SAN SEBASTIAN — From the Basque filmmaking trio of Aitor Arregi, Jon Garaño and Jose Mari Goenaga – 2014 San Sebastian competition player “Flowers” and 2017’s Special Jury Prize winner “Handia” – “The Endless Trench” is the region’s, and among Spain’s most buzzed-up title at this year’s San Sebastian Film Festival.
It doesn’t take a linguistics degree to guess the English translation of the Spanish word ironía, nor does one need to have studied drama to understand the irony that in the same week Spanish parliament voted to exhume and remove the remains of the country’s former fascist dictator Francisco Franco, one of the highest-profile films in San Sebastian tells the story of the people who, under the vicious ruler, were forced to entomb themselves within their homes for more than three decades.
“The Endless Trench” kicks off with the start of the Spanish Civil War. Newlyweds Higinio and Rosa are forced to make a temporary subterranean living space beneath the floor of their living room, where Higinio, an outspoken opponent of Franco’s right-wing army and Republican village councillor, can hide from the general’s soldiers.
The fear of execution forces Higinio to hide, first beneath the floor of their home and later behind a wall in his father’s, for what ends up being 33 years, supported all the while by Rosa.
The story is fiction, but after amnesty was granted in the late ‘60s, hundreds of so-called “topos” (moles) resurfaced.
The film has been a hit with audiences and critics alike in San Sebastian, pulling some of the longest lines at the fest and punching the highest score on aN El Diario Vasco Spanish critics’ poll.
It toplines two Spanish stars in Belen Cuesta, a two-time Goya nominated actress best known for comedic roles in “Holy Camp” and “Kiki, Love to Love,” and Antonio de la Torre, one of Spain’s most awarded actors who last year won the Spanish Academy Goya for his work in Rodrigo Sorogoyen’s “The Realm.”
Both seem likely nominees at next year’s ceremony.
“The Endless Trench” is backed by the filmmaking trio’s long-time producer Xabier Berzosa at Irusion and Moriarti Produkzioak as well as Andalusian outfit La Claqueta and Paris-based Manny Films. Film Factory handles international sales and eOne will distribute.
Arregi, Garaño, Goenaga and Barbosa talked with Variety in San Sebastian after the film’s premiere.
In “Handia” two characters went out into a world that was too big for them. This film does the opposite and restricts the protagonists to their home.
Garaño: There are always connections between our movies. Themes that are repeated. I would say that the human factor, the importance we place on small human relationships, is deep down a commonality between these two films. In “Handia” there are two characters that have to leave their home to survive, while here it is just the opposite with two people who have to lock themselves in to live. Their partnerships, and the consequences of them, are the common threads.
And was that intentional? After telling a huge, globe-trotting story, to come back to something so small, so confined?
Goenaga: In some respects, yes. This project actually started before “Handia,” and at the time we didn’t know if that film would get made or disappear. While making “Handia,” we thought about this film again and were attracted to the idea of doing a small movie in terms of location and characters. Of course, there is no easy movie, no small movie. Filming got complicated because when we first developed the idea, we weren’t thinking enough about the passage of time and what that entails. Also, this was a co-production between the Basque Country and Andalusia, so we had two teams for shooting, and Antonio needed time to gain weight. He put on more than 30 pounds in two weeks.
Can you talk a bit more about the casting? Antonio seemed an obvious choice after his standout performance in a similar role in Álvaro Brechner’s “A Twelve Year Night,” but this was a more dramatic role that we’re used to seeing from Belén.
Arregi: Antonio was our first choice from the very beginning. Obviously we looked at other actors, but we wanted him. Casting Rosa was a tough choice at the time, we had four wonderful actresses in our final casting. But, the minute Belen and Antonio were on set together there was an instant connection between them and their characters. It’s one thing to cast a good actor, it’s another thing to cast the right actor for a role.
You said you started developing this film before “Handia,” how has the political situation in Spain, the rise of the ultra-right wing Vox party and the announcement today that Parliament has voted to exhume Franco’s remains, influenced this project since then?
Goenaga: When we started developing this film, we saw similarities to the past, of course. There are some issues that will always exist Spain. When we were in post-production though, I remember hearing about the possible exhumation of Franco’s tomb, then we started hearing about the rise of Vox and the far right again. Obviously we discussed these things, and how our film might fit into the current political debate in Spain, but we couldn’t have imagined how directly some of them relate to our film.
Areggi: I think the themes of our film are stronger for it. It proposes that everyone hides things from each other, and that these conflicts are always there, even if they’re beneath the surface. These things always continue.
Can you talk a bit about the sound design in this film? As much as what we see tells a story, so too do the things we hear.
Arregi: The sound was, in the end, the real story of the topo. It’s how he experiences the world. One of the biggest challenges of this film was telling it from the point of view of the topo, a man who hides for 33 years. There were three levels of sound that made up Higinio’s entire world: what he could hear happening inside his house, muffled sounds he could hear outside the home, and what he could hear on the radio then later TV. To create an authentic experience of the topo, the sound had to be fundamental.
Garaño: In the film, just as important as what is seen and heard, is what is not seen and not heard. It gives an impression that something that is a bit off. These external stimuli provide one version of the development of Spain outside. Even if Higinio doesn’t see it, he feels it. His experience then leads us from Spain during the Civil War to a Spain of post-war poverty and hardship, to a Spain that seems to be already economically improving.