“Forgiven but not forgotten” is a platitude we routinely use to end disputes both petty and grievous, but it’s the reverse outcome — the mass forgetting of crimes and conflicts never truly resolved — that itches away at a post-Franco Spain in “The Silence of Others.” Soberly chronicling the ongoing legal battle of General Franco’s victims and their descendants to exhume (in some cases quite literally) the skeletons of an ugly past protected by Parliament, Robert Bahar and Almudena Carracedo’s straightforward but emotionally acute documentary works as both a thorough history lesson and a work of contemporary activism. Much-garlanded on the documentary festival circuit, it should benefit from the arthouse imprimatur of executive producers Pedro and Agustín Almodóvar when it opens theatrically on May 8, before finding a wider audience on streaming platforms.
Bahar and Carracedo’s film boasts less stylistic brio than you might expect given the Almodóvars’ backing, yet it’s easy to see how the Spanish master would latch onto a project so flooded with red, raw feeling: “The Silence of Others” collates multiple narratives of intense individual and familial grief into a furious, near-operatic surge of national pain. If anything, this gripping, densely packed doc risks being overwhelmed by the sheer scale of emotion on display in even its secondary investigations: There are several stories here, of mothers seeking stolen babies or torture survivors living adjacent to the enemy, that merit feature-length studies of their own. Intricately assembled and edited from over six years of shooting and gathering — with the protracted arc of one long-hobbled court case lending a dramatic spine — the film could easily have exceeded its 95-minute runtime and not outstayed its welcome.
The opening minutes plunge us directly into darkest heartbreak, as Maria Martin, a frail octogenarian in a rural village, delivers fresh sunflowers to a roadside memorial marking where her mother was stripped, murdered and discarded by Nationalist soldiers in the bloody height of the Spanish Civil War — just one of over 100,000 civilian victims of the Franco dictatorship, summarily buried in mass graves across the country. Maria was only six at the time, but her recollection is chillingly vivid, which makes it all the more absurd that her mother’s death should be subject to a kind of state-mandated amnesia. The Pact of Forgetting, a cross-party policy devised in the wake of Franco’s 1975 death, decreed that the legacy of Francoism be essentially erased from the national record — everywhere from media coverage to classroom curricula — in the interest of forward-looking reconciliation between rival political factions. The 1977 Amnesty Law followed suit, granting freedom to political prisoners and impunity to their persecutors alike.
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Such compromise measures may have seemed politically practical and diplomatic on paper, but they’re hardly sympathetic to a very human need for truth and closure: Despite pressure from the UN, Spain has been alone among post-dictatorship democracies in not conducting an investigation into state terrorism. Alternating between candid interviews and more formal talking-head setups, Bahar and Carracedo collect testimonies from a range of wronged individuals left in aching limbo by this misguided national oversight: among them are Ascension Mendieta, an elderly woman now settled in South America, who’s on a quest to recover the bones of her slain father; Maria Mercedes Bueno, one of many deceived mothers robbed of their newborns by a state eugenics program that continued long after Franco’s death; and Jose Maria Galante, a former political prisoner now living on the same street as his torturer Antonio González Pacheco, an infamously vicious policeman nicknamed “Billy the Kid.”
Binding their stories is a methodical, journalistic survey of the 2010 lawsuit mounted in Argentina by several Franco-era victims, including Galante and human rights lawyer Carlos Slepoy, to bring the likes of Pacheco to justice under international law — a dogged, complex procedure repeatedly stymied by a Spanish legal system still bound to the blind eye turned in the 1970s. It’s intricately fascinating material, even if it doesn’t culminate in the cathartic climax that a fictitious version of this story would demand; Spain’s reckoning with its history remains a nascent work in progress. The film’s finale doesn’t idealize or romanticize that trajectory, even as its delicate visual and sonic language — including the light, folky strains of Leonardo Heiblum and Jacobo Lieberman, and repeated, sunset-lit pans across a rare, bullet-pecked local monument to Franco’s victims — lends some bittersweet grace to proceedings. “Looking for justice isn’t looking for revenge,” notes Galante: it’s less tidy and more difficult, and this stoically tender film knows the difference.