'The Endless Trench' ('La Trinchera Infinita'): Film Review | San Sebastián 2019

San Sebastian Film Festival
A potent mix of love and fear.

The Basque team responsible for 'Flowers' and 'Giant' go Spanish language with their compelling take on the life of a man who spent 33 years hiding out in his own home.

Following a government amnesty in 1969, a handful of men across Spain emerged blinking into the light having remained in hiding, often in their own homes, for more than 30 years to avoid reprisals following the 1936 Francoist occupation of the country. Gripping, intense and often very moving, The Endless Trench pulls together details from some of the jaw-dropping accounts of these lifelong nightmares, recasting the hidden history of a so-called “mole” and of his endlessly suffering wife as a profoundly involving, superbly played story about love as protection from fear.

There are three directors, two of whom were responsible for 2014’s wonderful Flowers, but you wouldn’t know from watching it that the film has more directors than leads. An object lesson in how to wring maximum dramatic effect from what’s essentially a one-location, two-character set up, Trench (despite its frankly off-putting title) is an intense, almost note-perfect emotional journey about the fear of political repression and, more broadly, about human vulnerability, despair and resistance. But most of all it’s a grown-up film about love. Spanish history it may be, but the film's wide-ranging emotional appeal means it deserves exposure beyond the Spanish-speaking territories that would be its natural home.

Practically all the physical action is front-loaded into the first 20 minutes. Urgent handheld camera follows local left-wing politico and cunning pragmatist Higinio (Antonio de la Torre) as he’s hounded through rural Andalusia by Franco’s Civil Guard before being loaded into the back of a truck, making his escape, and then narrowly avoiding death by hiding — as two of his companions are shot — mole-like, in a hole in the ground. Geography makes escape impossible, so Higinio returns home, a bullet in his leg, to his new wife, seamstress Rosa (Belen Cuesta), where he effectively takes up residence under the floorboards. From here on, the drama will largely be psychological.

Although the life of a mole was presumably dull for years at a time, boredom never becomes an issue for the viewer. The main threat derives from Gonzalo (Vicente Vergara), who betrayed Higinio to the authorities and who continues to threaten his safety for the entire duration, starting with the sadistic removal of the curtains from the house. (These and other grotesque, painful details are historical: this was indeed a period of officially sanctioned cruelty.)

Rosa declares that she wants a child, an incredible demand under the circumstances; a Civil Guard (Jose Manuel Poga) expresses romantic interest in Rosa; and, in a tragicomic sequence offering rare respite from all the intensity, a gay couple — another collective driven into hiding by the regime — decides to use Higinio’s father-in-law’s house (where Higinio has moved for safety) for their trysts. This apparent shoehorning-in of contemporary themes feels surprisingly natural.

Performances from both the leads are stunningly immersive in roles that demand the communication of intense emotions — and it’s from the emotional truth they generate, rather than from the suspense, that the film’s intensity derives. The fact that Higinio is a man of trad values and few syllables (this is also a film about things unsaid) considerably enhances the power of the role. But there’s no question that Higinio might be even a remotely heroic figure, and indeed the film is open on the question of whether he’s been guilty of foul play himself.

De la Torre brings home the overwhelming frustration of Higinio's emasculation as the humiliations pile up: “Why am I here if I can’t take care of you?” he asks Rosa hopelessly, obliged as he is to wear her cardigans (for 30 years, no mens’ clothes could be seen to be drying on the line) and help with the darning. It is no surprise that close to the end Higinio is driven almost mad as, in one potent sequence, he miserably leafs through an album of photos of people simply leading their lives — something he’s been signally unable to achieve.

Cuesta more than matches him in what is probably really Rosa’s story, creating a complex, layered role that is far more than simply that of the selflessly devoted period wife. Suddenly having to upturn everything her education has prepared her for, Rosa must now reinvent herself as the breadwinner and the protector, and Cuesta never allows us to lose sight of Rosa’s fragility, durability or commitment as the years roll by.

At two and a half hours, Trench mysteriously somehow still feels lean. The passage of time is conveyed effectively by the radio clips that Higinio listens to and by dictionary definition intertitles that initially seem clumsy, but work better later on. De la Torre, too, physically piled on the pounds for the role.

Inevitably much of the action plays out in the half-light, sometimes used in contrast to the eye-screwing Andalusian sunshine that is brought more to the fore as freedom slowly approaches. Much of it comes via involving, uncertain glimpses shot from the fearful Higinio’s POV as, along with the viewer, he tries to figure out what the hell is happening — a strategy that generates tension in spades, but also emotion. In one shot of particular potency, a band of light falls across Higinio’s eyes as they fill with tears. Soundwork is also often strikingly designed for ambiguity.

“I have lived my whole life for you,” Higinio declares, and rarely can it have been so literally true. So that despite all the suffering, darkness and general human nastiness in the world outside its walls, The Endless Trench is finally affirmative. It tells us, without sentimentality, excess or cliche, that love can provide shelter that may last a lifetime — and though a mole's life might not have been exactly like this, it’s still good to know.

Production companies: Irusoin, Moriarti Produkzioak, La Claqueta, Trinchera Film, Manny Films
Cast: Antonio de la Torre, Belen Cuesta
Directors: Aitor Arregi, Jon Garaño, Jose Mari Goenaga
Screenwriters: Luiso Berdejo, Jose Mari Goenaga
Producers: Xabier Berzosa, Olmo Figueredo González-Quevedo, Iñaki Gomez, Iñigo Obeso
Executive producers: Fernando Larrondo, Carlos Rosado Sibón, Miguel Menéndez De Zubillaga, Birgit Kemner
Director of photography: Javi Agirre Erauso
Art Director: Gigia Pellegrini, Mikel Serrano
Costume designers: Lourdes Fuentes, Saioa Lara
Editors: Laurent Dufreche, Raul Lopez
Composer: Pascal Gaigne
Casting directors: Eva Leira, Yolanda Serrano
Sales: Film Factory

147 minutes