Friday, April 17, 2020
Fernando Arrabal | L'arbre de Guernica (The Guernica Tree)
images of terror
by Douglas Messerli
Fernando Arrabal and Francesco Cinieri (writers), Fernando Arrabal (director) L'arbre de Guernica (The Guernica Tree) / 1975, USA 1976
As Roger Ebert pointed out in his 1976 review, Fernando Arrabal’s 1975 movie L’arbre de Guernica was the first film about the Franco era actually made in Spain. And even then, this powerful study about the early days of the Spanish Civil War is presented more as a De Sadeian fantasia than a realist picture of the terrible takeover of Spain which brough that country into horrific decades of fascist rule—far longer than its neighbors Italy and Germany.
In Arrabal’s version, we see the terrible events of Franco’s takeover from various viewpoints: including that of the wealthy Count Cerralbo (Bento Urago), whose family for generations has demeaned, starved, and punished the poor citizens of the small village of Villa Ramiro and whose thuggish three nephews continue the abuse; his only son, Goya (Ron Faber) whose major actions have been artistic interventions before he joins the underground; the radical woman leader Vandale (Mariangela Melato) based on the real-life Civil War hero La Pasionaria; the pacifist local school teacher, who passionately believes in freedom, but is hesitant about the local’s abilities to control their violence; and the wild and raucous peasants who dance out their long frustrations and anger in various de Sade-like maneuvers.
Hardly any of these figures is free of blame, although it is clear that Vandale and Goya, who finally meet up in Guernica, under the Guernica Tree, a symbol of the area’s commitment to independence and freedom, are the film’s heroes. That is, of course, the very moment when Franco’s forces chose to bomb and kill the attendees, and as with Pablo Picasso’s famed painting, Arrabal’s cinematic presentation reveals all the horror of those events.
Much of this director’s presentation of “reality” however, are revealed in a manner that one might describe as a kind of terrifying mix of Federico Fellini and Pier Paolo Pasolini (particularly Pasolini’s Saló). The Count’s nephews attempt to rape Vandale as she rides into the village on a donkey; she escapes by throwing a handful of vipers at them.
Small boys dance naked, girls wave flags and sing on their way to mass. A dwarf has sex with a beautiful woman, while around him others of his kind voyeuristically look on.
The villagers’ celebration of Guernica day is more like a mad Mardi Gras than a recognition of what Guernica and its tree truly represents. The elderly local woman see Vandale as a witch. The peasants’ passion for freedom results in the invasion of the Count’s estate, his wife and servants led off to death. The Count escapes only through the good graces of the school-teacher who hides him simply because “it is the right thing to do,” refusing to take the money and jewels the Count offers him.
The villagers overtake the church, desecrating most of its holy symbols, including the cross with Jesus upon it, as they shoot it apart with guns.
But even more horrifying are the images of their deaths after the Falange, aided by Hitler and Mussolini, take over the small village which Arrabal has created to represent all Spanish villages.
After a blessing by church leaders, which includes a full outright tongue-kissing episode between the presiding priest and his male assistant, the rebels are painfully punished with the dismembering of their testicles, numerous absurdist shootings, and, eventually, by the dwarfs being tied to small carts who, one by one, a well-dressed matador impales while an aristocratic audience looks on with applause.
Let us just say that, as beautiful at times his images are, Arrabal’s film is not an easy one to witness. But then neither was the Spanish Civil War!
Beneath the lovely color images, the director is comprehensibly angry, and as in Pasolini’s Saló, the degree of the torture of human beings is commensurate to the passing of time.
No solution in this film seems totally possible. The aristocracy and church members terrorize the villagers, the villagers are stupidly brutal, the fascists are murderers. Even the pacifist teacher is trapped into non-action.
Arrabal’s own father was imprisoned during the Second Spanish War, attempted suicide, and escaped from a hospital in his pajamas, never to have been seen again. If that doesn’t make one a Surrealist, then you’re simply unable to comprehend life.
Los Angeles, April 17, 2020
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (April 2020).