While it may fit the category of well-made historical drama a little too neatly, UNCERTAIN GLORY still boasts a wonderfully realised setting, gorgeous photography and well-drawn, well-played characters.
The front near Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War: Lluis, a young and high-minded lieutenant in the Republican Army, takes up his new post. Amongst the soldiers there is his madcap and cynical best friend Juli, who harbours a not-so-secret crush on Trini, the mother of Lluis’ young son. For his own part, Lluis finds himself strangely attracted to the area’s unpopular Carlana…
UNCERTAIN GLORY begins with a brief prologue in which Olivella, the wife of the Carlan, or Lord of the Manor, is menaced in her house by a group of invading Republican soldiers. Her husband summarily executed in front of her and her young sons in mortal danger, she reveals that she was only the mistress of the Carlan and her sons therefore illegitimate. This episode serves both to humanise the character who will be the main antagonist of the rest of the film and to suggest the ends to which she will go to look after her family.
Imperiously played by Nuria Prims, the Carlana—almost never referred to by her first name—retains her late partner’s mansion, his lands and possessions and, despite the Republican presence in the area, continues to wield power. When the newly arrived Lluis (Marcel Borras) needs a horse, it is she he must win over in order to get one, and he surprises everyone by succeeding in his quest. This is the beginning of a dance of sorts between these two characters: the Carlana shows Lluis both more attention and more vulnerability than she does to any other outsider, while Lluis is frankly infatuated with her, to the extent of ditching his morals to help her. The horse she lends him becomes an evident (possibly over-evident) symbol of their relationship throughout the film.
The film’s four-person dance is completed by two more characters: Lluis’ old friend Juli, a brave but undisciplined soldier played with great charisma by Oriol Pla, and Trini (Bruna Cusi), the woman both Lluis and Juli both love. If that sounds like a highly conventional situation for a drama, then that may well have been the writer/director Agusti Villaronga’s intention. Based on Joan Sales’ classic Catalan novel—which by all accounts sounds a good deal more formally unusual than this adaptation—UNCERTAIN GLORY is a grand gesture of a film. It is one of those prestigious works for which the term ‘handsomely mounted’ might have been coined. The photography is splendid, whether of the barren Aragonese landscape, the beautifully lit interiors or even the creepy, deserted monastery where so many of the key interactions between the character take place. The production design conjures up a mansions full of artefacts, though which the camera moves in long takes, and a convincingly Republican Barcelona, as well as a handful of brilliantly achieved set-pieces such as an army trench flooding and Lluis’ horrifying visit to a hospital.
It sometimes seems as if the story has run away from the characters…
In accordance with its ambitions, the film abounds with telling, often humorous details and gives even the supporting characters a vivid presence, with single-scene figures like the Barcelona doctor brought to life in a few shots. However, the film unequivocally makes the four main characters its focus. Helped no doubt by the work’s literary origins, the actors have plenty to work with, whether it is the burning hatred the Carlana feels for her vicious, feckless father, Juli’s vacillation between hedonism and self-destruction or Trini’s increasing pessimism about what the war is doing to their Anarchist ideals, as well as her guilt about re-embracing her religious beliefs. (Indeed, Lluis, the nominal lead, is perhaps the least interesting of the quartet.)
Having said that, as events conspire to bring these four people into conflict, it sometimes seems as if the story has run away from them. (A plot device involving a sick child come across like another nod to convention.) A late confrontation between the Carlana and Juli, probably the film’s two most interesting characters, feels less compelling than intended, largely because the obsessions that have brought them to this point were not sufficiently fleshed out earlier.