Although they happen almost 60 years apart, a pair of funerals climax writer-director Ken Loach's mournful Land and Freedom.
The film opens with the death of one of these individuals: An English gentleman in his '80s is found slumped on his couch by paramedics. We discover as his granddaughter discovers, through a series of flashbacks inspired by the contents of the old man's leather briefcase, that he had been an ardent socialist as a young adult, leaving chronically unemployed 1930s Liverpool to help fight in the Spanish Civil War.
The other funeral that closes the film has a more profound symbolic significance. It was the death of a comrade at the hands of Stalin's Communist Party that finally taught our cockney protagonist the cruel distance between politics as passion and politics as practice.
With Land and Freedom, writer-director Ken Loach prepares a stark, respectful cinematic funeral for Communism, then delivers a bitingly honest memorial at the service. Loach is a lefty-craftsman Brit from the John Osborne school of kitchen-sink melodrama. Transferred to the screen, his politics are less humanitarian, more cocked and aimed at bureaucratic targets. He loathes totalitarianism, whether it be state agencies that plunder a family in Loach's remarkable last film Ladybird, Ladybird, or Margaret Thatcher's ruthless internal affairs in Hidden Agenda (1990).
Land and Freedom doesn't surge with the same desperate, angry pulse that characterized those dramas. In filming with a news camera's detachment the tragic tale of a passionately committed people's militia fighting Franco's forces in the hills of Spain, Loach concedes the naivete of pure Marxism while recording its strangulation in the cruel grip of Stalinism.
Cinema's first treatment of the Spanish Civil War, For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943), was released just six years after the conflict had ended. Director Sam Wood transplanted the fatalistic machismo of Ernest Hemingway's story while remaining pretty vague about the political persuasion of the characters played by Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman. Fascism was the clear enemy, but Wood portrayed its vanquishers as generic freedom fighters, not commies with an international agenda.
Land and Freedom, on the other hand, is explicit about the vagaries of revolution. The trustful Liverpudlian protagonist (Ian Hart, familiar to American audiences as John Lennon in both Hours and Times and Backbeat) wedges himself into a leftist militia that looks (and often acts) more like a college study group. Sporting faulty rifles and bric-a-brac uniforms, this British-Irish-Spanish-Italian-American brigade runs around the Spanish countryside as an occasionally effective pain in the ass to Franco's troops. In fact, so enthusiastic and harmonious is this multicultural knot, you'll sometimes swear you're watching a war game played by neighborhood kids from Sesame Street.
But it's this heightened sense of childlike devotion to a very attractive philosophy that finally drives the movie's tragedy right between your eyes. Granted, expecting contemporary American audiences to feel the pain of lost leftist innocence is a tall order, but you needn't be a pinko romantic to flinch at the internal disintegration and ultimate betrayal of a tiny group that wanted to change the world.
Land and Freedom is the kind of war movie in which the battle-strategy scenes are more wrenching than the battles themselves. The centerpiece of the film is a 15-minute round-table discussion between the militia and beleaguered peasants. Together they've just captured the estate of a wealthy landowner and are arguing among themselves whether to collectivize the land or use it as a home base from which to defeat Franco's military.
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Here the film's sunny kindergarten cooperation begins to fade. Comrades become egos, men with personal opinions on how the spoils should be divvied up. The dining room of this stolen palatial residence is divided between people who want to remake the planet as a Marxist cooperative and those who just want European fascism destroyed.
The second, and fatal, split occurs as rag-tag leftist guerrilla groups all over Spain are absorbed into the gigantic Russian Communist Party. The weary hero of Land and Freedom comes to believe that a force consisting of untrained foreigners and peasants cannot be an effective weapon against Franco. The decision to jump onto Stalin's ship results in his bitter rejection by a lover (Rosana Pastor) who sees how the Russian tyrant has exploited laborers.
Anyone who craves battlefield bravado or even just grand emotion in their war movies might be sorely disappointed by Land and Freedom. The battle scenes are relatively well-mannered, showcased almost as an afterthought, and Ken Loach refrains from detailing the personalities of most of his characters. The writer-director turns our gaze away from his people as personalities toward the self-sacrifices they make for their crusade, borne aloft by a kind of patriotism on training wheels. A rare bird in a genre obsessed with the individual, Land and Freedom weeps for the death of principle.
Land and Freedom. Gramercy. Ian Hart, Rosana Pastor, Iciar Bollain. Written by Jim Allen. Directed by Ken Loach. Now showing.