Cult Epics wrote:
Civil war is an act of cannibalism. It is the rending of a nation’s own flesh, the final act in a spiral of devolution towards base subversion. It is brother vs. brother, mother vs. father. It is as psychologically traumatizing as it is physically brutal and the scars left by a civil war don’t heal clean, they arre ragged, gaping wounds that fester and bloom. In Spain, the wounds of civil war sprouted around a single tree: the Guernica Tree.
Fernando Arrabal is considered by most to be Spain’s foremost playwright and surrealist filmmaker. His work, Viva La Muerte! and I Will Walk like a Crazy Horse, defined counter-culture cinema in the 70s and inspired generations of anarchic filmmakers. Arrabal’s work walks the fine line between inspiration and insanity. It is film of panic – like the theatrical movement begun, in part, by Arrabal and Mexico’s Alejandro Jodorowsky – of dissent and anger.
Arrabal’s work has often been regarded by critics as nearly unpalatable, not because of its surrealist visions, but because of its grotesque nature. His is a cinema born of violence, of raw anger. A cinema that forces audiences into conversation with the ultimate depravity: war.
Arrabal was a young man when his native Spain was thrown into the convulsions of civil war. It was the Red, communist, liberal, vresus the black, bourgeois, Catholic. Though only a boy at the time he, like many of his surrealist compatriots, was appalled by the extent of the violence and the rhetoric. Unlike most of his compatriots, however, he was circuitously involved in the combat – his mother, Black, betrayed his father, Red, to General Francesco Franco’s police. It was an act that left deep psychological wounds, an act that has played itself out insistently in Arrabal’s work. Though Arrabal settled in Paris in the 1950s, he is a Spaniard and it is to Spain, the country, like his mother, that he both loves and despises, that his work refers.
The Guernica Tree is Arrabal’s least compromising work regarding the war. Many may find that hard to swallow given the out and out horror of his autobiographical film Viva La Muerte! but The Guernica Tree is a film that eschews personal vision and descends directly into an impersonal hell.
The plot concerns a fictional village, Villa Romero, set in the provincial backwaters of Spain. It is isolated, removed from the progress of the world, and caught in its own “civil” strife. Villa Romero is lorded over by a land baron, Count Cerralbo (Bento Urago), three of whose son’s rape and pillage at will. They are members of Franco’s regime, boondock desperados infatuated with power and cursed with an insatiable lust for blood. Yet the fourth of Cerralbo’s sons, Goya (American actor Ron Faber), is a surrealist with a revolutionary bent. He is an anti-Catholic crusader who paints obscene pictures and threatens to topple the status quo at every turn.
When Villa ROmero falls, Goya journeys to the town of Guernica where he meets and falls in love with witch, Vandale (Mariangela Melato), likewise a former denizen of Villa Romero. When the bombs falls of Guernica, Vandale and Goya return to Villa Romero to rally the troops but will their revolution fail in the light of Franco’s power?
The plot of The Guernica Tree plays out against images of extreme surrealist violence. For surrealists, violence in art is an attack on reality, the very fabric of social constructs. Violence in surrealism is not scene specific; it is wholly metaphorical and illusory – open entirely to interpretation. A spectacular sequence, in which a man slays five dwarves in a bull fighting ring, is a political statement of excruciating power – the rich killing the poor, the deformed, with the art of their class.
The Guernica Tree is also one of Arrabal’s least seen and appreciated works; it has languished in obscurity since its theatrical debut, a sad indictment of current cinema’s obsession with mainstream film. Cult Epics is please to present The Guernica Tree, uncut and uncensored, for the first time in over 30 years.
Cue Magazine wrote:
A passionate mixture of fantasy, anger and determination to remember the incredible horrors of the Spanish Civil War…
Arrabal aims to achieve on screen what Picasso did on Canvas
This film relies more on the visuals than the performances or the narrative to tell its tale. The colors, the sets, the cinematography are all simultaneously grotesque, wonderful and consistently fascinating. Strict Catholics might be a little put off by some of the material Arrabal has filmed here to protest certain issues he has with the organized Church, and some of the violence is particularly ugly but The Guernica Tree, underneath the shock value, is a pretty intelligent movie that’s obviously lashing out against fascism and oppression.
Director Fernando Arrabal is most recognized for his surrealistic and often controversial films. Along with Alejandro Jodorowsky he founded The Panic Movement – an avant garde performance-art collective inspired by the ideas of Antonin Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty. The Guernica Tree is Arrabal’s bizarre and horrific retelling of the Bombing of Guernica.
On April 26, 1937 during the Spanish Civil War the Republican town of Guernica was bombed by planes of the German Luftwaffe under the command of General Franco, which left hundreds of casualties. A large tree in the middle of the town was left untouched by the bombs and was thereafter referred to as the “freedom tree”. Picasso also painted a famous mural titled Guernica which depicts the suffering and chaos caused by the bombing.
The Guernica Tree is set in the fictional town of Villa Romero which is ruled by the oppressive land baron, Count Cerralbo and his 4 sons, 3 of whom are equally as nasty and money-hungry as their father and the black sheep of the family; Goya, an anarchist who is against his father and brothers treatment of the peasant population. When Goya’s brothers join the fascist army to help overthrow the Republican government, he alternately joins the rebels fight against Franco’s fascist regime. Leading the rebellion is Vandale, the town eccentric / witch who subsequently meets and falls in love with Goya.
This film is filled with explicit and often shocking imagery, yet in turn it also has many scenes of surreal beauty. Some extremely blasphemous scenes include the villagers blowing up images of Christ, urinating on a porcelain figure of Jesus and a dwarf smearing his cum on the lips of the Virgin Mary. In addition to the defilement of religious iconography there are also images of dwarf crucifixion, numerous executions, acts of torture and sadism (reminiscent of Pasolini’s Salo,) authentic footage of WWII and Hitler addressing his troops inter-cut throughout and a striking scene with a naked child playing innocently in a room full of human skulls.
Although beyond all the violence there are often blackly humorous depictions of political and social satire, as in the scene where two government officials passionately French kiss each other, or the lengthy “bullfight” where a Matador butchers helpless midgets dressed as bull’s for the entertainment of the socially elite.
Overall this is an excellent example of pointed surrealism and satire that examines the horrors of war and uncompromisingly assaults the senses via images of pure chaos and grotesquerie. Highly recommended to people who dig fringe / Art-house cinema and fans of Jodorowsky and Bunuel’s work.
Extras: “Arrabal wanders around Hollywood” (dvdmaniacs.net)