Libertarias (1996), directed by Vicente Aranda, produced by Andrés Vicente Gómez, starring Ariadna Gil, Ana Belén, Victoria Abril, and Blana Apilánez.
To celebrate International Women’s Day I watched Libertarias. Also known as Juegos de Guerra, though there are other films of that name, it is a difficult film to get hold of in the UK. That almost seems fitting, as the story of revolutionary Spain and the role of the anarchist movement in transforming eastern Iberia, in a tragically brief episode of history, into a place of ground-upwards, participatory democracy has been largely forgotten, conveniently displaced in the ‘communist v fascist’ mythos. The version that I watched was unencumbered by subtitles, which didn’t work too well for me as my knowledge of Spanish is limited, but on the other hand there was a kind of purity in the exercise.
The only film with which it can be compared is Ken Loach’s Land and Freedom (1995), which is loosely based on George Orwell’s book Homage to Catalonia. Loach’s film is in English and Spanish, and there are no subtitles to the Spanish dialogue either. The effect in both films is a more authentic experience for the watcher.
Libertarias is more filmic, slightly less realistic than Land and Freedom. It focuses on the role of women at the time of the Spanish Revolution. The central character that carries the film along is Maria (Ariadna Gil), whom we first meet as a young nun in a convent. When milicianos (members of a revolutionary militia) enter the convent she flees. Encountering other wandering bands of revolutionaries in the street, she panics and seeks shelter in an apartment. This turns out to be a brothel, and the first thing the Madame does is put her in bed with a Catholic Monsignor. Before anything can happen, however, the apartment is entered by three milcianas – women of the anarchist Mujeres Libres (Free Women) movement – who part encourage and part force the prostitutes to join them. Maria is taken under the wing of Pilar (Ana Belén), the most militant and committed miliciana, who has recognized her innocence and the Catholic mind-set which has been ingrained in her by her convent life, and who protects her throughout the film. Maria never completely loses her bewilderment, her innocence, and her religion, and although she becomes in a way totally committed to her new life she never picks up a gun. Thus she is able to be almost an observer throughout the film. At one point she mounts a step to peer over the sandbags towards the Fascist lines, and launches into a speech through a megaphone; more than one of her comrades recognizes that she is quoting from a revolutionary book she has read, and it is as though the habit of catechism cannot be broken in her. By whatever process of rationalization, Maria conflates the ideals of a Christian paradise with the earthly principles and goals of anarchism. Indeed one of her comrades, a woman with spiritualist leanings, declares to her that Jesus was history’s first recorded anarchist – not an unreasonable claim when one considers that the early Church in Jerusalem was arguably a commune with no private property.
An over-arching theme of the film is feminism, or more specifically the role of wholly-liberated women in a revolutionary movement. Here Pilar is the mouthpiece, rising in a meeting where a rostrum speaker from the Mujeres Libres is putting forward the view that women should work in factories while men go to the front, and saying that women can die just as well as men can. The speaker at the rostrum is never stated to be Federica Montseny (a leading anarchist in 1936 who swallowed her principles and took a ministerial post in the Republican Government) but there is a physical resemblance. Pilar represents the anarchist puritan, the revolutionary who is wholly prepared to put ideals into practice.
Another theme is that of free love. Equality of the sexes in the matter of choosing sexual partners was a principle of the anarchist movement in the first half of the 20c. However, in the film there are only three memorable scenes where sexuality within the revolutionary context is expressed. The first is when one of the former prostitutes allows one of the milicianos to have intercourse with her. It is a loveless transaction, almost as cold-blooded as her erstwhile ‘business’. But in a way it is nonetheless ‘free’, being a matter of choice. The second is where Maria rejects the advances of a handsome revolutionary whom she knows to have been a former Catholic priest. His ‘advances’ amount only to the pressure of his hand on hers, but she pulls away. Maria, the carrier-along of the film, in fact remains a virgin until her brutal rape by Moroccan soldiers towards the end. The ex-priest plays a part in what is for me a pivotal moment in the film – similar to a pivotal moment in Land and Freedom – which happens during the brief period which I know as Els Fets de Maig, an ironic phrase in Catalan meaning May Day celebrations but referring to the suppression of the militias and the revolutionary movements by the communists. The ex-priest arrives in a lorry with what I take to be a member of the International Brigades, to demand that the militia unit submit to military discipline. They refuse – they are not soldiers but revolutionaries – one by one, even Maria who simply looks at the ex-priest and silently shakes her head. The moment is pivotal because it is when this young woman, whose life and thought has been rigidly guided up to then, appears to make a decision of her own volition. The third scene (by the way, these scenes are not in chronological order as I deal with them) with implications of sexuality and choice is less obvious. Pilar is about to go off with a young man but Maria makes her aware that she needs physical comfort and protection; Pilar puts Maria’s needs first.
One filmic device that struck me was the way that during the occasional appearances of Buenaventura Durruti, the real-life inspirational militia commander, he is either seen from behind or with his face in shadow. The rationale for this could well be that this is not his story. Durruti was charismatic and well-loved by the anarchists, so the angles and lighting remind us that the subjects of the film are the ordinary women of the movement, not the great figures of the era.
Another striking feature was the burning of religious artifacts early in the film. I was shocked at how uncomfortable it made me feel. Even though I am totally against idolatry and I know how much a part of the oppression the Catholic Church in Spain was, I could not shake from my mind a correlation with the Nazi burning of books. But these people I was watching would have been my own comrades, people most of whose ideals I would have shared and whose struggle I would have felt was my own! If that impression taught me anything it was that our own mind-sets are filters through which we see historical and contemporary issues.
However that does bring me to the subject of atrocities committed by these people whom I have just admitted would have been my comrades. We know it happened. What else could happen when an oppressed people – exploited workers and dirt-poor peasants – overturn a whole system, including its judicial process? Justice became summary, scores were settled. If you listen to the witnesses in Juan Gamero’s documentary Vivir la Utopia: anarchismo en España, you will hear them say how they had to be scrupulously virtuous, honest, doing everything out in the open. Thus nothing was hidden, and nothing should be hidden, least of all revolutionary justice and the course it took. In Libertarias Maria has to walk through streets where corpses lie on the pavements and in the gutters, though the corpses are mainly those of Nationalist soldiers or her own comrades who died in the fighting. Summary justice, on the other hand, is largely rushed over. There is a scene where Maria stumbles upon the execution of someone whom I assumed was the corpulent Catholic Monsignor with whom she had been put to bed; but the scene is there more as part of Maria’s ongoing trauma and her dissociation from the convent life. In Land and Freedom we see instant execution meted out to a priest who broke the Catholic ‘seal of the confessional’ and informed the Fascist soldiers where to find all of the anarchists in his village, which led to their murder. Each film is partisan, and we can grant the film-makers the liberty to be so.
I regret that Libertarias does not deal, as Land and Freedom does, with the subject of free, participatory democracy in action. Land and Freedom has a scene in which newly-liberated villagers thrash out the problem of collectivizing the land, Libertarias has no equivalent scene. It as though the structure of anarchism is totally ignored. There is only room for so much, however, and the film is over two hours long.
We all know how the Spanish Civil War turned out so Libertarias was never going to have a ‘happy ending’. In fact the ending is desperately unhappy. However there is something positive which glows in it, and that is the degree of Maria’s integrity that is left intact. She is ‘rescued’ from her rape at the hands of the Moroccan soldiers by a Fascist officer who hears her praying. But later, in the fascist-occupied town, she refuses to confess her ‘sins’ to a priest and is incarcerated with the other surviving revolutionaries. In her prison she tries to comfort the dying Pilar – a reversal of their roles – but is unable to do so.
As I wrote the preceding paragraph I realised that that made three significant rejections of the priesthood on Maria’s part. The first was the sexual rejection of the ex-priest (to whom, by the way, she had earlier knelt and begged for absolution when she first recognized his former office), the second was her declaration of political autonomy from the same ex-priest, and the third was her final rejection of institutional religion, though maybe not her inner faith.
At the end of the film the credits roll to the sound of the anthem A Las Barricadas. I admit that I got to my feet, made the clenched fist anti-Fascist salute, and tried to sing. I had tears in my eyes. I do not know whether the film-maker wanted to evoke such an emotional response in a partisan viewer – I suspect not. On the other hand good drama engages us, including our emotions, and on that basis I recommend the film. See it on International Women’s Day if you can.