‘El viaje de Carol’, wars and dictatorships

Timely, relevant film screenings, about the Spanish civil war, offer reflections on our country’s concerns.

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The history of the Spanish motherland occupies no chapter in the standard Filipino education. Our history classes, of course, say much about the role of Spaniards in our archipelago’s colonization and eventual emergence as an independent nation. But the focus lies on the actions of insulares and peninsulares, the Spaniards who lived in our islands. Not much is told about the affairs of faraway España, and we all but forget our European connections after the American takeover in the time of Heneral Luna.

This July, the Instituto Cervantes de Manila (the Spanish government agency tasked with the promotion of Hispanic culture) is holding a series of film exhibitions entitled La España del Guernica (The Spain of the Guernica). The official aim of the project is “to offer a cinematic vision of the turbulent Spain of the decade.” The decade referred to is the 1930s, the latter years of which witnessed the tumultuous Spanish Civil War. This particular period of Spanish history remains little-known to Filipinos, but it certainly offers a few points for reflection on our own country’s current concerns, as I will claim later.

About the theme of the film series: Guernica is a town in the Basque region of Spain that suffered a horrific aerial bombing in April 1937, in the middle of the civil war. The raid was carried out by the air forces of Nazi Germany and fascist Italy, who were then allied with the Nationalist faction in Spain. The terrors of the incident became the subject of Pablo Picasso’s seminal work, simply entitled Guernica, which has been called the “most famous [artwork] ever produced on the subject of war.” (“Eighty years on, Spain may at last be able to confront the ghosts of civil war”, The Guardian.) The painting was first unveiled to the public on July 12, 1937, only a few days away from the first anniversary of the conflict. La España del Guernica commemorates the 80th anniversary of this unveiling, and the 81st of the war; as the painting captured the various faces of war on canvas, so did this collection of films, only cinematically.

El viaje de Carol and the distant war

The first film of the series is El viaje de Carol (Carol’s Journey), about a 12-year-old Spanish-American girl’s visit to her mother’s hometown in rural Spain, in 1938. Carol (Clara Lago) and her mother Aurora (María Barranco) came from the United States, and they made the trip, despite the war, because Carol’s American father is fighting as a pilot with the International Brigade, and Aurora is seriously ill.

In tone and look, El viaje de Carol reminded me of a movie from my own childhood, Life is Beautiful. (The two films were released only four years apart.) Both movies follow a family’s story in wartime Europe, set against the continent’s curiously uniform and washed-out architecture, and the stories keep the terrors of war at bay by taking the lighthearted perspective of children. Now, I haven’t watched Life is Beautiful since the days of fat TVs, so I may have superficially imagined the similarities, but I can say much more about El viaje de Carol.

The war, in this film, is distant. We don’t see marching armies, battles nor prison camps. A warplane frightens a town, but it drops, not bombs, but a birthday gift for Carol. (The plane was flown by her father, explaining the gift, but it still made for a silly scene). Much of the story is a family drama and a childhood comedy. It is the kind of film where institutions—family, politics, religion—take turns interacting with the protagonists. The characters come from two nations and three generations. Social class and customs provide opportunities for humorous and heartwarming scenes: Carol and her Americanized mother shock the Catholic clergy with their liberal manners; Carol, who does not quite grasp class differences, or ignores it, teaches the mute household maid how to write, and befriends mischievous town boys. There is humor and tragedy and even a little dose of suspense towards the end. In so many words, El viaje de Carol is the complete, archetypal period-piece-cum-family-movie.

In some points, however, the film proves more subtle and subversive than it seems. Innocent romance blooms between Carol and Tomiche (Juan José Ballesta), one of the grubby town kids who’s of the same age as her; several times they kiss on the lips, and we could only imagine how horrified the parish priest would have been had he seen them. One of the funnier scenes is when Carol, arriving late at a catechism, is singled-out by the preacher to opine on the sacred mystery of the Holy Trinity. She earnestly says, “Well, for a mystery, it is very mysterious,” to the amusement of her peers and her subsequent embarrassment. It’s funny not just because here’s a childish thought unthinkingly said out loud, but particularly because it’s an idea about Catholic teaching many kids have probably had. I admit I have, myself.

It is only after news arrives of Madrid’s fall and the end of the civil war, when violence ironically befalls the characters. One of the children dies, not by the guns of marching armies, but by a stray bullet of the local militia. The war remains distant; it is not the total war we have seen in other films, of shattered town plazas and bloody street fighting. Grandfathers continue to play with dominoes, and uncles enjoy the luxury of conversing about the war over dinner, rather than tremble with fear of the death and destruction it might bring.

Now, this July, as the Instituto Cervantes screens films in Manila, war continues to rage in the southern Philippine city of Marawi. It’s been more than a month since terrorist-outlaws invaded the city, and thousands have been displaced in the ensuing battle with government forces. Meanwhile, life carries on as usual in much of the rest of the country, despite simmering fear of further fighting. We continue to safely talk about the threats over dinner; I continue to comfortably watch films and write about them at home.

The brilliant insight of films such as El viaje de Carol, which center on a child’s perspective, is that despite the present conflicts preoccupying the adults, what matters is that there are children who can still live their lives, innocently, in relative peace. One reflection we might extract for our dear country’s present predicament is thus: as long as children can feel not just pain but also joy, and that by these experiences they can dare grow up, despite of looming conflicts, then hope for our future remains real.

Luna McGill and Clara Lago, as Blanca and Carol, looking at each other in ‘El viaje de Carol’.
Luna McGill (left) and Clara Lago as Blanca and Carol in ‘El viaje de Carol’. (Screen capture from the film trailer.)

Learning and forgetting, burying and exhuming

After seeing El viaje de Carol, I decided to read about the Spanish Civil War and its legacy. (The aforementioned story by The Guardian is informative and insightful.) One could enjoy the film without much background knowledge of the conflict, but such knowledge explains some otherwise vague scenes. For example: one subplot involves Carol taking her First Communion. She grew up a Protestant in the United States, and when the diligent parish priest, with Carol’s conservative aunt, tries to convince her grandfather to let her have First Communion, the matter is left for Carol to decide herself. Without hesitation, she expresses desire to have it, but she often comes in late for the preparatory catechisms. On the day of the ritual, on Carol’s very turn to receive the Host, the town citizens come barging into the church with news of the war’s end. Carol sticks her tongue out, begging to receive communion, but the bewildered priest decides to cut the ceremonies short. I initially understood the priest’s action simply as an emphasis of the chaos brought by the news.

I later learned that the victorious Nationalist faction of the civil war, the side supported by most of Carol’s town-mates including the conservatives in her family, started the conflict purportedly to defend the ‘traditional, Catholic Spain’. The Church was understandably supportive of this side. I realized that the priest’s denial of Carol’s communion is not just out of elation at the news of the Nationalists’ victory, but also a manifestation of his discriminating attitude against the rebellious, Protestant, semi-foreign child.

Overall, the film feels more supportive of the losing, Republican faction of the civil war. Not only are Carol and her parents’ liberal values more aligned with the Republican ideology, but the relative that Carol feels closest to, her grandfather, is a freethinker and the only Republican sympathizer in the family. Regardless, such attitude is deemphasized in the largely-distant treatment of politics in the film.

As for the attitude of present-day Spain regarding the civil war and its aftermath: the portrait I glimpsed from reading the story by The Guardian is of a nation divided on the topic of its recent history. “There are still, it seems, two Spains when it comes to re-examining the civil war,” says the author. The end of the civil war was followed by the four-decade authoritarian regime of Francisco Franco, which was keen on distorting the accounts of the conflict and erasing the legacy of the Republicans, even as it honored those who died for the Nationalist cause. After Franco passed away in 1975, and democracy was restored in the country, there emerged no movement to correct the distortions and restore the truth of history. It was as if, having lived through decades of authoritarian rule, an entire generation cowered into silence, and would rather live on in forgetfulness rather than endure the painful but necessary process of remembering. It is in stark contrast to, for example, the Germans, whose government has been so apologetic of the crimes of the Nazis.

But it reminds me of our own, dear Philippines. It strikes me as meaningful that, having disentangled our nations’ fates at the end of the 19th century, Spain and the Philippines nevertheless suffered similarly dark moments in the following century: the ravages of war, and decades of dictatorship.

I have to be careful. At this point, I do not know enough about Spain’s Franco years to responsibly judge it. But this much is clear so far, that the Spanish people are divided on the legacy of both the war and the dictatorship, and that for many years after the end of the regime, they evaded the task of properly remembering, afraid of ‘stirring up the past’. It took a decade for a memorial to be built in Barcelona, for instance, at the mass grave of Republican casualties of the civil war; but even recently, tours are conducted not by a local, but by an Englishman. It is only now, with a younger generation who did not experience the Franco dictatorship, that questions are being asked. Against the advice of the older, ‘forgetful’ generation, younger Spaniards are facing the ghosts of their historical past. They are now trying to remember. It is this new era that gave birth to films like El viaje de Carol.

In the Philippines, it appears the reverse is happening. Immediately after the fall of the Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship, we celebrated the triumphant return of democracy. The Marcos family was exiled. We glorified the EDSA Revolution, and there are memorials to the victims of the regime, with many outspoken survivors determined to keep on telling the stories of the dark years. But now, certain factions with political agendas are waging a campaign of historical revisionism. They are downplaying the past, telling us to move on, that Martial Law happened a long time ago and we should leave the ghosts of the past in peace. An unapologetic Ferdinand Marcos, Jr., was nearly elected vice president of the republic last year, supported by a people all-too-willing to forget the lessons of the past.

Last November, the Philippine government allowed the dictator, the late Marcos, Sr., to have the honor of being buried at the Libingan ng mga Bayani, the National Pantheon. Meanwhile, this May, the Spanish parliament voted to exhume Franco’s remains from its present resting place, the controversial yet rather dignified Valle de los Caídos.

It seems that Spain might yet show the Philippines the path to progress one more time.

Juan Luna's ‘España y Filipinas’: a woman in a red dress, representing Spain, points the way for a dark-skinned woman, representing the Philippines.
‘España y Filipinas’ by Juan Luna.

La España del Guernica runs every Saturday this July of 2017, at the Cinematheque on Kalaw St., in Ermita, Manila.

Author: DJ

Scribbles about films and other fabrications.

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