Looking at a map of Spain, the Basque region seems to be tucked neatly into one corner, cozy as can be. On the ground, of course, it’s a different matter: the Pais Vasco has its own language, culture, food and politics, plus its own history of violence. ETA, the region’s equivalent to the IRA, assassinated more than 820 people over almost 50 years before declaring a ceasefire in 2011; the last shreds of the organization disbanded in 2018. It was the end of an era, but a huge legacy of bitterness remained. The assassinated were still mourned; on the ETA side, hundreds of convicted terrorists remain in jail.
Director Iciar Bollain — whose last film, incongruously, was the agreeably bouncy comedy Rosa’s Wedding — has taken a single, powerful story from the messy remains of that struggle in Maixabel, the first film to screen in competition at the San Sebastian Film Festival.
The story closely follows fact. Maixabel Lasa was widowed in 2000 when her husband Juan Maria Jauregui, a progressive former politician, was killed by three gunmen while eating lunch with a friend. Eleven years later, she has agreed to meet two of her husband’s murderers as part of a short-lived state program for reconciliation.
Only 11 of these meetings occurred before the program was shut down; in the story of the Basques, this is merely a footnote. But thanks to some extraordinary writing, matched by performances of humbling intensity and integrity, Maixabel expands to become an emblematic war story, specific to its time and place but human in scope. You don’t need to have heard of ETA to recognize fear, repression, hatred or guilt. You don’t have to be Basque to recognize these people, the killers and their victim both broken by the terrible things they have known.
As Maixabel, Blanca Portillo exudes exactly the kind of dignified strength required of heroic survivors, a tabloid editor’s dream. From the first time we see her, however — brushing her hair when the telephone rings, her face tightening with the knowledge that this could be the call she has dreaded for years — it is clear that she is a thousand times more complex than the stock figure of the martyred wife.
Portillo is straight-up remarkable; she always seems to be playing several emotional layers simultaneously, her face a play of light and shade, anger and sympathy, toughness and soft vulnerability and every shade of feeling in between. And as Ibon Etxezarreta, the second of the two murderers she meets, Luis Tosar quivers with his character’s misery, sounding as if he would rather eat his own voice rather than have to tell his terrible truth. What a great actor he is. Your own stomach clenches just watching him.
All that said, Maixabel is not the well-structured, glossily directed piece that Rosa’s Wedding was. It is essentially a vehicle for the encounters between Maixabel and the two killers, which makes it lopsided. And there are gaps before that: the background to the murder and its aftermath, recounted in the first half, leaves trailing ends and essential facts unexplained. In particular, there is little sense of the widespread support ETA once had, both in the Basque region and among left-wing activists elsewhere in Spain.
Nor is there any attention paid to successive governments’ clampdown on the Basque separatist movement which, even under the democratic governments that succeeded General Franco’s rule, included alleged torture and other human rights abuses. It’s a surprising omission, given that Bollain and her partner Paul Laverty, who is director Ken Loach’s writing partner, are strongly identified with the left.
But then, when Maixabel meets Luis Carrasco (Urko Olazabal), the first of the killers to seek her out, none of that matters: the film steps up to greatness. In the meeting with Etxezarreta, it reaches its crescendo. The third great set piece is the final scene: a mass reconciliation. These three scenes are so breath-taking that nothing else matters. San Sebastian is a Basque city; its local name is Donostia. There was audible weeping from various corners of the cinema during the last of them, which suggests that healing is possible. Just a couple of people really sobbing, but nobody could have minded; it’s unlikely there was an entirely dry eye in the room.
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