Overlord (Stuart Cooper, 1975)

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I wrote about Overlord almost two years ago for Big Picture Magazine in the context of their ‘Lost Classic’ strand – the film had recently been released on Blu-ray by Criterion and was therefore generating some buzz, although I had been unaware of the film or its growing reputation until I watched it on Mubi and subsequently went looking for more information. Anyway, my short piece can be found here:

The reason that I’m posting the link now is that Criterion have just released the film on their new UK Blu-ray line (a DVD (not Criterion) is also available – I bought one back in 2014), which came to my attention via this detailed article by Paul Duane at Mostly Film. Stuart Cooper’s 1969 short film, A Test of Violence – mentioned in that article – is on Youtube.

Reprint: Tren de sombras / Train of Shadows (José Luis Guerin, 1997)

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I originally wrote about Guerin’s Tren de sombras / Train of Shadows on the old blog in February 2014. I am substantially revising that post for this entry in my Reprint series because I have partially rewatched the film this evening (I watched the opening 10 minutes or so and then the last 40 minutes) and subsequently reconsidered at least one element of my earlier piece.

I originally watched Guerin’s film because it had been mentioned multiple times in relation to El Futuro / The Future (Luis López Carrasco, 2013), in Spanish coverage at least, and having not seen the film I wasn’t sure what was being referenced. But it could also stand as a companion piece with Aita (José María de Orbe, 2010) – which I watched for the first time shortly before watching Tren de sombras – focusing as it does on a combination of (apparent) archival footage and a grand house. The connection to El Futuro is the recreation of an era, not simply representing the past but constructing a film that looks as if it was made in the era depicted. Guerin’s film is almost wordless and the only contextualisation for what we see are the opening intertitles explaining that in 1930, amateur filmmaker Gérard Fleury made a home movie in the grounds of his house, a film that would be his last as he died a few months later in mysterious circumstances while filming on a nearby lake. The intertitles also tell us that film had been in such a fragile condition that it was in no state be projected but that it has now been restored.

Back in 2014, I thought that I had misunderstood the French intertitles (there were no English subtitles on the format that I watched) precisely because I initially thought that they had managed to reassemble the 1930s family film when in actual fact Guerin recreated it (something that becomes apparent as the film progresses – so after a certain point I thought that I had confused ‘restored’ and ‘recreated’). As it happens, my French was better than I thought and the opening intertitles are a deliberate piece of misdirection on Guerin’s part. Conceived when the centenary of cinema was approaching, Tren de sombras was a manifestation of Guerin’s desire to explore the origins of filmmaking and a kind of cinematic immersion. The film’s title is a reference to a line from Maxim Gorky’s essay ‘The Kingdom of Shadows’ about his experience of watching moving pictures (by the Lumière brothers) for the first time in 1896 (there is an English translation of that text, here). It might be more accurate to say that Guerin created – as opposed to recreated (because I’m not sure that there is any Fleury family film other than the one shot by Guerin) – a realistic representation of 1930s filmmaking. It’s a testament to the quality of this reconstruction that it is perfectly believable as a 1930s film – indeed a number of reviewers have taken it at face value and refer to the film as making use of ‘found footage’.
The film opens with this 20 minute ‘home movie’, showing Fleury’s extended family at play in the grounds of their home and the surrounding countryside in the summer of 1930. We then switch to ‘the present’ and the nearby town (now in colour), before moving into the grounds of the Fleury home and then the house itself (the interior of which is not seen in the 1930s segment). It is at this point that Guerin’s film foreshadows aspects of Aita; although this house is evidently inhabited, the attention to textures, patterns, reflections – as well as the use of doorways and mirrors to frame our view and the ‘layering’ of the image (by which I mean that the depth of field alters, allowing us deeper into an image) – reminded me of the later film. This sequence is extraordinarily lush with rich colours and patterns in the interior of the house and verdant greenery outside – in conjunction with the music on the soundtrack, it put me in mind of the kind of magical otherness that I associate with Powell and Pressburger productions. The detailed layering and framing hints at what is yet to come, as Guerin and his camera turn detective and revisit the 1930s footage to peel away its layers and reveal secrets within.

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In almost a cross between Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966) and the kind of analysis that the Zapruder film has been subjected to, Guerin slows, replays, freeze frames, and enlarges different sequences of the film to follow the sightlines of those on camera. This gives new emphasis to the play of shadow and light at the back of the image and brings hidden connections and relationships to the surface. Guerin effectively plays with the language and form of cinema on the screen. The film is broken down to its constituent parts and then put back together with the grain of the image acting as a ‘witness’ to the supposed veracity of what we’re presented with, when in fact it is another layer of the show constructed by the director (the film was degraded by hand during the post-production and editing stages). The sequences that ‘reveal’ the most (shadows of simmering passions and traces of a possible love triangle) are then performed in front of us anew in colour, which is quite jarring. The use of colour in the recreation is the point at which the fakery seems apparent – I am slightly confused that those reviewers who take the 1930s footage as genuine don’t notice that it is the same actors (namely Juliette Gautier and Ivon Orvain) who appear in colour, although with some deliberately exaggerated elements of costume and make-up. In the colour section the camera moves between the different fields of view within the image, illustrating the layering of the image (and again demonstrating the importance of depth of field). As with Aita, at the end of the film I felt like I had just watched a magic show.

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There is a French boxset (this one) containing Guerin’s Innisfree (1990), Tren de sombras, and Unos fotos en la cuidad de Sylvia / Some Photos in the City of Sylvia (2007) with optional English subtitles on all of the films.

Reprint: Pablo Larraín’s ‘Chile under Pinochet’ trilogy

This post was originally published on the old blog in November 2013. Pablo Larraín’s new film, The Club, is released in the UK today (although apparently it’s not reaching my part of the country until the middle of April) – so I thought it was worth revisiting his previous films. The post has mainly been edited so that references to dates make sense but I’ve also simplified a couple of sentences.

I saw No (2012) in the cinema in early 2013. Although I hadn’t yet seen the two earlier films, I realised that No‘s undercurrent of alegría marked it as distinct within Larraín’s trilogy given that all three relate to Chile under Pinochet; No is like the gulp of air taken after you’ve been held under water for too long.
And life under water is shown to have been a grim and dark place. The first film – Tony Manero (2008) – is set in the darkest period of the dictatorship, in around 1977-78. The choice of year seems to have been partly shaped by the fact that Saturday Night Fever was in cinemas at that point – both the extras on the DVD and interviews contemporaneous to the film’s release reveal that the starting point was a photo of a man, which inspired in Larraín the idea of a killer who just wants to dance. In the Q&A on the DVD, Alfredo Castro (who plays Raúl, the man who wants to be ‘the Chilean Tony Manero’ in a TV dance contest) says that when they realised that the Travolta film was released in Chile in that period, they saw that they could draw some interesting parallels between the character’s behaviour and that of the State. Operating in a general atmosphere of fear and the absence of morality, Raúl doesn’t see why he shouldn’t always get his own way – so he kills in order to fulfil his dancing dream. Abhorrent as Raúl is, and despite the absurdity of his behaviour being in pursuit of the chance to win a TV lookalike / dance contest (Jonathan Romney talks of the first two films’ ‘grotesque absurdism’ (2013: 28)), the film’s occasional jet-black humour (not so much the banality of evil as the mundanity that underpins Raúl’s singleminded attention to detail in his quest to ‘be’ Tony Manero – “Two buttons?”) is undercut by the intrusion of the dangerous reality (police raids and a background undercurrent of the simmering threat of violence).

Tony Manero

Alfredo Castro is the reason I wanted to write about the films because he turns in extraordinary and completely transformative performances both in Tony Manero and Post Mortem (he takes a supporting role in No). I don’t know why – having focussed on actors for a long time in my research – but I am still surprised when an actor turns out to be completely unlike how he appears onscreen in a given film. Castro appears in the DVD Q&A, looking not just younger and more animated, but positively rejuvenated in comparison to his appearance as the pasty and almost-jaundiced Raúl. I’ve been trying to decide whether he should be described as vulpine or vulture-like (he is frequently shown in profile, drawing attention to a prominent nose) – Raúl both scents danger (he often surreptitiously observes acts of violence being carried out by others) and also circles around in the aftermath (whether relieving an unconscious man of his watch and jewellery or faking a good samaritan act with an old lady). Castro’s performance is a composition of costume (the suit) and body language, alternating between the peacock-like strut on the dancefloor and scurrying rat-like run with which Raúl makes his way around the city (he has an in-built sensor for the approach of bigger animals – he’s frequently seen hiding in doorways or behind mounds of rubble as either the military or the police patrol the area). I found it interesting that his focus is on Tony Manero, the character, rather than John Travolta, the actor (Raúl walks out of a screening of Grease with a look of incomprehension). Castro says in the Q&A that although they knew the character would be a dancer, they wanted to avoid the ‘perfect’ style of American musicals. The dancing in Saturday Night Fever is athletic rather than elegant, and perhaps more importantly is also relatable to Raúl’s social class and to the street. The restraint of Castro’s performance is made clear in the two instances when emotion floods Raúl’s face: being moved to tears in the cinema, watching Saturday Night Fever; and when he is applauded after his TV performance (his reaction here doesn’t happen after the applause at the earlier lodging-house show). On both occasions he is transformed before our eyes.

Post Mortem

The second film, Post Mortem (2010), moves further back in time to September 1973 and the military coup. It is a quietly unsettling film, and very different stylistically to the other two films. The theme (or sense) of surveillance runs through all three films – the handheld camera work in Tony Manero suggests a city under constant watch, while in No it evokes the intimidation of the security forces. Post Mortem‘s very elegant and formal framing is closer to voyeurism, indicated in our introduction to Mario (Castro) where he is standing in front of his main window, waiting for his showgirl neighbour Nancy (Antonia Zegers – luminously fragile but also playing Nancy as narcissistic and flaky enough to truly be a danger to others) to arrive home. The idea of a window is maintained by the letterbox framing throughout the film, which also suggests a restricted view: things frequently happen just out of shot (I had headphones on when I was watching it and the sound is also frequently positioned to the side or somewhere behind you), below the frame. One example is the way that Mario (and the viewer) misses the raid on Nancy’s house (we hear explosions and shouting) because Mario is looking away from the window while he is in the shower and the camera stays on him (observing him through the window). But this is also possibly a comment on people deliberately not looking – averting their eyes to an unpalatable reality (and trying to avoid being seen themselves).
Mario is a grey creature, Castro’s wolfishness from Tony Manero completely gone, his face hidden behind a curtain of light grey hair, and much like one of the cadavers whose post-mortems he records for the pathologist; he is one of the walking dead. But he is also attempting to be invisible, to get along, and not draw attention to himself – something that his apparently already deadened nature helps him with. In contrast, his female colleague (Sandra – Amparo Noguera, who played Raúl’s girlfriend in Tony Manero), although presented in an equally pallid palette of colours (costume, but also her complexion) cannot inure herself to the piles of corpses that start to stack up as the military coup unfolds; I didn’t take this to be a representation of the ‘hysterical female’, but rather someone who is fervently trying to cling to what she believes in and what she ‘knows’ in the face of obstruction, obfuscation, and denial. One gets the sense early on that this story is not going to end well, and the final wordless sequence silently foretells the horrors that were still to come for Chile in the aftermath of the coup.
Many of the same actors (Castro, Zegers, Noguera, and others) appear in all three films, but in No Gael García Bernal comes centre stage as advertising whizz-kid René Saavedra, the strategist behind the ‘No’ campaign in the referendum that would finally oust Pinochet. The choice of lead perhaps speaks to the representation of a younger generation, hope and alegría on the way, but the Mexican actor also brings with him a measure of ambiguity that suits the character; we are never really sure whether René believes in the ‘No’ cause or simply likes a challenge and views democracy as another product to sell (something suggested by his using the same lines when he introduces the first referendum piece as when he introduces the advertising promos for a soft drink (at the start of the film) or a new telenovela (at the end of the film)). Either way, his youthfulness fits with the aesthetic of the film – utilising U-matic film so as to be able to seamlessly blend archival footage into the film (about 30% of the film is archival footage according to a Larraín interview on the DVD – they called up the people who appeared in the original ‘No’ campaign and use them to play themselves, so that on the monitors the original footage shows their younger selves while they appear within the film itself as they are now, 24 years on, ‘history […] written on their bodies’ in Larraín’s words) – the video ‘feel’ of the footage and naturalistic lighting (lens flares and all) suggesting youthful adventure and moments caught on the hoof (not unlike the way the ‘No’ campaign itself was shot).

No

Alfredo Castro again transforms himself, here playing René’s lizard-like employer, an advertising executive who sides with the ‘Yes’ campaign (eventually taking it over in response to what the ‘No’ team manage to pull together) but who nonetheless recognises talent and engages in a cat-and-mouse provocation with the younger man. The back-and-forth between Lucho (Castro) and René, an almost affectionate bickering that has an undercurrent of real threat to it, and Lucho’s private talks with the Prime Minister (Jaime Vadell, who played the main pathologist in Post Mortem), provide much of the film’s humour (in addition to some of the absurdities of the world of advertising, and small touches such as the cleaner at the ‘Yes’ headquarters frequently whistling the ‘No’ campaign’s jingle); the lighthearted tone of the film mirrors the ‘No’ campaign’s ‘Happiness is coming’ sunny representations, in sharp contrast to the earlier two films. However the film still points to the darkness beyond that sunniness, whether in witness testimony about the disappeared, the State’s surveillance and attempted intimidation of the ‘No’ participants, or the cacophonous range of political opinions among the opposition. The latter includes René’s radical estranged wife (Zegers) who tells him that in taking up the challenge, he is playing by Pinochet’s rules and by extension validating what many on the Left thought would be a rigged outcome. Although the end of No is ambiguous (Larraín is quite pragmatic about the limitations of what was achieved and what Pinochet’s lasting legacy for his country was – see the interviews on the DVD), my lasting memory of the film from my first viewing was of sunshine. The trilogy goes out on a euphoric high.

 

Reprint: La madre muerta / The Dead Mother (Juanma Bajo Ulloa, 1993)

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This is another in what will be a series of ‘reprints’ of posts that were on the old blog. I have edited / partially rewritten this one (and played around with the images) but the original from March 2011 can be found here. I wrote two posts about La madre muerta on the old blog, and the other one – an ‘anatomy of a scene’ post that looks very closely at a specific set piece from early in the film – is also likely to be revisited on here at some point.

Director: Juanma Bajo Ulloa
Screenplay: Juanma and Eduardo Bajo Ulloa
Cast: Karra Elejalde, Ana Álvarez, Lio, Silvia Marsó
Synopsis: During a burglary, Ismael (Elejalde) casually murders a woman and shoots her young daughter, Leire. Fifteen years later, Leire (Álvarez) is mute and has the mental age of a three-year-old. By chance Ismael sees Leire in the street and becomes convinced that she can recognise him. He decides to kidnap her…

‘La madre muerta is the story of a killer without scruples who steals chocolate from a little girl, and of how the little girl takes back the chocolate from her (now) victim years later’ –Juanma Bajo Ulloa (DVD booklet [my translation])

I first watched La madre muerta more than fifteen years ago on a Tartan Video VHS*. The scenes / aspects that I remembered most strongly before I revisited the film were: the prologue (the burglary); the scene in which Ismael tries to kidnap Leire and knocks himself out with the chloroform he has prepared for her grandmother (this is the set piece that forms the basis of the other post mentioned above); the ‘Aguadilu’ scene where Ismael pretends to be a clown to try to make Leire laugh; the intrepid investigating nurse hiding down the side of the wardrobe; and the image of Leire chained to the bed with a dog collar. Watching the DVD, I was surprised that I had no memory whatsoever of the early scene in the bar, which is incredibly violent and nasty (leaving us in no doubt, if we had any after the prologue, that Ismael is capable of anything). But perhaps the other scenes stuck in my mind because they are unsettling in a subtler fashion.

From the beginning of the film director Juanma Bajo Ulloa plays with both genre conventions and perspectives – i.e. the (physical) angle from which we view events is used to radically alter our perception of what we have seen – to continually wrongfoot the viewer. As Mark Allinson observes, the prologue has all the hallmarks of a thriller and the viewer’s ‘generic expectations’ (2003: 147) initially cause us to think that the woman we see being woken up by the intruder’s noise will be the protagonist of the film. But we barely have time to register the woman’s presence in the same room as the intruder – we hear her, rather than see her (she says “No hay dinero” [“There is no money”]) – before the intruder raises and fires the shotgun, and the woman (and mother of the title) drops to the floor (Ismael steps over her with barely a glance). Allinson suggests that our assumptions then turn to the possibilities of the investigative crime thriller, but that is also not to be – and the character who later thinks that she is in a detective film (Blanca – played by Silvia Marsó) does not triumph in her endeavours (Bajo Ulloa chirpily comments on the audio-commentary at the ‘end’ of that narrative strand that “in real life, the good don’t win” [my translation]).

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In Sight & Sound, Leslie Felperin pointed out that ‘throughout the film, an edit or a camera angle obscures a view’ (1996: 46) with the intention of making events and motivations ambiguous; there are several sequences in the film where the camera takes on a character’s POV in such a way that the viewer is misled. The most infamous of these is the sequence where Blanca – the nurse who cares for Leire at the medical daycare clinic – breaks into the house to rescue Leire but then finds herself trapped. She hides down the side of the wardrobe in the room where Leire is chained to the bed. When Ismael enters the room, the camera continually returns to Blanca’s POV. Initially she cannot see him but leans forward when she hears a zip being undone and sees Ismael’s back as he stands alongside the bed, with Leire kneeling on the bed in front of him: from Blanca’s POV it looks as if Ismael is forcing Leire to perform oral sex on him. The camera then cuts to what is effectively Leire’s POV (in front of Ismael) and – in a darkly comic ‘reveal’ – the audience sees that he has been surreptitiously feeding her a bar of chocolate (both of them have a sweet tooth) that is hidden in the front of his jacket (the source of the zip noise). As Leire sits back on the bed and Ismael takes a seat, we then see a shot of Maite’s (Ismael’s girlfriend, played by Lio) eye at the doorframe – she is seeing the same scene in a mirror angle to Blanca (she is also behind Ismael but on his other side). Both women then clearly see Leire eating chocolate and come to the same conclusion as to what has transpired out of their line of sight (they take the chocolate to be a ‘reward’ – both mutter “hijo de puta”, although for slightly different reasons).

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That sequence not only misleads the viewer for a comic payoff but also plays on the deep unease felt by the audience on account of the ambiguous ‘attraction’ that Leire holds for Ismael. When he goes in search of her (after his accidental sighting), his initial perspective is through a hedge and the above shot encapsulates how Ismael treats Leire as something to be looked at and watched – the framing through the gap in the hedge gives the image a peep show quality. Likewise, Maite also finds the manner in which Ismael watches Leire to be disquieting – she becomes increasingly jealous and questions Ismael’s feelings for the girl when she discovers him asleep in a chair opposite Leire’s bed. His excuse (he was worried Leire might escape) leads Maite to suggest chaining her up, which only increases the tension: as Nigel Floyd said in his review, ‘the fact that Leire, a helpless child trapped in a woman’s body, is fetishistically manacled to a bed lends a dangerous, almost perverse erotic edge to some scenes’. This comes to a head in the ‘Aguadilu’ scene where Ismael tries to make Leire laugh – he is preoccupied throughout the film by the fact that she does not smile or laugh – by putting on silly voices, making noises and painting his face like a clown. In a somewhat desperate final attempt, he decides to tickle her during which he grabs her breast, an action that was innocently intended (consciously, at least) but which visibly shocks him because he is confronted by the fact that Leire may have the mind of a child – and Álvarez’s performance of wide-eyed wonderment during the sequence is brilliantly observed – but she has the body of a woman. Although she has previously shocked him by returning his gaze – in a second sequence where he looks at her through the hedge at the clinic, a noise attracts her attention and she looks straight at him (in response, he runs off) – this scene is the first time that he acknowledges to himself that he views her as something more than a child (he furtively looks over his shoulder after he touches her breast, as if someone might catch him in the act – also an acknowledgement that what he’s doing is wrong) and also as something more than a hostage. He looks at her sadly, and then moves away from her: he is unable to look at his own reflection when he sits back down in his normal chair / observation post, and he slams the mirrored wardrobe door shut.

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That he is given a moment of self-awareness is an illustration of the film’s humane treatment of its characters; although Ismael is not allowed off the hook, he is offered the chance of redemption. The film has a fairytale quality – something that it shares with two of Bajo Ulloa’s other films (Alas de mariposa / Butterfly Wings (1991) and Frágil / Fragile (2004)) – but Ismael is allowed to be something other than just a monster. Karra Elejalde’s performance is central to this. In an introductory piece in the DVD booklet, director Nacho Vigalondo – who cast Elejalde in his directorial debut, Los cronocrímenes / Timecrimes (2007) – describes the actor and his performance as “creating a character that, like the rest of the film, is a balancing act between ‘costumbrismo’ [something very specifically local] and impossible cliché, summed up in the red painted face that is as much circus-like as it is demonic. Your father’s friend, and an extraterrestrial. At the same time” (my translation). Bajo Ulloa says on the audio-commentary that his main problem after writing the script was finding the right actors to play the two central roles. Álvarez is outstanding as Leire, and utterly believable as the child trapped in a woman’s body (you do not see her ‘acting’ at any point), but Elejalde has to walk a tightrope of charm and menace while also carrying off some darkly comic sequences. The film was not warmly received by Spanish critics (the El País review – here – is so scathing that it will make you wince), but the English reviews that I have found (in Sight & Sound [not available online – but in the March 1996 issue], Time Out and Empire) took a more positive view of the unsettling combination of the tender and the twisted that the film manages to pull together through plot, character, and performance.

*There is no UK DVD but the re-mastered 3-disc ‘edición coleccionista’ – released in Spain in 2008 – has optional English subtitles for the film.

Libertarias / Freedom Fighters (Vicente Aranda, 1996)

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Big Picture Magazine‘s theme for January 2016 is ‘War’. Trying to think of a film that related to ‘war’ in an unusual way, Libertarias / Freedom Fighters (Vicente Aranda, 1996) came to mind – it is set during the Spanish Civil War and focuses on a group of left-wing, anarchist women who are fighting on the front line. I reviewed the film back in 2014 when the London Spanish Film Festival had a retrospective of Vicente Aranda’s work, and I was surprised by how much I liked it because I generally get a ‘flesh peddler’ vibe from a lot of Aranda’s films (caveat: I’ve mainly seen his films from the 1990s and later) but this was a labour of love for the director and a celebration of radical women and political sisterhood.

Anyway, the piece had to fit within one of the standard sections of their website so I had to decide what tack to take with the film. I knew that I wanted to spotlight its treatment of the women. I wouldn’t categorise it as a ‘Lost Classic’ – it is by no means perfect – so it has ended up as a ‘Brilliant Failure’. This category isn’t meant to classify films as disasters but to highlight those films that don’t quite reach greatness but still have plenty to recommend them. For me, the ‘brilliant’ aspect of Libertarias is the way that politically-committed women (who self-identify as feminists) are put front and centre – their relationships with each other do not become secondary to a romantic plot or other aspects of the narrative. The ‘failure’ (or the central flaw) is that the main protagonist (and audience proxy) – María (Ariadna Gil – who I usually like) – is a wet blanket and her subservience runs counter to what the rest of the women embody. But there are other issues with the film. For example, while I was taking screenshots to accompany the piece I got distracted by the camerawork and started to wonder why – when the film is shot in a widescreen format – Aranda often panned between characters rather than cutting shot/reverse shot or simply putting people in the same frame. I don’t have an answer at the moment. Plus, there’s also a sequence where Victoria Abril’s character is seemingly possessed by a spirit which just feels like it’s from an entirely different film. But it was the way that Gil’s character undermines other aspects of the film that particularly irritated me when I first watched it.

Re: screenshots. The image at the top of this post is a promo shot – you will see over at Big Picture Magazine that the image quality on the actual DVD that I have is not very good. I spotted yesterday that the film was reissued last year – as part of Divisa’s initiative to restore and reissue OOP Spanish films – so possibly there is now a better edition available but there is still no subtitled version. So I’m afraid that I’m recommending something that most of you won’t be able to watch.

Click through to Big Picture Magazine to read my piece – Brilliant Failure: Freedom Fighters (Vicente Aranda, 1996).