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Friday, Aug. 24, 2007
Poster-boy victim of a fascist regime
By KAORI SHOJI
Now that the bio-pic genre has become as familiar as a worn beach towel, it seems to have spawned a sub-genre — as yet still in the embryonic stages — which can perhaps be described as the "bio-pic of death."
While a straightforward bio-pic dwells on the protagonist's life history, this one lingers over his/her death. Two years ago we saw "Sophie Scholl," in which a young German activist was executed by the Third Reich at the age of 21. This time we have "Salvador (Puig Antich)," about a Spanish activist/anarchist during the Franco regime, who became the last political prisoner in that country to die by garrote. Salvador was 25 years old when he and his comrades robbed a bank, got caught in a police shooting and was injured. One Guardia Civilia officer died and Salvador was named as the culprit who pulled the trigger. In the space of a few weeks he was tried and sentenced to death. His execution was carried out in his cell. All over Europe and even in Argentina, demonstrators launched protests to save Salvador, but Spanish dictator Francisco Franco stood firm in his decision.
Director Manuel Huerga concerns himself less with the events that led Salvador to journey this particular path; rather, he concentrates on the crime scene, the arrest and subsequent weeks of trial. He's also concerned with making things look good, and his long, successful career as a maker of many a stylish TV miniseries surfaces in a series of protracted, bluishly-lit and terribly hip visuals that unfold to raucous 1970s rock. Perhaps this is treatment befitting the last days of an anarchist; but shown here without any historical context it's difficult to determine whether Salvador (played by Daniel Bruhl) is a serious leftist or a bourgeois kid with activist pretensions. It doesn't even feel romantic, but very slick and possibly insincere. In reality the outstanding trait of the death of Salvador Puig Antich was the lack of either ceremony or glamour; he wasn't a hero so much as a sacrificial metaphor for the Franco regime — and by no means the only victim. But Huerga's depictions tell a different tale. Reveling like a child in heists that recall parts of "Dog Day Afternoon" or "Reservoir Dogs," Salvador in the film comes off as reckless, passionate and utterly charming.
"Salvador" picks up steam in the second half of the film, after Salvador is arrested and the action shifts from the street to the jail cell. Through his conversations with lawyer Oriol Arau (Tristan Ulloa), we learn that Salvador is from a middle-class family with leftist leanings, and that as the third of six siblings he had longed for paternal recognition (his father had also been an activist) and a chance to prove himself. Such revealing, heart-to-heart talks are Bruhl's forte — he knows how to be persuasive and his whole demeanor radiates youthful conviction, desperation and ardor. Known mainly for his work in German and English films, Bruhl gives his all to a Spanish-speaking part (his mother is Spanish and like Salvador, lived in Barcelona) and the sometimes-stiltedness of his speeches adds to the appeal. It's not hard to see why his family, friends and even strangers across Europe, pleaded and campaigned to save him from the garrote; if ever there was a face you wanted to stamp on a slogan placard for mercy, his was it. Even the sadistic prison guard Jesus (Leonardo Sbaraglia) swerves abruptly from torturer to tender friend, literally dripping with sentiment once he reads Salvador's letter to his father. For all that however, "Salvador" is strangely unmoving; the emotions are so verbally, wrenchingly portrayed that there's very little left to the imagination or for the senses to work with.
What makes "Salvador" hard to watch is that we never get to know the man and his life before the arrest; for all the skilled glibness of his narrative about his personal life, the words never seem to go beyond the realm of screenplay sound bites. Salvador has no complexities; from start to finish he's a cause, a face on a poster. Huerga doesn't delve much into the political background that brought Salvador to that spot. So, deprived of the public motives — namely, having to live under the Franco dictatorship — that drove him to anarchy and joining the notorious MIL (Movimento Iberico de Liberacion), Salvador is stranded to mire in the personal: memories of failed romances, a bit of rebellion against his father, relations with his devoted and protective sister. The most important aspect of Salvador's life and death was his politics; surely he deserved more than tears and sympathy.