"The Infinite Trench": Scooped Four Awards in San Sebastián

in 67th San Sebastian International Film Festival

by Maria Ulfsak-Sheripova

Two years ago, directorial trio Aitor Arregi, Jon Garaño and Jose Mari Goenaga won three awards with their Basque-language period drama Giant (Handia, 2016) at the San Sebastián International Film Festival (Arregi and Garaño were the directors and Goenaga one of the scriptwriters, to be precise). Their success continued at the 2019 San Sebastian IFF as their newest masterpiece The Endless Trench (La trinchera infinita) received the FIPRESCI prize, Silver Shell for Best Director, the award for the best screenplay and Irizar Basque film award.

It is always nice to play and win on home ground, but what is it about The Endless Trench that fascinated three different juries? Genre-wise it is a film that is not easy to define – it starts as a very intense war thriller, but ends as a tender, historical love-story with even a hint of melodrama. But as the film lasts for 147 minutes and takes place across 33 years, it includes a lot more – the horrors of war, passion, fear, hopelessness, solitude, pain, revenge, acceptance, but above all, love.

The main characters are Higinio and Rosa, a couple who are newlyweds when the Spanish Civil War begins. As Higinio is an opponent of Franco’s rightwing policy (and as he was involved in the death of his neighbour’s brother), their lives are in danger. He tries to escape with Rosa, but as there literally is nowhere safe for him to go (and as he is also seriously wounded), they decide to use a hole dug into their own home as a hiding place. Later on they move to another location, Higinio’s father’s house, where the trench is more “luxurious” and allows him even to stand up and walk a few steps. This creates a paradoxical situation, because on one hand Higinio is not in prison but on the other hand his self-condemned imprisonment is even more horrible because he exists and doesn’t exist at the same time. Higinio has also, in a way, imprisoned his wife Rosa who has to live a double life – a secret one with her husband living in a hole as a “mole” and an outside life, earning honest money as a seamstress, dreaming about a vacation at the seaside, about a baby, and about all the simple pleasures in life that are normal for other people but impossible for her.

Actress Belén Cuesta is wonderful as Rosa, but the true star of the film is Antonio de la Torre whose Higinio is arguably one of the best male roles in European cinema this year. Higinio, in his bizarre solitary confinement, has a lot of time to think about life. The frustration of his unlived life is unbearable and he is completely dependent on Rosa, because she is almost his only connection with the world outside. When at one point it is clear that the times have changed and he could try coming out, he has to ask himself whether he would be able to live outside or has the endless trench changed him forever?

The mental and physical claustrophobia of his situation is grippingly captured by the beautiful work of the cinematographer Javier Agirre. Another key element of the film is the masterful sound design as Higinio “sees” more with his ears than eyes. This is one of those rare films where sound design plays an essential part not only in storytelling, but also in the psychological development of the main character –sounds are his main way of sensing the scary, beautiful and unreachable world outside.

The allegorical film takes us with it for more than three decades. It is not an easy job to capture such a long period of time in film without falling into the trap of cliché or reaching for the easier solutions. But the Basque filmmaking trio has delivered a flawless film that tells us not only the tragic but yet beautiful story of those two lovers, but also a story of the tragedy of the whole nation suffering under the dictatorship of Franco, of their oppressed fears, unspoken words and suffocated feelings. The Endless Trench is a film that on the outside looks modest – it takes place in a limited number of simple locations with only two main actors – but is actually epic, larger than life.

The story of Rosa and Higinio is fictional, but it is the historical truth that after amnesty was granted in the late 1960s, hundreds of people surfaced who had lived a life like theirs – in solitude, fear and secrecy.

Maria Ulfsak
Edited by Pamela Hutchinson