Another new Spanish film to deal belatedly with the atrocities of the Franco regime, writer-director Mikel Rueda’s emotionally wrenching “Stars to Wish Upon” dramatizes the plight of women incarcerated, with their young children, in the infamous Saturraran prison because they or their husbands fought on the wrong side in the Spanish Civil War. The zealous, relentless persecution of these women, continuing long after the war was won, evokes ghosts of the Spanish Inquisition, particularly as the prison is entirely operated by white-clad nuns. Strong perfs and an impassioned, fact-based script could overcome American auds’ apparent disinterest in the subject.
If Mexican helmer Guillermo del Toro’s striking explorations of the war (“The Devil’s Backbone,” “Pan’s Labyrinth”) exploited the horror genre to spectacular effect, Rueda’s more conventional and modest Basque-language effort relies on prison-movie tropes, with nuns as sadistic prison guards and a soft-spoken Mother Superior (Itziar Lazkano) as the warden from Hell in an unholy partnership with political despotism. Except for portentous shots of shadowy corridors, Rueda’s approach tends toward the matter-of-fact and avoids expressionism, concentrating instead on the complex choreography of the women’s shifting alliances within confined spaces.
The one time Rueda ventures into magical-realist territory, imagining a starry-skied alternate universe within the prison pantry, the scenes function more in terms of ideas than visuals.
After the film’s putative heroine, widowed teacher Victoria (Barbara Goenaga), is summarily rounded up with her sister and young son, she quickly bonds with other new prison arrivals, their solidarity strengthened as the women start to actively resist the nuns’ agenda. As part of Franco’s campaign to annihilate all opposition, young children are wrested from their “Red” mothers and delivered to “right-thinking” Francoist families. Since forcibly separating mother and child is against Spanish law, the Mother Superior, under the guidance of a sinister psychiatrist, initiates a series of threats and deprivations, forcing the women to choose between letting their children starve or giving them up for adoption.
An unremitting battle of wills soon develops between the Mother Superior, aka the “White Panther,” and Victoria, whose education marks her as the women’s de facto leader. Rueda creates a secondary, parallel clash between a fresh-faced young atheist (Garbine Insausti) — portrayed, unconventionally enough, as a naive girl staunchly upholding her family’s values — and a nun (Teresa Calo) who single-mindedly targets her for conversion.
Except for the official punishment meted out on recalcitrant prisoners (left for days in “the well,” submerged up to their shoulders in a room full of cold water), Rueda keeps physical violence largely offscreen, accenting purely psychological trauma.
Thesping is magnificent, the women effortlessly transcending facile stereotypes within the microcosm of the prison. Lazkano’s Mother Superior shifts between doubt and certitude about the rightness of her actions as innocent babes’ lives are threatened. She conveys a chilling sense of entitlement after receiving benediction from the church hierarchy, a serene smile playing about her face as she ruthlessly grinds down those who threaten her sanctified worldview.