Hal Hinson - Style section,
'Land and Freedom'
The picture begins in Liverpool in 1936 as David, an idealistic communist, prepares to join his comrades from around the world in their fight against Franco and the Spanish fascists. In Spain, David joins freedom fighters from Ireland, America and Europe in a ragtag army with outdated weapons and little training.
Most of the action takes place between the fall of 1936, when David
arrives at the front, and the summer of 1937. As David adjusts to the
crude conditions and meets his new comrades, Ken Loach begins to educate us
about the historic conflict between Spain's wealthy landowners and the
peasants. -- Hal Hinson
'Lecturing Death in the Face'
By Hal Hinson
"Land and Freedom" is billed as the first major international film to deal with the Spanish Civil War since "For Whom the Bell Tolls" in 1943. That's 53 years, roughly the time it seems to take for the film to unreel.
The picture begins in Liverpool in 1936 as David (Ian Hart), an idealistic communist, prepares to join his comrades from around the world in their fight against Franco and the Spanish fascists. And because of the intensity and focus of this magnetic young actor (who was so thrilling and electric as John Lennon in "Backbeat"), the early scenes are brisk and promising.
As it turns out, though, they're about the movie's only source of excitement. In Spain, David joins freedom fighters from Ireland, America and Europe in a ragtag army with outdated weapons and little training.
Once the film hits foreign soil, though, British director Ken Loach -- working from a script by Jim Allen -- can't keep the story moving forward. Loach -- known here primarily for small, realistic tales of working-class Brits including "Raining Stones" (1993) and "Riff-Raff" (1990) -- usually works closer to home.
Though new terrain liberates some artists, it throws Loach. He doesn't know how to shoot the dusty Spanish landscapes. Out where the spaces are open, he keeps dragging the camera indoors.
Most of the action takes place between the fall of 1936, when David arrives at the front, and the summer of 1937. As David adjusts to the crude conditions and meets his new comrades, Loach begins to educate us about the historic conflict between Spain's wealthy landowners and the peasants.
The freedom fighters -- who as characters are limited primarily to portraying national stereotypes -- are conspicuously democratic in their deliberations. The main debate is over whether they should pledge allegiance to their own revolutionary movement or join the Communist Party mainstream. However, instead of dramatizing their conflicts, the filmmakers merely have their characters talk them out. Endlessly. After a battle (clumsily staged) to liberate a village, the Republicans -- about 20 of them -- crowd around a big table to discuss the town's future. And you feel as if you're not going to get out of that room until every single person around that table expounds on the virtues of collectivism vs. communism.
Nothing wrong with a cinema of ideas, of course. But it does help if the ideas are fresh. And if the filmmaker's style is consistent. Loach will be theoretical in one segment, then shift to corny political melodrama. As a result, the film falls into a sort of hiccuping rhythm: Talk. Battle scene. Talk. Limp character conflict. Talk. And it's as if we had to go to class before every sequence.
Naturally, this stop-and-go approach destroys any hope of establishing the narrative momentum.
Loach's passion for the ideas is evident, but he doesn't do them service when he turns his actors into megaphones or when he attempts to mimic the glib Hollywood mix of politics and romance.
This takes the form of a front-lines romance between David and Blanca (Rosana Pastor), the sultry anarchist who's been batting her big moo-cow eyes from her foxhole. And while it's powerfully sexy pillow-talking about Stalin and whether the Revolution is being betrayed by Mother Russia, somehow that "For Whom the Bell Tolls" magic is missing.
The problem is Loach can't get out of his head long enough to make contact with his senses. Like most artists on an ideological mission -- Loach's socialist politics are well-documented -- he wants to appeal to the intellect. But movies engage the intellect through the senses, through emotion.
"Land and Freedom" is a bust in every respect -- emotional, sensual and intellectual. It also makes a pretty lousy recruiting commercial. Even if we wanted to rise up and sing the song of the masses, we might not be able to shake the sleep from our eyes.
Land and Freedom is unrated.