THERE'S A RAW IMMEDIACY TO KEN Loach's Land and Freedom that sets it apart from most historical films. We're plunged into the passions of the Spanish Civil War by a filmmaker for whom the ideological battles, the feeling of camaraderie, the hopes and betrayals of the left, are not matters of nostalgia but the expression of a keen political passion. Loach, whose films ("Raining Stones," "Ladybird, Ladybird") are usually set in working-class England, has held on to his socialist convictions in an era when political filmmaking has gone out of fashion. Yet at his best, his ideology doesn't overwhelm his superb filmmaking. "Land and Freedom," a story of idealism betrayed, possesses a visceral power that will speak even to those who don't know Franco from a frankfurter.
Loach's naive, idealistic hero is a young Liverpudlian communist named David (the excellent Ian Hart, who played John Lennon in both "The Hours and Times" and "Backbeat"). He sets off for Spain in the fall of 1936 to join an international brigade to fight for the Republican cause against Franco. But the story Loach and writer Jim Allen tell is no simple tale of the noble left fighting the evil right. It's about the messier reality of that war which George Orwell reported in his classic "Homage to Catalonia": how the left turned on itself in vicious infighting, the Moscow-led communists wresting control from the local revolutionaries, cynically slaughtering the men and women who had been their allies.
"Land and Freedom" follows the confused David into this political snakepit with an almost documentary verisimilitude and a dead-on sense of how these young, committed fighters would talk, bond, argue, make love and react to the sudden extinction of their comrades. It's a lean, unprettified epic. The battle scenes, fierce and clumsy, aren't choreographed in the sweeping Hollywood style that casts war in the safe past tense: they have a freshly minted terror. The love story between David and the young Spanish fighter Blanca (Rosana Pastor) doesn't seem imposed for glossy relief but rises out of the chaos and exhilaration of the time, when every experience is heightened by the proximity of death. Loach isn't afraid to stop the action for a long, heated debate in which the militia must vote whether or not to collectivize the land they've captured. The issues at stake are central to the ideological battle that tore the left apart; Loach makes us feel the passions of a time when people were willing to die for ideas. Superbly acted by a cast that seamlessly mixes pros and amateurs, this honest, angry epic is a heartbreaking salute to the spirit of resistance.