A harrowing drama that transforms the sorry plight of female prisoners in post-Civil War Spain into a bleak examination of man’s inhumanity to women, “The Sleeping Voice” magnificently tells a tale that needs to be told and retold. Shrewdly remaining mainstream while plumbing the depths of grief and violence, this engrossing pic is often unbearably intense in its depiction of atrocities, and affecting in its portrayal of its protags’ doomed fight against politics and patriarchy. Spanish viewers may see it as just “another Civil War movie,” but foreign auds will be gripped; “Voice” deserves to be heard offshore.
Pic is an adaptation of one strand of Dulce Chacon’s bestselling, historical-testimony-based novel, over which many readers have already shed a tear or two. Its setting is 1940, “in the second year of victory” for Franco’s Nationalist forces, per onscreen titles. The opening scene reveals helmer Benito Zambrano’s willingness to tackle horror head-on as a woman is escorted quietly from her prison cell and executed by firing squad. Meanwhile, her comrades sing the “Internazionale,” a potentially cheesy scene that, like others in which characters break out in song, is more plausible than awkward.
Pepita (Maria Leon, blessed with startlingly translucent and communicative eyes) arrives in Madrid from southern Spain in order to be reunited with her pregnant, imprisoned sister, Hortensia (Inma Cuesta). Via intermediary Celia (Teresa Calo), who mutters, “You can’t trust anyone in Madrid,” Pepita finds her way to the home of Dona Amparo (Miryam Gallego), a Nationalist sympathizer whose brother has been killed by the Reds. Amparo’s understandable bitterness is contrasted with Pepita’s benumbed acceptance of her father’s recent execution.
Hortensia arranges for Pepita to deliver forged identity papers to Felipe (Daniel Holguin), living in the mountains with a gang of guerrilla fighters. There, she catches the eye of dashing, mustachioed fellow rebel Paulino (Marc Clotet), with whom an uncertain relationship will develop in these most forbidding of circumstances. Later, Hortensia and her comrades will be tried in the court of an indifferent judge (Antonio Dechent), in a scene that plays like a demented parody of courtroom drama, pushing Pepita to deeper levels of desperation as she seeks help for her sister.
Pic shuttles between the physical claustrophobia of the jail and the social claustrophobia of the outside world, sketching a portrait of a society in trauma, where political neutrality is impossible. Despite the numbing uniformity of prison life, the script draws careful distinctions among the inmates, largely women torn from their homes and families. These scenes are painful, but at least the women are offered some comfort in the form of female solidarity; outside the jail, Pepita has to go it alone, her terror mounting as she slowly awakens to the reality of this new Spain.
Screenwriters Zambrano and Ignacio del Moral seem to have decided that melodrama is the right mode for a story with a ready supply of pain, emotion and violence. But whenever sentimentality threatens, the helmer is just about able to keep a lid on it.
As Pepita, the conduit for all this intensity, Leon delivers an extraordinary, searching performance that sees her extending her range far beyond her work in Spanish sitcoms. Cannily positioning her as a wide-eyed innocent rather than a rebel like her sister, the script unflinchingly records her uncomprehending desperation at the horrors unfolding before her at every turn. Other perfs are solid, particularly from Cuesta as Hortensia, whose pitch-perfect reactions while silently reading a letter from Felipe typify the film’s underlying subtlety.
Period detail is faithfully rendered, as are the appalling conditions of the prison, though Cuesta’s makeup remains too perfect throughout. Alex Catalan’s lensing infuses the jail scenes with a chilly blue hue, with exteriors made to feel similarly bleak. Score, sometimes guitar-based, reps a thankfully understated counterpoint to the emotional tumult taking place onscreen.