Soldiers of Salamina

English Title: Soldiers of Salamina

Original Title: Soldados de Salamina

Country of Origin: Spain

Studio: Lolafilms

Director: David Trueba

Producer(s): Cristina Huete, Andrés Vicente Gómez

Screenplay: David Trueba (based in the homonymous novel by Javier Cercas)

Cinematographer: Javier Aguirresarobe

Art Director: Salvador Parra

Editor: David Trueba

Runtime: 119 minutes

Genre: Crime and Thriller

Language: Spanish, Catalan, French.

Starring/Cast: María Botto, Joan Dalmau, Ramon Fontserè, Ariadna Gil

Year: 2003

Volume: Spanish / Portuguese

Soldiers of Salamina was adapted from an internationally-successful book of the same name and deals with the attempts of a journalist, Lola Cercas, to uncover the exact circumstances surrounding the attempted execution and escape of the prominent falangist writer Rafael Sánchez Mazas in the final days of the Spanish Civil War. Sánchez Mazas, having escaped from a firing squad, was saved from recapture and death by a Republican soldier, who saw him hiding in a bush but did not tell his commander. Setting out to write a book around this event, Lola questions what went through the mind of this soldier who rejected the dictates of war in a moment of shared humanity, pondering that in the answer may lie ‘algún secreto esencial de la Guerra Civil española’ (‘some essential secret of the Spanish Civil War’). The film jumps between present and past, depicting Lola’s investigation in the present, but intercutting this with various recreations of the Civil War story which she uncovers in her attempt to understand this traumatic moment in Spain’s history.

The key issue which Soldiers of Salamina explores is the nature of our relationship to the past. Although the film is based on factual events, the combined effect of its form and content is to challenge any simplistic concept of historical truth in favour of a form of knowledge that is always subjective and provisional and which acknowledges the impossibility of any objective relationship to history. The central character Lola is a fictionalized (and in the process feminized) version of Javier Cercas, the author of the book on which the film is based. However, the relationship between the fictional and the ‘real’ is often uncertain in the film, as is evidenced, for example, in the interviews which we see with the ‘forest friends’: three Republican deserters who gave Sánchez Mazas food and lodgings in the days after his escape. These men all play themselves in the film and their interviews with Lola are filmed by handheld camera, giving the footage the verité tone of documentary. Yet, the fact that these ‘real’ images are incorporated into Lola’s fictionalized story makes problematic the whole notion of truth within the film. This intertwining of ‘truth’ and fiction is continued in the depiction of the Civil War, which includes both Nationalist newsreels from the warfront, dramatizations of Sánchez Mazas’ story and even one newsreel which is doctored in the style of Forrest Gump so as to depict the actor playing Sánchez Mazas being sworn in as a government minister by Franco himself.
This critical engagement with the cinematic vocabulary of documentary is also seen in the use of dramatic recreations. The testimonials which interviewees give, as well as the evidence which Lola uncovers, frequently provoke flashbacks to the events being discussed. When this occurs, the action intercuts between the historical dramatization and shots of Lola reading or interviewing in the present. However, the film acknowledges the inevitably partial nature of the present-day accounts which are generating these historical images. For example, in one scene, shots of Lola reading Sánchez Mazas’ diary are intercut with images of his escape through the forest, until a close-up of Lola turning the pages of the diary reveals the next page to be torn out, abruptly halting the recreation. The missing page of the diary captures the inevitably incomplete and imperfect knowledge of the past which is all that Lola can hope to attain. This becomes explicit in her final encounter with an ageing Republican veteran, as he berates her for seeking to find in him a hero of history. Instead, he insists, ‘los héroes no sobreviven’ (‘it’s the heroes who don’t survive’). He lists the friends who went to war with him, declaring, ‘nadie les recuerda, ni nunca, ninguna calle miserable, de ningún pueblo miserable, de ninguna mierda de país llevará su nombre’ (‘no one remembers them and not one miserable street, of one miserable village, in one shitty country will be named after them’). Given all these lost voices, any attempt to recreate history will always be incomplete. Thus, the film insists, our relationship to the past is not one of reconstruction but a conscious and deliberate construction, which necessitates establishing our own ethical relationship to history in the present.

Author of this review: Conn Holohan