Saturday, February 24, 2018

UNCERTAIN GLORY (Incerta gloria, 2017)

Twentieth century Spain, from the civil war through the Franco dictatorship, is the new capital of gothic cinema. There's something morbidly picturesque about the ruined architecture and the passionate politics that has inspired not only Guillermo del Toro but other filmmakers as well. There's nothing supernatural about Agusti Villaronga's film or the Joan Sales novel, one of the classics on the civil war, that inspired it, but the mood is inescapable. Ruins, crypts, corpses abound, and these details make gothic what could almost as easily, from a different aesthetic vantage, have been film noir. From the country that gave us Paul Naschy and The Spirit of the Beehive, gothic seems right somehow.

The story focuses on a quadrilateral of characters: the Republican soldier Lluis (Marcel Borras), his wife Trini (Bruna Cusi), his buddy Soleras (Oriol Pla) and the local aristocrat, the Carlana (Nuria Prims). We meet the Carlana first as she barely escapes with her life when an anarchist army overruns the Carlan's estate and executes him. She convinces the soldiers that she was just a sexually-exploited maid, and now she continues to occupy the property. Looking to her children's future, she wants them recognized as legitimate heirs to the land. As no witnesses to her marriage to the Carlan to survive, she looks to Lluis to help persuade some local peasants to perjure themselves by swearing under oath that they witnessed the wedding. She's made it clear to lonely Lluis, far from home and wife, that helping her with this is his best chance at getting to ride more than the Carlan's horse.

The Carlana is a black widow, a noirish femme fatale willing to kill her deadbeat dad when he shows up to extort money from her, yet you can't help empathizing if not sympathizing with her survival instincts given the savagery of the anarchists and the brutality (we learn of it later) of most men she's known. Amid the collapse of civil society it's every woman for herself as everyone struggles to keep their heads above water. While Lluis's loyalty to Trini wavers, Soleras, struggling with his own desire for Trini, changes sides altogether, going over to the Falangists in a sort of protest against Lluis's imminent infidelity. Chickening out of a suicide attempt, he vents his spleen at the Carlana, invading her sanctum and forcing her at gunpoint to strip and reveal the scars of past tortures.

Lluis and Trini try to reconcile but their child's illness brings a new crisis. Medicine for diphtheria is in short supply on both sides of the war, as Soleras unhappily admits, but someone of the Carlana's standing can deliver the goods -- for a price. The price she extracts from Lluis for his son's life is Soleras's death. Fortunately, Soleras is more willing to pay that price than Lluis did, but what good does any of this do anyone while the war grinds on. A closing air raid blends into newsreel refugee footage, with some of our actors added, to suggest that any victory in such an environment is only temporary.That's the moral of this vividly shot picture -- cinematographer Josep M. Civit runs the gamut from the funereal darkness of the crypt to the blazing light on the landscapes. It's more a sensational, psychological piece than a historical or political drama: the foreign viewer won't learn much about the civil war from Uncertain Glory, apart perhaps from how it was experienced on an unideological individual level. You don't really need to know what any side stood for to appreciate the film's human drama and its dramatically picturesque presentation. At a time when societies everywhere seem to be coming apart, it might seem less like a period piece and more like a premonition in its gothic timelessness.

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