Dir: David Trueba. Spain. 2003.112 mins.
Based on a best-selling novel, Salamina Soldiers (Soldados De Salamina) makes the Spanish Civil War unusually accessible by weaving it into a contemporary tale less concerned with local politics and more with humanity at large. This graceful third feature film from writer-director David Trueba, seems the work of a more veteran filmmaker and solidifies him as one of the most promising of his generation. Salamina Soldiers will face an uphill battle to draw audiences and buyers potentially wary of yet another Spanish Civil War film, yet the thirty-something Trueba's fresh take on the past, embedded in a present-day drama held together by an excellent Ariadna Gil, represents an original work and one well deserving of international exposure on the arthouse circuit: Salamina should have no trouble securing festival slots, and could be a potential Cannes contender. In Spain, Lolafilms released the film through UIP, where after two weeks it has grossed $577,861.
Lola Cercas (Gil) - a female version of Salamina Soldiers novelist Javier Cercas - is an unhappy, angst-ridden writer and university professor who stumbles across the true story of a man who escaped a firing squad death in 1939. The man, a well-known fascist writer named Rafael Sanchez Mazas (Fontsere), was found hiding in the woods but unexpectedly set free by a firing squad soldier. Inspired to write a book about the events, Lola sets out to uncover the details of Sanchez Matas' escape and to identify the soldier who heroically spared his life. Her investigation, ultimately a search for a hero, and the acquaintances she makes along the way, force Lola to take a new look at her own tattered life.
Gil gives an inspired performance, transmitting at once debility, sensitivity and strength. She conveys the internal angst of a woman who has doubly failed in fulfilling the promise of her debut novel and in finding her place in the world, yet also provides the steady, unbiased gaze through which the audience jointly experience the horror and the beauty of the story being pieced together.
Credited with editing the film as well, Trueba has done a graceful job of weaving together present-day and historical recreations with real footage. At no point does the film jerk too abruptly or dwell two long between narrative strings. An elegant closing scene is set only to the sound of rain falling. This is literary adaptation in the best sense of the word: borrowing, adding and bringing to life. Only two supporting characters want for greater fleshing out; the mystery man who inspires Lola to write the book and her student-slash-love interest (Luna).
Trueba manages to generate suspense out of the unfolding history without sacrificing a sense of realism. His use of original locations and interviews with actual eye-witnesses lend a documentary feel to certain scenes. Cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe's shaky camerawork further infuses the tale with urgency and momentum, even during talkier expository sequences, and brings an edginess and contemporary feel to the film as a whole, historical segments included.
Without wallowing in dreariness - Lola's humorous girlfriend (Botto) provides the lighter moments - drab grey colour tones and overcast exteriors underscore Lola's internal battles and the not-so-long-ago devastation in Spain.
Salamina Soldiers takes on even greater timeliness considering current world events. "It looks like every other war," a character notes of a Civil War-era photograph. "I won't let them forget you," Gil's Lola tearfully promises a war veteran in a farewell scene. Cercas' novel - and now Trueba's film - will help fulfil that promise.
Prod cos: Lolafilms, Fernando Trueba PC
Sp dist: Lolafilms, UIP
Int'l sales: Lolafilms International
Prods: Andres Vicente Gomez, Cristina Huete
Scr: Trueba, based on the novel by Javier Cercas
Cinematography: Javier Aguirresarobe
Prod des: Salvador Parra
Main cast: Ariadna Gil, Ramon Fontsere, Diego Luna, Joan Dalmau, Maria Botto