“The Endless Trench,” Spain’s entry for the international feature at this year’s Oscars, unspools entirely in a small Andalusian village across the 1930s-60s, yet has struck a chord with audiences and critics alike from around the world since its November arrival on Netflix.
It’s the second film selected for the honor from the Basque trio of Aitor Arregi, Jon Garaño and Jose Mari Goenaga, and kicks off during the Spanish Civil War when newlyweds Higinio and Rosa are forced to make a temporary subterranean living space beneath the floor of their living room where Higinio, an outspoken opponent of Francisco Franco’s right-wing army and Republican village councillor, can hide from the general’s soldiers.
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Fear of execution forces Higinio to hide for what ends up being 33 years, supported all the while by Rosa. The story is fiction, but after amnesty was granted in the late ‘60s, many so-called “topos” (moles) resurfaced.
One of Variety’s Top-Tier Awards Contenders, “The Endless Trench” touches on several topical themes that have resonated with audiences and critics alike, examined below.
In the first half of the 20th century, Spain was a country still fiercely hanging on to centuries of established gender roles in which men provided and their wives cared for the home and kids. In “The Endless Trench,” with Higinio’s existence a well-kept secret, the once proud man loses his ability to provide for Rosa and struggles with his perceived emasculation throughout the film.
Rosa, a fictional character representative of the many wives who were forced to take the reins of their households after the Civil War took so many fathers and husbands from them, is forced to not only be the main provider for her family, but to create an unblinking false public persona of a war widow.
According to Belén Cuesta, winner of the Spanish Academy Goya Award for best actress for her portrayal of Rosa, “When you read the stories of the real women who had to lie for so many years, to work, to survive and feed their children and their husbands, it’s fascinating. I think that maybe our film can help recognize these women because they were absolutely heroes.”
Last year the film’s themes of confinement, boredom and monotony became all too relatable to audiences in Spain and abroad as people were asked and eventually forced to stay in their homes for days, weeks and in some cases months on end.
Although Higino’s confinement is more absolute, many are finding his struggles familiar. With only newspapers, radio and eventually a TV to keep him abreast of what’s going on outside the view from his window, Higinio adapts, slowly at first, to life within his four walls, as so many around the world have done over the past year. Time and again Higinio hears or sees news which breeds hope that things might go back to normal and he will be freed from his captivity, only to be brought back down to earth by cruel truth.
“When we were in the worst part of lockdown in Spain people would always ask me about surviving lockdown as if I were now an expert!” Antonio de la Torre, who plays Higinio in the film, joked while speaking with Variety.
A phrase uttered frequently following Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol was “Not since the Civil War…” Of course, that was referring to the U.S. Civil War, but in its demonstration of divisiveness, anger and fear, the attack showed what happens when people turn against one another and see their neighbors as something “other.”
Trapped in a politically manifested, psychological prison of his own, Higinio’s neighbor Gonzalo (Vicente Vergara) spends the entire 33 years of Higinio’s hiding convinced that his neighbor is alive and hiding in the home. Several breakin attempts and calls to the police turn up nothing, yet Gonzalo’s overzealous loyalty to political ideals keep him returning to the same stool at a bar across from Higinio’s window, looking in and wondering.
According to the film’s directors, the film’s title is a reference to the metaphorical divide that existed before, during and for decades after the Spanish Civil War, which persists even today. For instance, just as the film was making its San Sebastian debut, Spanish parliament voted to exhume and remove the remains of Francisco Franco, sparking massive demonstrations both in support of, and against the decision.
“Our film proposes that everyone hides things from each other,” Areggi explained to Variety. “And that these conflicts are always there, even if they’re beneath the surface. These things always continue.”
2020 proved a difficult year for many as unemployment, access to food and hygiene products and fear of a threat waiting outside our doors became at times overwhelming. For Higinio and Rosa, the immediate threat of what could happen should they leave the house is ever present, but so too are more existential threats to their relationship, to their family and to their own personal wellbeing.
Rosa begins working out of their home as a tailor, enlisting Higinio to contribute from his space in the wall to make ends meet. In more desperate times they are forced to take greater risks to make ends meet. Nosey neighbors, Franco’s soldiers and unannounced guests all strike terror into the couple’s fragile sensibilities as the slightest slip could have spell capture and execution.
Perhaps the most uplifting theme presented in “The Endless Trench,” is humanity’s immense capacity for survival in the face of overwhelming circumstances.
While playing Higinio, de la Torre would remind himself of something that was told to him by former political prisoner and eventual Uruguayan president José Mujica when he played the man in Álvaro Brechner’s “A Twelve-Year Night.”
“José said something that I will always remember,” de la Torre explained. “He said, ‘Only when survival is the last option you have, do you learn how much you can survive.’” It’s a sentiment that has been tested the world around by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and its peripheral effects.
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