The Sleeping Voice: Film Review

The Sleeping Voice - Movie Still - P - 2011
San Sebastian Festival
A passionate reminder of the horrors of Franco’s dictatorship in Spain, but emotions are undercut by a dated TV look. 

Star Maria Leon won best actress kudos at the San Sebastian festival.

If the point of The Sleeping Voice is to keep alive the horrific memories of the Franco dictatorship in Spain in all its cruelty, it fully succeeds as a timely reminder of a period that is fast sinking into the past. The pity is that the film’s clichéd-ridden story and outdated look will leave many viewers cold, severely limiting its range beyond Spanish borders, where it should click mainly with local audiences weaned on straight-arrow TV drama. Vivid performances by attractive leads Maria Leon, who won Best Actress kudos at the San Sebastian festival, and the fiery Inma Cuesta do add interest that could pay off for the Warner Bros. release in Spain.

Two sisters, one politically active and the other not, find themselves caught up in politics in the dark days following the Spanish Civil War. In director Benito Zambrano’s passionate adaptation of Dulce Chacon’s novel, Madrid is a dark and frightening place in the 1940s, where civil liberties have been abolished and people are thrown into prison, or even executed, just for being related to a Communist or opponent of Franco’s regime.

Though the Republicans have lost the Civil War, freedom fighters are still hiding in the mountains, while the authorities hunt them down and kill them mercilessly. The pregnant, spirited Hortensia (Cuesta) languishes in a crowded women’s prison run by massive female guards and inhuman nuns; her husband is in hiding and she is guilty by association. Even more damning in the eyes of the Church (here indistinguishable from the state), she is a militant atheist with no intention of having her child baptized. Naturally, the young woman’s courage is an inspiration to the other captive women awaiting their fate.

Hortensia’s naive younger sister Pepita (Leon), a country mouse with character, arrives in Madrid from Cordova to be near her; rather surprisingly, she immediately finds a job in a wealthy home with close ties to Franco. In case someone misses the point, the haughty lady of the house is introduced painting uniformed boys giving the fascist salute (presumably her dead sons.)

In a whisk the religious, apolitical and barely literate Pepita finds herself serving table to ferocious generals and running messages to her brother-in-law in the mountains. There she meets the handsome young fighter “Black Jacket” (Marc Clotet), who first teases and then falls for her. The scenes are exasperatingly obvious, but Leon injects just the right amount of trembling bravado to make them fresh and watchable.

Back in prison, Hortensia witnesses every sort of violence and abuse. At night, women are dragged out of their cells and executed by firing squads. Her own case is still pending and by the time she’s finally taken before a military court in a farcical group trial, her baby is due. The dark-haired, fiery-eyed Cuesta breathes life into this Republican passionaria, a character who flashes back to Anna Magnani in Rome Open City and countless Mother Courages after that. But it is Leon whose funny country way of talking, walking and thinking offers something new on screen.  In any case, both actresses are very appealing and stand out from the stick figures around them. 

Zambrano is an experienced helmer (Solas, Havana Blues) who knows the ropes and his direction bursts with conviction. But the material here can’t help tasting reheated, like a lot of the tech work: textbook staging, one-source lighting, desaturated colors, etc., all of which undercut the emotional force of the story.


Venue: San Sebastian Film Festival (competing), Sept. 18, 2011.
A Warner Bros Pictures Spain presentation of a Maestranza Films, Mirada Sur production.
Cast: Inma Cuesta, Maria Leon, Marc Clotet, Daniel Holguin, Ana Wagener
Director: Benito Zambrano
Screenwriters: Benito Zambrano, Ignacio del Moral based on the book by Dulce Chacon
Executive producer: Antonio Perez Perez
Producer: Antonio Perez Perez
Associate producer: Ernesto Chao
Director of photography: Alex Catalan
Production designer: Javier Fernandez
Music: Juan Antonio Leyva, Magda Rosa Galban
Costumes: Maria José Iglesias Garcia
Editor: Fernando Pardo
Sales Agent: The Match Factory
No rating, 128 minutes.