Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Spanish Cinema Now ’11: Ispansi

Stalin’s Russia was never a safe haven. Unfortunately, many exiled Spanish leftists went from the frying pan into fire when they sought refuge in the Soviet Union. The Eastern Front is decidedly inhospitable to them in writer-director-leading man Carlos Iglesias’s Ispansi (trailer here), which screens this Friday during the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Spanish Cinema Now.

Alvaro is not just a Republican veteran. He was a “political” officer, which implies some heavy things for his proletarian companions. Paula is not one of them. Traveling under an assumed working class identity, the former aristocrat came to the Soviet Union with a group of orphans sent to the socialist paradise for their supposed protection. Among them is the illegitimate son she was forced to give up. Since then she has watched over him as an ostensive volunteer social worker. However, she cannot protect him from the arbitrary dangers of war.

Aside from the children, Paula thinks little of her comrades and even less of Alvaro. He also distrusts her, instinctively sensing her insufficient class consciousness. Of course, the sexual tension passing between them is also hard to miss.

Ispansi (Russian for Spaniards) is not exactly Dr Zhivago, but nothing is. It covers a fair sweep of geography over several decades, while addressing politics with relative nuance. Since under the soon to be former Socialist government any expression of sympathy for the still dead General was effectively prohibited, one would expect the film’s anti-Franco sympathies. Yet, to his credit, Iglesias does not let the Soviets entirely off the hook. In fact, some of Ispansi’s more chilling scenes portray the Soviets’ forced deportation (more or less ethnic cleansing) of the Volga Germans.

Iglesias is not exactly Valentino either, but he has certainly mastered looking like a world-weary everyman. Yet, by not allowing his character much opportunity for substantive reflection, it is hard to know what to make of Alvaro, especially as he faces the disappointing Soviet reality of constant shortages and queuing. By contrast, Esther Regina’s work as Paula is considerably more complex and engaging. Their romantic chemistry together is passable, but never the stuff of legend.

Ironically, the most intriguing and challenging figure in the film is Paula’s Franco-Falangist brother, Jorge. He is a hard, devout man, yet his humanity is manifested in Iñaki Guevara’s surprisingly rich performance.

Indeed, Ispansi works best when exploring the complexities of the brutal Twentieth Century. Though Spaniards were routinely killing Spaniards in Spain, evidently Falangists often set their Republican countrymen free when their National Socialist allies captured them on the battlefield. Such complicated times are inherently dramatic and Iglesias capitalizes on them well enough. A big period production, it has a suitably elegant look for the scenes set in Spain, whereas the Russian sequences are appropriately bleak and wintery. Altogether, it is good chewy historical that never really sets off any ideological alarm bells. Recommended, it screens only once (Friday, 12/9) during this year’s Spanish Cinema Now at the Walter Reade Theater.