Monday, March 24, 2008

The Guernica Tree (Arrabal, 1975)

Fernando Arrabal’s take on the 1937 Nazi bombing of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War is to film what Picasso’s Guernica is to the world of art. Both are works that draw from the horrors of war and then use evocative symbols and purposeful distortions of reality to communicate feelings of anger, sadness and disgust. The film is set, not in Guernica, but rather in a nearby village called Villa Ramiro. There, Bohemians dance in the streets in elaborate costumes and a local artist pulls shocking pranks on both government officials and church goers. Up in a tower of stone, the count coldly lords over the citizens. From the very beginning, the seeds of conflict are planted.

When a beautiful woman arrives in town, riding sidesaddle, she is chased by three Fascist thugs intent on raping her. She flees into a small deserted house. When the men find her and close in on her, she reveals a handful of vipers in her hands, which she flings at her attackers in self-defense. This incident is a metaphor for the large-scale conflict that serves as the film’s center. The woman’s name is Vandale, a survivor of the Guernica bombings who has come to Villa Ramiro to provide inspiration and leadership to the rebels who wish to overthrow their oppressors.

After the rebels topple the local government officials and desecrate the nearby church in ways that would not seem out of place in a de Sade novel, Vandale rallies the villagers and urges them to take up arms against the approaching armies intent on definitively crushing the uprising. Also involved is a local academic who preaches pacifism and believes in ideas that are transported “on the wings of a dove.” However, in the face of enemy artillery, he struggles to translate his ideals into tangible action, worrying that he has cornered himself into passivity.

Arrabal directs with equal parts creativity, rage and vulgarity. It is worth noting that his grudge against fascism was developed first-hand in his childhood when his father, a political enemy of Franco, was placed in a labor camp for life. Though it is believed that he escaped from prison in 1941, he disappeared forever. With that context, it is perhaps easier to understand the perverse glee Arrabal takes with debasing the film’s oppressors, often through sexual or scatological imagery. Holding the film together is an underlying sense of poetry and the masterful use of allegorical characters. On rare occasions, Arrabal lapses into scenes that are either insincere or obvious audience bait for moral outrage. However, for the most part, The Guernica Tree is a stirring, captivating plea for humanity and courage in the face of governmental cruelties.



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