, thousands of Republican Spanish children were exiled to Russia only to find themselves trapped there when WWII began and unable to return after Franco’s victory. They cross Russia as best they can, often on foot, in an attempt to reach Stalingrad.
A German aerial bombardment claims the young son of Paula (Esther Regina), a right-winger who had borne him out of wedlock and who, rejected by her family, has trained as a refugee worker in order to be by her son’s side in Russia. These details are explained in early, economically shot flashbacks that rep the pic’s strongest sequences, conveying the tensions of life in a Spain divided by war.
Narrator Alvaro (Iglesias, with a superbly hangdog expression), an exiled Republican policeman, joins the wanderers and falls for the now-traumatized Paula, whose haughty silences have already made her unpopular with the group. Slowly, Alvaro realizes the truth about Paula’s history and that they are from opposite ends of the political spectrum, but this proves no barrier to true love.
The 20th-century divisions between left and right in Spain have never really gone away, so the pic’s feel-good message — that people are more important than politics — at least strikes the right chord. The complexity of human nature finds reflection in the fascinating figure of Paula’s brother Jorge (Inaki Guevara), a crude fascist with just enough heart to make him the pic’s only interesting character.
Looking like a cut-rate “Doctor Zhivago” with its sweeping snowy landscapes and 40-year timespan, pic does capture an epic mood, but stumbles badly with characterization. The complex, rich role of Paula feels unexplored by a hesitant Regina, while Iglesias seems so determined not to play a typical hero that he delivers a perf so muted as to make Alvaro almost invisible; unsurprisingly, sparks between the couple fail to fly. Other thesps seem also poorly directed.
On the visual side, cliches abound, with bereaved women screaming at the heavens and hazy, golden-hued rural scenes featuring people cheerfully chopping wood. Score is obtrusive, while the dialogue too often feels like exposition.
The research seems solid enough, so the pic, though never really engaging with the horrors head-on, does at least provide an appalling snapshot of the atrocities these particular victims of history had to endure.