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Set in a spa hotel during the Spanish Civil War, Marian is the niece of the proprietress. When her mother dies, her hopes of owning the place are fullfilled. During the revolution in October 1936, her lover Martin joins some revolutionaries who are fighting the Nationalists. Written by
Vital for fans of Julio Medem to see what 'Vacas' was parodying.
this plays like a Spanish 'Jewel in the Crown', in which the lives, loves, hopes, fears, hates, mysteries of a small group of people are played out against, and fatally influenced by, a defining period of unrest in the history of a once great empire, in this case the Civil War of 1936-39. Like the British series, the key historical moments are played off-screen, reported in concise intertitles or through the hackneyed medium of radio, but their effects pervade the film's varied, but connected, narrative.
i don't know if the original novel here has the same status as Paul Scott's tetralogy, but you can always tell the film is based on a novel: the structure, the symbols, the narrative momentum, the interplay of characters etc., are all very literary. Unlike 'Jewel', however, which seemed to record every dialogue in the four books in a series of static tableaux, 'riders of the dawn' presents the skeleton of each episode, so that obviously crucial relationships (eg Rachel and Marian) are sketchily presented and lack dramatic impact.
The benefit, however, is immediately apparent: whereas 'Jewel' ground to a halt through inert narrative movement, every scene so interminable by the end you'd forgotten how it started, 'Riders' moves fleetly, using plot-friendly stereotypes rather than getting bogged down in historical complexities. The film even tries to be cinematic, the camera is constantly prowling, there is an early, undeveloped self-reflexive interest in voyeurism, and even the odd attempt at meaningful composition.
The film is, rightly, aimed specifically at a Spanish audience who will readily understand the resonance of names, dates, pictures featured; the film doesn't try to explain the Civil War, its causes, just its impact. There is an admirable cynicism in the treatment of both sides - the Fascists are either doddery old buffers or sadistic killers; the left are trigger-happy, proto-hippy thugs. There is no narrative of initial rapturous idealism and humanitarianism here - the film suggest that any doctrine is incompatible with human endeavour (how easy it is to think so now). So even an impromptu outburst of the Internationale, which always brings a lump to my throat, is quashed by murderous caprice.
The film centres around Marian, whose mother is housekeeper for the local spa-owner Amalia. Marian, for some reason, seems to believe the spa, where the local elite congregate, is hers, and spends the whole movie manoeuvring to control it, leading her to make Faustian decisions that compromise her humanity.
There are the usual historical epic plots - a love story with a revolutionary that turns sour; families divided by rival ideologies, and, especially, a complex interlinking of sex, as desire and commodity, and power, both personal and political.
Although the Civil War is usually seen as a site for modernity's two totalitarian ideologies, Aranda insists on the Spanish context, a religious background that goes through perverse superstitions to the Gothic - a subplot involves a web-fingered child born to Marian's mother and a crazed hermit, locked underground like Kaspar Hauser. The hatreds and obsessions brought to a head by the war are shown to have deep, rotting roots, all linked to the soil.
The film is also about Marian's growth to (sexual) maturity, which allows for many loving sequences of Victoria Abril uninhibitedly 'finding' herself, part of the film's misogynistic dialectic, which reduces women to sexual bargaining tools, putting the series on the same level as the powers it would castigate.
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