(Air Date: Week Of 04/17/96)
From the moment I heard of Ken Loach's latest project, "Land and Freedom," I've been delirious with anticipation. What a dream film! The left-leaning English director of such brilliantly acerbic social commentaries as "Riff-Raff" and "Raining Stones" tackles the Spanish Civil War. Who could resist an impassioned broadside across the complacent bow of mainstream movies from the most overtly political filmmaker working in the West today?
Alas, fellow rabblerousers, "Land and Freedom" is a bit of a disappointment. While far from a bad film, it's hardly the door-rattling masterpiece I was expecting. "Land and Freedom" feels slightly thin, as if it needed to be another hour longer to conjure the scope and headlong rush of events of a full-fledged epic. Of course, Warren Beatty's "Reds" notwithstanding, no one is going to give Ken Loach a Verhoeven-sized budget to make a serious film promoting unity on the left, which is "Land and Freedom"'s hidden agenda.
The film begins with the death of an elderly Englishman, and his granddaughter's discovery of a box of letters and photographs dating some 60 years. As she immerses herself with increasing fascination in this memorabilia, the story shifts to that distant era.
The focus of "Land and Freedom" is an idealistic young Liverpudlian, her grandfather, who joined the Republican militia fighting Franco's fascist forces in Spain in 1936. Ian Hart, who portrayed John Lennon so wonderfully in both "The Hours and Times" and "Backbeat," plays the role with a charming, touching blend of self-assuredness and betrayed confusion. He falls in with an international band of patriots, who have no doubt that their battle is just.
"Land and Freedom" avoids most of the cliches of historical dramas and war flicks, and the inevitable love story doesn't overwhelm the film's larger concerns. The battle scenes, meanwhile, are genuine adrenaline rushes; not only because of Loach's rich direction but because they reek with the randomness and finality of death.
Unfortunately, after one of the key battles Loach gives over a great chunk of the film to a heated and protracted political discussion among the villagers and soldiers. At issue is whether to continue private ownership of farms or adopt a Marxist philosophy, with resources and proceeds alotted for the good of all.
One almost senses that Loach made "Land and Freedom" for this scene alone, but it brings the film to a dead halt. Nonetheless, if you have a political conscience or any awareness of history, "Land and Freedom" is required viewing. Just don't expect the best film of the year.
Copyright 1996 Michael Fox
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