Brilliant Failure: Freedom Fighters (Vicente Aranda, 1996)

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Vicente Aranda (who died last year) was part of the avant-garde Barcelona School of filmmakers in the 1960s and became best known for entwining explicit sexuality with explorations of murky pasts. Although Freedom Fighters’ Spanish Civil War setting satisfies the latter of those directorial motifs, Aranda’s habitually fleshy depictions of carnal desire and twisted sexual jealousy are absent and instead are replaced by female solidarity and friendship. The film focuses on a group of radical left-wing women fighting for their political and personal freedom on the battlefield of 1930s Spain.

The initial set-up – young nun María (Ariadna Gil) flees her convent as the Civil War begins and mistakenly seeks refuge in a brothel – looks set to be familiar territory for Aranda, but the film changes course when three female revolutionaries arrive at the brothel intent on liberating the prostitutes from sexual servitude and call upon them to take up arms. They declare María to be a newly liberated former prisoner of the clergy. She subsequently travels to the frontline under the protective wing of Pilar (Ana Bélen) and the female anarchist group Mujeres Libres (Free Women), and is integrated into a combat unit.

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This vibrant sisterhood – Victoria Abril (the standout performance), Loles León, Blanca Apilánez and Laura Mañá among them – are fighting on dual fronts: for a political cause on the battlefield, but also for a social revolution in order to be given the same rights as the men they fight alongside. How many films show women actively engaged in political debate? Or depict disagreements between women about what feminism is and what it should try to achieve? Freedom Fighters puts a group of self-educated and politically committed women centre stage to show the integral part played by women on the Left during this historical conflict, highlighting a contribution that has been marginalised in other representations.

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The film’s main flaw, however, is its protagonist. Aranda was generally happier delving into the darker side of human nature and his disinterest in the virtuous is made manifest in María’s blandness. She also doesn’t change in response to the events around her; she gives her allegiance without overtly questioning the contradictions between her beliefs and those of the group, and remains fixed in a state of naive innocence. She survives not by resisting or fighting but through wilful invisibility; although that is still a form of endurance, the liveliness of the other women shows up her lack of spark.

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Freedom Fighters is therefore undermined by a protagonist at odds with the film’s overall spirit (exemplified by Pilar’s rallying cry that she would prefer “to die fighting like a man than live on my knees like a servant”). If María made autonomous choices, the film would be stronger for it, but instead her acquiescence to stronger personalities (male or female) runs counter to the film’s valourisation of personal freedom. However, even with that central weakness, Freedom Fighters should be celebrated as an uncommon depiction of camaraderie between women who demonstrate solidarity with each other above all else; their relationships are the film’s raison d’être rather than of customary secondary importance. The film ends violently for these women (they are on the losing side, after all) but their defiant collective spirit lingers in the mind long after the credits roll.

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