Land and Freedom Review

It’s an interesting month for Artificial Eye releases, seeing Loach’s 1995 film Land and Freedom released at the same time as Eric Rohmer’s 2003 film Triple Agent. Although similarly dialogue heavy, both films are very different in their treatment of the political turmoil in the years preceding World War II, but both in their own way seem to successfully highlight the tremendous significance of this complicated turning point in history. Rohmer’s film, through examination of the Miller-Skobline case shows how susceptible the situation was to disinformation and manipulation, while Ken Loach, in the extra material included with the DVD of Land and Freedom describes the Spanish Civil War as “the most important story of the 20th century”, a true revolution unlike any other that had the opportunity to dramatically change the political landscape of Europe forever.

When her grandfather dies, a young girl goes through his personal effects and finds a side to the man she never knew. Reading through his letters, newspaper cuttings and photographs, she pieces together the story of his involvement as a volunteer on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War. After a rousing presentation to the local Communist Party members in Liverpool of the situation facing the workers in Spain, David (Ian Hart) – out of work and on the dole – believes he can do something worthwhile by going to Spain and fighting for the land-working population in their struggle against Franco's military dictatorship which has usurped the power of the democratically elected Socialist government. Unable to get international support for their struggle against the Fascist dictatorship which is supported by Hitler and Mussolini and even tacitly by the British government, many men, like David, make the secret crossing into Spain – Americans, Irish, Italians, French and even Germans – young idealists all willing to fight for the cause. Together with Spanish workers, they form a Republican militia unit and set about liberating towns in the Aragon region from Fascist control. But more than that, the militia and the people want revolution – to impose the communist ideal, collectivising land, improving productivity and sharing it with those fighting for the Republican cause.

Adding to the internal struggles between the practicalities of fighting the Fascists and implementing the ideals of Communism, the POUM militia desperately need support and weapons to hold onto the ground they have gained. They distrust the Stalinist Republican Army however, and are unwilling to subsume their passion and their love of the land and freedom to a militaristic command. As the Republican cause descends into bitter in-fighting, David finds himself increasingly disillusioned, torn between the possibility of achieving the Communist ideals he holds so dear through the Stalinist Red Brigade or through the POUM militia – a choice that is complicated by his love for a Spanish woman he has met in the militia.

There is certainly a sense in Land and Freedom of the Spanish Civil War being the important historical event it certainly was - a war that not only sharply divided families and communities in Spain, but also starkly divided the international community and drew the idealogical lines that would characterise the attitudes of those countries in the approach to WWII and subsequent Cold War years. The film contains some powerfully dramatic war sequences and some newsreel footage to give a larger picture of the conflict, but is characterised much more by its hard-hitting dialogue. For long stretches there is more talk than action in Land and Freedom - long discussions between militants and landowners over contentious issues regarding ownership of land and private property – but the discussions are more than academic, highlighting the central issues that divided the Republican cause. They are rendered all the more relevant by the fact that the acting during these sequences is simply astonishing - if it can be described as acting at all. Using real villagers and people who work on the land, every emotional declaration displays that particular fiery Spanish temperament and nothing feels forced or contrived. Occasionally, you get the sense that these sequences are overlong, but you can understand why the director gives them such prominence – they are genuine and heartfelt and touch on the real passions of the Spanish working class, tapping memories and sentiments that still exist today, in a way that no amount of dramatic reconstruction could equal.

Loach strikes a good balance however with the film’s framing structure – with the young granddaughter standing in for the viewer, David’s letters provide a straightforward narration that explains a complex political situation to an outsider. It’s also effective that the film’s simple ending strikes the right note of purity in David's dedication to an ideal. In the passing on of those ideals from one generation to another, the film’s true purpose becomes apparent – it’s not about portraying a comprehensive or documentary-like realism of the past conflict of the Spanish Civil War – it’s a warning about the rise in popularity of far-right nationalism in some European countries today and a reminder to the youth of today of the abuses and horrors that this kind of political extremism engenders. The film passes on the message that the struggle for freedom against such idealogy is still something worth fighting for and it’s a message worth passing on.

Land and Freedom is released on DVD in the UK by Artificial Eye. The DVD is encoded for Region 2.

Artificial Eye’s transfer of Land and Freedom is rather impressive – a good clear image with not too many problems. Colour tones are excellent, capturing the golden glow of the Aragon countryside, with strong contrast, deep satisfying blacks and good levels of detail. There is the slight hint of grain in some scenes, but this only really becomes apparent when a scene fades to black. One or two scenes show some sign of fading, a slight softness and an occasional flicker of light, but the majority of the print looks fabulous. No real digital transfer issues – possibly a slight touch of edge-enhancement, but it’s not overly noticeable.

Audio choices are good. The Dolby Digital 2.0 surround soundtrack is fine for anyone who prefers to keep close to the original, but the Dolby Digital 5.1 is rather more effective, remaining faithful to the image by sitting very much to the front and centre, but having an additional clarity and strength. There is some use of surrounds, not always entirely naturally, but appropriately. George Fenton’s fine score also benefits from the wider mix.

Also impressive is the choice of subtitles for the English viewer. Most of the film is in English, but there are switches into Spanish for some sections of the film. Artificial Eye show just how to subtitle such a film by giving the viewer the option of no subtitles, partial subtitles for the Spanish dialogue only, or full subtitles for English hard of hearing. The subtitles are clear and read well.

Loach on Location: Making Land and Freedom (38:30)
An excellent documentary made by the BBC features good contributions from cast and crew, focuses on Loach’s method and gives a good sense of how real and meaningful it is for those taking part in the film. The Spanish actors put the film very much into perspective by pointing out that the subject matter tackled by Loach is one that the Spanish themselves have been reluctant to face up to, and consequently the younger generation know little about.

Commentary by Ken Loach and Andy Durgan
Director Ken Loach and historian and advisor on the film Andy Durgan provide an interesting commentary on the film. Not vital – the film explains its position well enough – but worthwhile nonetheless for putting the events of the film into the wider political and historical context. Additionally, they discuss aspects of the making of the film, the growth and personal contributions of each actor during the course of the film and the reaction to the film in Spain.

Theatrical Trailer (2:05 )
The theatrical trailer is presented in 1.33:1 aspect ratio – the narration device of the film makes for a natural voice over and the trailer certainly gives prominence to the fighting action scenes.

There is very brief biographical information on Ken Loach and Andy Durgan, along with filmographies for Loach and Ian Hart.

As a film about the Spanish Civil War, Land and Freedom isn’t entirely successful, focussed on a narrow and remote area of the conflict and on a small group of people, while being very talky over complex political in-fighting and abstruse conflicts of Communist ideology – but it has a much wider and a more important point to make about the current political climate in Europe and the need for the younger generation not only to be aware of lessons learnt in the past, but to be vigilant against such abuses of freedom ever taking place again. From this point of view, Land and Freedom is a powerful film indeed and an important one. Artificial Eye’s DVD presentation is simply superb, in terms of quality of transfer, audio options and the attention paid to details like subtitles. The extra features are extensive, highly relevant and all worthy of inclusion. A fine DVD release in every respect.

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