Looking back in anger

Sheila Johnston thinks Ken Loach's passionate portait of the Spanish Civil War is his best film to date
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Compared to the volume of films about Vietnam or the Second World War, the Spanish Civil War hasn't much of a cinema pedigree, maybe because, although many Americans fought there, it seemed remote from Hollywood. And 20 years after Franco's death, Spain has yet to make a major movie about it. It has been left up to Ken Loach, and he, with European co-production finance allowing him his biggest sweep in years, has made a film, Land and Freedom, more genuinely epic in ambition and achievement than anything else on the horizon.

The main character, David, an unemployed Liverpudlian (Ian Hart), attends a meeting to rally support for the Republican cause and promptly signs up. Despite the differences in their class backgrounds, his experience mirrors George Orwell's in Homage to Catalonia: both men ended up serving in the POUM, the revolutionary wing of the anti-Fascist forces. And both sank from passionate hope into disillusion as they watched the limpid ideals of the Left become muddied by compromise and betrayal. (This theme lifts the film above its narrow historical setting - there are echoes in the modern Labour Party, for instance, though the script does not press them.)

It's a worthy comparison. Loach and his screenwriter, Jim Allen, share in this film Orwell's commitment and anger, his humour and humanity. Land and Freedom is a big fresco teeming with characters, from the multi-national militia, including the radiant Spanish woman, Bianca (Rosanna Pastor), with whom he falls in love, to walk-ons like a little old peasant in a black beret who compares the Revolution to a pregnant cow, and who, I learnt later, was in the trenches 60 years ago on the Anarchists' side.

Loach's work, for all its warmth, is sometimes stalked by figures with "bad guy" inked on their foreheads; the black and white in, say, Hidden Agenda or Ladybird Ladybird, can be very stark. In Land and Freedom - reflecting the characters' own confusion - the moral high ground is much harder to detect, let alone climb.

In so far as there is a visible villain, it is Lawrence, the only American in David's unit, who turns out to be a viper in the nest. He is the story's cynic, or perhaps its realist: he abandons the POUM because he knows that, with its fin-de-siecle weaponry, it will never win the war.

The real culprit, the film asserts, was Russia, the only country (along with Mexico) to send aid and arms to the Spanish Left. It starved the POUM of supplies and funds, and later assassinated its leader, Andreu Nin, as part of Stalin's strategy to appease the West, supporting instead the anti-revolutionary Popular Army. Thus did the Left exhaust all its energies on in-fighting; as one character remarked, the Fascists must have been laughing their heads off.

If all this sounds dull, it isn't: the background context seeps through the colour, emotion and detail of the plot. There is one main exception, a long scene - lasting a good 10 minutes - which sits in the film's belly like a lump of grey bread. In it, the militia and peasants argue whether land seized in battle should be immediately collectivised or whether shared ownership would alienate too many people. Defenders of this sequence maintain that the issues were (and are) important; they were central to the civil war. The peasants are, like all Loach's characters, lively and vividly drawn. But most of them have never been seen before or appear again, and we aren't shown how their worries spring from concrete experience.

The most memorable moments, and there are many, come when Loach fastens on the small incident or quirk of behaviour that reveals, indirectly, a greater truth: when, for example, David, now in the regular Communist Party army, finds himself firing at a Mancunian in the POUM troops, socialist attacking socialist, neighbour fighting neighbour, they know not why. Or when, in the film's modern epilogue, his granddaughter throws the soil David has kept from Bianca's burial on to his own grave and the mingling of the dry sandy Spanish earth and the dark English clay seems to stand for their union in death and for the political ideals he believed in. It's a touching image, and a rather romantic one.

David's story is told in flashback as the granddaughter reads about it in his papers after his death. It's a clever solution (and perhaps the only viable one) to the problem of clarifying complex issues for an untutored audience. But it also leaves some question-marks hovering. One of Land and Freedom's themes is that, in a war blighted by propaganda, you need to see things through your own eyes. David attacks a callow Communist Party soldier who repeats second-hand slander about the POUM; in fact, it was a newsreel film which decided him to go to the front. How far then can we believe the faded cuttings and his letters to his fiancee back home, which presumably don't mention his affair. When he writes that the Spanish girls aren't much to look at while eyeing Bianca with more than comradely interest, image and text are in sharp disagreement.

One heaves a small sigh of relief that Loach and Allen have avoided the corny, Hollywood-style option of having the modern character go through a learning curve (as happens, for instance, in The Bridges of Madison County, where Meryl Streep's diaries save her children a small fortune in marriage counselling). But then why have Bianca give a clenched-fist salute at David's funeral? Is this young teenager a committed socialist, a sudden convert or just an impulsive girl fond of rhetorical gestures? It sets us off wondering needlessly about her.

There's a sadness in Land and Freedom: was all that struggle simply in order for David to wind up dying alone in a scabby old council flat? Fight as they might, the characters emerge as pawns in a much bigger political game. The mood is not, finally, tragic, however. Visually it feels lighter and airier than Loach's enclosed British urban dramas - the brightness and space of the Aragon hillsides where David's unit is stationed allows the film to glow and breathe. And, like Homage to Catalonia, it concludes on an optimistic note: the war may have been a disaster but it leaves us with a greater faith in the men and women in it.

n On release from tomorrow