Justice Against Oblivion

in 68th Semana Internacional de Cine de Valladolid

by Rosana G. Alonso

Through word, gestures, silence, and actions, Víctor Iriarte’s first feature film, Foremost by Night, seeks to make justice against oblivion.

Straightforwardly, if any doubt remains, the beginning of Foremost by Night (Sobre todo de noche), Victor Iriarte’s debut, is very explicit in establishing an assessment. It’s an assessment although it might appear a descriptive fact that confirms and determines the nature of what the audience is about to watch. However, it does not manifest itself as a declaration made by Vera, the character that leads the story, but it reclaims a quote—adapted to the needs of the script— of “Amulet” the Roberto Bolaño novel he wrote in the late nineties. The Chilean author expressed himself in this way: “This is going to be a horror story. A story of murder, detection, and horror. But it won’t appear to be, for the simple reason that I am the teller. Told by me, it won’t seem like that. Although, in fact, it’s the story of a terrible crime”. This statement of intent contains the synthesis of a picture that reflects a historical fact silenced for political power.

Nevertheless,it is convenient to begin with the genesis. This is the story which highlights the victims of stolen babies during and after the Spanish Civil War. Strange as it may seem, something so evil that leaves victims stranded in different directions, it’s never had a big social impact.  First, for the so-called “pact of silence”—an agreement through which the politicians undertook not to talk about any war crimes, meaning no reparations of damage could be made to the victims—after Franco’s dictatorship which put a veil on all war crimes and atrocities.  Then, with the introduction of the law of historical memory, bodies “dead in the ditches” were at last searched for. But there was never a genuine commitment to find the other bodies. Some were appropriated—such as the babies that the State had stolen from birth; their mothers being of leftist ideology and with few resources—violating thus the human rights to identity. This is a subject that has never been talked about in Spain. For this reason,Foremost by Night is conceived between shadows, invoking the darkness and, then, demanding a muted voice that tears down walls. The necessary communication to reveal the invisible truth in the middle of the night appears in the form of a letter. In this way, the film crosses genre lines, raising the epistolary form above them. Therefore, the film reclaims the written word as a declaration of love, recited to the spectator.

Very performative, overwhelmingly lyrical and expressive, Foremost by Night has, with all the mechanisms that it embodies, the purpose of ordering a space. With continuous gestures that add value to the senses, the film also seems to recall other times when Iriarte brings us to the present to reveal what remained hidden. A thing, a lot of things, really, that have to be activated. Hence, the involvement of main characters is more a performative act which employs a space going through others spaces: Madrid, San Sebastián, and Portugal. Drawing up a map that explores the empathy and the power of the collective, the film, on the other hand, reverses its starting point: from a revenge movie to one of solidarity.  Of a unipersonal film to a collective. And, of a complex narration, that might well need hours of footage to explain some facts, to one that is able to synthesise, without losing its essence. Cold and almost surgical in its approach, it’s instead warm and sensual in its voice: that of two mothers connected by a son.

Two middle-aged women are the triggers for everything. In fact, Iriarte has publicly acknowledged it all started with a lingering image.  The one of two women in their fifties, on the banks of the Douro, taking a nap with their nails painted in red. These two women are embodied by the Almodóvar Girl, Lola Dueñas, and a surprisingly eloquent Ana Torrent. One of them, the biological mother (Lola Dueñas) was forced to abandon her child at birth. The other one, foster mom (Ana Torrent), craves to be a mother. Although, apparently, you might think which one of two has a bigger role in this story, the really transcendental matter is the point of view that is established so that the audience can perceive the scale of the problem.

Both characters in Foremost by Night have been victims of trickery. In one case, because of  helplessness and vulnerability and in the other,a thwarted search by those in power.  On the other hand, the same system makes the adoptive mother feel complicit in a corrupt regime, which undermines her goodwill. The great feat of this feature is to turn this macabre game into another one in which we discern the silenced history from the beauty. And, yet, that beauty does not prevent us from seeing the roots of a sick tree that is looking for a way to heal. It tries to find new lifeblood so it can resume a truncated itinerary and that it starts again now.  It is not only a film that delves into history, but also does it from the fictional point of view, seeking justice. In its own way, obviously. Without taking anything for granted, without orienting the view, and instead making a sketch of a reality that bifurcates, through the words, the silence, and actions.

Rosana G. Alonso
Edited by Savina Petkova