Benito Zambrano’s feature is a powerful and engrossing drama based on the award winning novel by the late Dulce Chacón, which was based on real-life testimonies and set in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. It tells the tales of women tormented by the war in an enlightening way, displaying scenes of cruelty and oppression that manage to never sink into melodrama. A film of such charged emotional intensity, with a romantic backdrop, could easily have evoked elements of clichéd sentimentality. Thankfully this is avoided as the lead performances are weighty and moving, and the film captures with empathy and unflinching honesty a vile epoch in Spain’s political history.
The focus in on the fate of two sisters during the frightening period of Franco’s dictatorship when those opposed to the regime or connected to them are imprisoned or executed. Proud and spirited Hortensia (Inma Cuesta), a politically active Repulican, is seven months pregnant and experiencing barbarous conditions in a Ventas prison where she awaits the death penalty. Her dissenter husband, Felipe, is hiding in the mountains and her innocent and apolitical sister Pipita (Maria Leon, who won Best Actress kudos at the San Sebastian festival) has moved from Cordova to Madrid in a naive attempt to help her sister’s impossible situation.
Barely literate, Pipita manages to hold down a job in an affluent household as a maid, working for a cold mistress who is introduced painting images of boys in their uniform giving the fascist salute. One one occasion Pipita desperately and brazenly pleads with a merciless general, the grandfather of the home, to help her sister. He later spits at her “only God and Franco can help her now”.
Amongst the suffering, Pipita meets and falls for charming fighter Paulino “Black Jacket” (Marc Clotet) when she reluctantly agrees to deliver some forged identity documents to her brother in law. The scenes between them are touching and with a dose of humour as Pipita’s charisma and wit shines through. (Another, unexpected comical touch is the doctor leading the birth of Hortensia’s baby with a cigarette casually hanging out of his mouth). The difficult circumstances that their love withstands is actually a true story.
The style is understated and the cinematography is without any particularly original features, yet this is irrelevant when there is so much here to hold attention. The opening scene for example goes straight for the jugular when a terrified woman has been called forward by the callous wardens and nuns to be killed by firing squad, between her sobs, she says “I can’t move, I’ve wet myself”. Equally harrowing is the way religion and the state blur as one, militant atheists in the prison are badly beaten when they refuse to kiss the foot of a Jesus doll and Hortensia is subject to much abuse when she refuses to have her child baptized. The Sleeping Voice has much to be admired, Zambrano has created an engaging exposé of experiences that were forced to keep quiet for many years.