An adult fairy tale set in the Spanish Civil War, EL BOSC (THE FOREST) combines an entertaining wartime drama with light touches of fantasy to great effect.
The plot, adapted from his own short story by Catalan writer Albert Sánchez Piñol, begins on a dark night in the Aragon region of Spain. An old man tells a small boy about mysterious powers in the trees of the family farm: twice a year a portal to another world is opened. The boy is warned never to go into the strange green light unless he is in severe danger.
Scene two opens some years later, with the child grown into Ramon, a dapper macho conservative in a village dominated by angry left-wingers, or ‘Reds’. He and his docile wife Dora live in the isolated farm with their young daughter, and are slowly ostracised from the community. Refusing to flee and release his property to communists, Ramon instead decides to take refuge in the portal, leaving Dora to stay at home until the storm passes. Thus, with a rather harsh abandonment, EL BOSC sets itself up to tell the story of Dora’s survival in troubled times, with Ramon only intermittently returning from his magical exile.
The rural country of Northern Spain is beautifully shot by director Òscar Aibar: Ramon’s family home is a property anyone would be loath to leave. Attractive pastel colours inside the house and out in the fields warm the regular daytime shots, and these are set in fable tradition against atmospheric night-time happenings – whose combination of wartime danger and the strange portal are often genuinely eerie. On what was presumably a small budget, the film manages to look expensive, especially in its excellent special effects, whose fantasy is not overbearing and never feels out of place amid the realism.
we read the film as exemplary fable about an isolated family’s transformation
Through an engaging narrative, character transformation becomes the central theme. While the remote landscape seems unchanged by the war that is raging around it, the central couple must adapt to their changing circumstances. Ramon begins the film as a boorish chauvinist, and has the potential to be gentled by his otherworldly experiences. In fact, his change is secondary to that of his wife: Dora becomes stronger as she protects herself and her daughter from various troublesome men in the community.
The small village is home to potentially hackneyed characters, among them a drunken old sage, a limping Red who lusts after Dora, and a band of vulgar revolutionaries. Perhaps most troubling is an American captain (played by SAVING PRIVATE RYAN’s Tom Sizemore) whose Republican-aiding regiment are stationed in the grand farmhouse for a time. His pot-bellied Jim Beam charm, well aided by the script’s regular flirtations with cliché, often verges on the trite. The fact that the film survives such issues goes some way to explaining its success: it is a fairytale aware of its genre, and as such manages to be both great fun and tell an often gripping story. The oddness of the magic realism also elevates it from the ordinary. It is cheese, but the finest Spanish Queso de Tronchón.
In pre-production, the story gained some interest in Spain for its unusual assumption of a Nationalist’s perspective on the Civil War (given General Franco’s brutal treatment of Catalan culture, this angle has been rare in the region). Though an interesting issue, such a concern exaggerates the politics of the film, which are in fact not of primary interest. In beginning considering the position of a conservative (traditionally the bad guy), what actually happens is that the audience are forced to make a leap of imagination. From here, we read the film as exemplary fable about an isolated family’s transformation, which, with convincing wartime backdrop and sprinklings of magic realism, leads to an enjoyable whole.