Land and Freedom (United Kingdom, 1995)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

One of the most consistent makers of excellent motion pictures during the 1980s and 1990s has been Ken Loach. With a resume highlighted by such unforgettable titles as Hidden Agenda, Riff-Raff, Raining Stones, and Ladybird, Ladybird, Loach is recognized as the kind of director who will face challenges without backing down. His provocative, idea-rich movies are always populated by believable characters, and his latest offering, Land and Freedom, is no exception. With this movie, however, Loach has moved out of his familiar territory of modern-day England, turning the clock back to 1936 Spain to tell the story of one group who stood against General Franco and his fascist supporters.

The Spanish Civil War was like no other uprising in history. It was a messy, disorganized affair with pro-communist and pro-democracy forces fighting each other instead of uniting against their common enemy. This lack of organization among the country's landless workers led to victory by Franco, who was backed by both Mussolini and Hitler. Some, including Loach, believe that the pernicious influence of the Stalin-backed Communist party fostered the divisiveness among the revolutionaries that resulted in the fascist victory.

Land and Freedom opens in present-day England, with a young woman (Mandy Walsh) reading the diaries and letters of her late grandfather, who was part of the multi-national Republican Militia fighting against Franco. David (Ian Hart), a card-carrying member of the Communist Party, was unemployed in Liverpool when the call went out from Spain for support in the war against fascism. Driven by idealism, David left his wife behind to join a ragtag division of one of many local militias struggling to defeat Franco.

There are several gritty battle scenes in Land and Freedom, but, as with all of Loach's movies, this one is impelled by ideas. It's unlikely that you've seen a war movie quite like Land and Freedom. After the militia liberates a small town, they join the local workers in a lengthy argument about the pros and cons of collectivization. It's a rich, spirited discussion, and both sides make excellent points. Land and Freedom is filled with such scenes as characters talk about things that mean something, like why they should reject the organized Communist army and why they shouldn't moderate their slogans just to gain the support of other nations.

The story unfolds as seen through David's eyes. This is his tale, and, like all epic journeys of the heart and spirit, it involves triumph, tragedy, love, passion, and pain. Torn between supporting the organized resistance and continuing to be a part of an isolated but autonomous militia, David makes the "safe" decision, then, to his dismay, learns the reason why Franco is winning the war -- the Stalinists are more interested in suppressing the real freedom fighters than opposing the fascists.

While in Spain, David falls in love with a Blanca (Rosana Pastor), a fiery Spaniard who has already paid a terrible price in the war. This relationship forms the film's emotional center, but, like everything else that David holds dear, it is endangered by his ambivalence about which revolutionary arm to support.

Loach directs with a deft hand, and Jim Alleln's script is filled with small, unpredictable turns. Violence is used sparingly but effectively, as when a substandard gun blows up in David's face while he's trying to teach townspeople how to use it. In Land and Freedom, death is given a face, and one scene late in the film underscores the real tragedy of what was, in Loach's words, "the revolution betrayed."

For the director, there's a relevance between what happened in 1936 Spain and what could happen today, and that's why he chooses to frame the story with David's granddaughter unraveling his story. Loach sees a creeping apathy enveloping Western society, and wonders whether the fires of idealism are dying or dead. As a wake-up call, Land and Freedom reminds us of the price of fighting for beliefs, and the greater price of being abandoned by supposed allies during that fight. Idealism can be a lonely, difficult road when action is required -- something that David, Blanca, and all the other members of the Republican Militia learn.

Land and Freedom (United Kingdom, 1995)

Director: Ken Loach
Cast: Ian Hart, Rosana Pastor, Iciar Bollain, Tom Gilroy, Frederic Pierrot, Marc Martinez, Suzanne Maddock, Mandy Walsh
Screenplay: Jim Alleln
Cinematography: Barry Ackroyd
Music: George Fenton
U.S. Distributor: Gramercy Pictures
Ranked #6 in Berardinelli's Top 10 of 1996
Run Time: 1:49
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "NR" (Violence, Profanity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1