Saturday, December 08, 2012

Spanish Cinema Now ‘12: The Sleeping Voice

They might be atheists, but they certainly have their passion plays.  A Communist martyr will meet her fate as her sister vainly struggles to save her in Benito Zambrano’s The Sleeping Voice (trailer here), which screens tomorrow as part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s 2012 Spanish Cinema Now, their longest running annual film series.

As Voice opens, twelve prisoners are executed by a firing squad as the women inmates of Madrid’s Ventas jail break into “The Internationale.”  Yes indeed, why ease into things, when you can break out the bloody shirt right off the bat.  The best Spanish films on the Spanish Civil War explore the irony and moral ambiguity of the bloody conflict.  This is not one of those films.

It is 1940 and General Francisco Franco is very much alive.  He is quite well in fact, having just consolidated power.  With the support of the church, he has rounded up all the leftwing troublemakers, including Pepita’s beloved sister Hortensia.  Although she and her husband are active in the Communist guerilla forces, we are assured she is innocent of everything.  Arriving in the big city to support her very pregnant sister during the sham trial, Pepita finds work as a maid for the well to do Don Fernando.  While he is sympathetic to her situation, she is not to mention jails or Loyalist family members around his wife, a committed Nationalist whose brother was killed by the Communists.  Of course, being completely guileless, she does so anyway.

Despite her determination to stay out of politics, Pepita finds herself embroiled in a plot to help Hortensia’s husband escape to France.  That is how she meets the dashing “Black Jacket.”  Against her better judgment, she starts to fall for the wanted fugitive.  While she navigates the shadowy world of Franco’s Spain, the clock ticks down to her sister’s presumed death sentence.

Voice has an unmistakable point of view, which is perfectly fine.  However, the large ensemble of women inmates is largely a collection of interchangeable martyrs.  You would think the Nationalists would have scooped up one or two less than noble prisoners, by sheer virtue of their volume.

Still, there are some interesting figures sprinkled in here and there, particularly Don Fernando, a Loyalist sympathizer, whose past activism cost him his medical practice.  Only his high ranking military officer father prevents him from sharing Hortensia’s fate.  Pepita is also an intriguing character (rather fortunately so, since she is the lead), often appearing mired in childlike state of arrested development, yet knuckling down in times of crisis.

There is something deeply arresting about María León’s performance.  Her Pepita is the absolute picture of naiveté, yet she develops some pleasing chemistry with Marc Clotet’s Black Jacket.  Jesús Noguero also adds a realistically human dimension to the proceedings as Don Fernando, even though he is banished from the third act.  Conversely, the undeniably lovely Inma Cuesta is stuck playing a symbol rather than a character as secularly angelic Hortensia.

Cinematographer Alex Catalán’s work is attractive to look at, but Zambrano’s hand is simply too heavy.  We just so get it after a while.  Frankly, Voice’s sequences outside the prison, in which poor Pepita learns something of life, consistently work better than the scenes of predictable sisterly solidarity behind the walls.  Achingly earnest but fairly grueling over the long haul, The Sleeping Voice is mostly for diehard Spanish cinema fans and any surviving veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigades.  It screens tomorrow (12/9) and this coming Thursday (12/13) at the Walter Reade Theater during this year’s Spanish Cinema Now.