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Friday, June 24, 2016

THE GUERNICA TREE -- DVD Review by Porfle

With THE GUERNICA TREE, aka L'arbre de Guernica (1975), surrealist filmmaker Fernando Arrabal takes the Spanish Civil War head on with his most ambitious work to date.

He shows us how the war affects the small village of Villa Ramiro, which is lorded over by Count Cerralbo (Bento Urago) and his fascist nephews. The count's only son, a liberal artist named Goya (Ron Faber), refuses to side with him against the common people and retreats to the nearby town of Guernica, where liberty is cherished.

Vandale (Mariangela Melato, FLASH GORDON), a beautiful but very eccentric woman regarded as a witch by the people of Villa Ramiro, also flees to Guernica on her donkey after the count's nephews attempt to rape her and runs into Goya. As they dance during the town's celebration of its renowned "freedom tree" the fascist military attack Guernica from the air and bomb it to smithereens.

Vandale and Goya return to Villa Ramiro to fight with the peasants, who have stormed the count's castle and are preparing for the coming siege by Franco's forces. Arrabal's anti-Catholic imagery here is some of his strongest stuff yet--a church is desecrated as a man gleefully urinates on a religious statue while a midget rapes another statue of the Virgin Mary and smears her face with his semen.

A priest, who represents the Vatican's support of the fascists, has the large crucifix (which is shot to pieces) wrested from his hands and replaced with a shovel. Later, another priest will demonstrate his support of the military by ceremoniously licking a general's face and then passionately French-kissing him.

The battle scenes are infused with the same energy and scope of Sergio Leone's depiction of the American Civil War in THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY. Black-and-white newsreel footage is inserted throughout, somehow fitting right into the mood of Arrabal's footage without any jarring effect.

Vandale rises to the occasion as her innate courage and determination make her a leader of the revolt, with the brave Goya fighting by her side, both discovering qualities they weren't even aware they possessed. Arrabal explores Mariangela Melato's highly-photogenic face with an artist's joy.

While the usual surrealism continues to appear, these scenes interrelate more with the story rather than commenting on it from a distance. As the film progresses, the absurdity of the more fanciful images barely surpasses that of the historical events, until the difference between the two becomes almost indistinguishable. It's as though Arrabal's creative zest in depicting the actual atrocities of the war matches his desire to express himself symbolically.

When we see a bullfighter elegantly slaying helpless midgets in the ring as the jaded nobility look on, it fits almost seamlessly into the rest of the narrative, as do the horrific executions which take on a carnival-like atmosphere. And with such strong material to work with, Arrabal no longer needs to expand his imagery so far into the realm of the fantastic in order to express himself.

During the military tribunal which follows the fascist victory, a teacher is sentenced to death by firing squad for the murder of Count Cerralbo. When the count shows up to prove that he's alive and to testify on the teacher's behalf for hiding him during the fighting, the teacher's death sentence is revoked--to be replaced by another one, death by garrotting, for having enough influence with the Communists to ensure the count's protection in the first place.

The mass executions which follow are a free-for-all of depravity. (It's no wonder that after such an exhausting study of injustice and inhumanity, Arrabal would next choose to make a children's film with Mickey Rooney.)

The DVD is in 1.78:1 widescreen with a French soundtrack and English subtitles. Extras include a lobbycard gallery, theatrical trailer, a six-page foldout booklet with liner notes by Rayo Casablanca, and an amusing featurette with Arrabal hanging around outside Grauman's Chinese Theater asking passersby if they've ever heard of Guernica.

With two lovers' passionate embrace amidst the shimmering rays of a setting sun, the film ends with optimism and hope in the face of bitter defeat. The music swells grandly as we're left with a stirring image of romantic beauty that is one of Arrabal's most heartfelt and triumphant moments. A work of crude magnificence and fierce conviction, THE GUERNICA TREE secures Arrabal's place as one of the most fascinating and intriguing directors of all time.



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