As titles go, “The Endless Trench” augurs a hard sell. Its very combination of words is arduous: Nobody will read them, glance further down at the 148-minute running time, and go in expecting a good time, if indeed they go in at all. That’s somewhat apt for a film that chronicles a long period of confinement and emotional labor, following as it does a political outlaw forced into hiding in his own home following the Spanish Civil War — a fictional story, but one rooted in the experiences of many such alleged war criminals during the long, hostile Franco regime, who lived almost literally underground as “moles” for over 30 years. Yet the imposing dourness of the title doesn’t quite reflect the accessible, involving and emotionally full-blooded domestic melodrama behind it, made with the same hearty sensitivity that directors Aitor Arregi, Jon Garaño and Jose Mari Goenaga brought to their previous collaboration on 2014’s “Flowers.”
Like that smaller-scale effort, “The Endless Trench” has been selected as Spain’s entry for the international feature Oscar, thus sealing the status of its writing-directing trio as local industry majors. A global distribution deal with Netflix, where the film is currently streaming, won’t have hurt either: The film’s arrival on the platform comes a year after its Spanish theatrical release, where it did solid box office en route to a strong showing at the national Goya Awards, with co-lead Belén Cuesta taking the best actress prize. Both sprawling in its narrative reach and sophisticated in its technical execution, it’s the filmmakers’ most ambitious collective effort to date, hinting at an aptitude for more grand-scale mainstream fare.
A breathless opening half-hour is entirely enthralling, even as it sets up something of a narrative bait-and-switch: The directors compress nearly all the story’s propulsive exterior action into this first act, before the film becomes a patient exercise in watching and waiting. In a humble Andalusian village, the year is 1936, and Francoist Civil Guard soldiers are rounding up left-leaning Republican dissidents like Higinio (the solemn, hangdog-faced Antonio de la Torre), who is apprehended and bundled into a truck. A last-ditch escape effort cues a bullet-peppered chase across the khaki-colored landscape and a grisly hideout in a nearby well. Eventually, with further escape proving impossible, Higinio sneaks back into the small cottage he shares with his loving, anxious wife Rosa (Cuesta). If the enemy think he’s at large, they reason, the safest place to shelter might be home itself — in a snug crawlspace under the floorboards.
It’s no spoiler to say that Higinio proceeds to spend the near-entirety of the film in this manner of unofficial house arrest, as months turn into years, and years into decades, with an ominous price on his head all the while — and treacherous neighbor Gonzalo (Vicente Vergara) watching like a hawk for the faintest sign of his presence. Yet amid that stasis, the film is consistently, even surprisingly, eventful, as a mixture of political threat, community surveillance and marital strife give Higinio and Rosa more to worry about than simply remaining hidden. Within the formal confines of a chamber piece, “The Endless Trench” manages to conduct a good old-fashioned soap opera of high stakes and high passions — complicated especially when Rosa, realizing that she and her husband might not be able to live in the open while there’s still time, decides she wants a baby.
Arregi, Garaño and Goenaga’s episodic original screenplay thus works up a busy lather of life-and-death drama from its austere premiere: much of it passively observed by Higinio from the cramped safety of his hidey-hole, though his powerlessness to intervene in certain perilous scenarios makes for the most emotionally charged conflict here. That this crowded, heated saga never quite tips over into implausibility is much to the credit of the two leads’ restrained but classically emotive performances: Cuesta, as a woman increasingly desperate for a husband who’s a partner rather than a responsibility, gets the higher, more fervent notes to play, while de la Torre works in shades of gray, marking in subtle degrees the exhaustion of a life lost to secrecy.
Javi Agirre Erauso’s expert, oak-hued lensing paints shadows upon shadows, keeping us in Higinio’s claustrophobic headspace even when the camera has the run of Pepe Dominguez’s weathered, aesthetically evolving midcentury production design. Though its never loses our attention, this two-and-a-half hour film does feel slacker than it could, occasionally double-underlining strains in the central couple’s relationship that the acting and writing have already deftly filled in. Meanwhile, a chapter-dividing device that sees broad keywords of Higinio’s struggle — “raid,” “hide,” “danger,” “separate” and so on — dictionary-defined in stark title cards is a pointless affectation. “The Endless Trench” plunges us into a living nightmare with enough atmospheric precision of its own: It needn’t literally spell things out for us.