Opening at the outset of the first Carlist war in the Basque country, we primarily follow the lives of two brothers: Martin (Joseba Usabiaga) and Joaquin (Eneko Sagardoy). When their family farm is visited by the traditionalist army, demanding one of the boys be conscripted, Martin is chosen by his father. Returning three years later, he finds Joaquin has grown enormously due to gigantism, presenting an exploitative opportunity to further the family’s finances and pursue his dream of relocating to the USA.
The effect the war has on Martin is demonstrated with incredible impact in the first of four chapters Garaño and Arregi. The battle scenes, in particular a charging sequence, are superbly realised through the dynamic camera work and the colder cinematography highlighting the dirt and earth. Above all, however, the use of sounds is fantastic – every shattering tree trunk and bullet impact a shock to the ears.
The tone is well balanced, and given the shifts from war drama, to comedically-tinged shows ‘exhibiting’ Joaquin, back to family drama, all woven through with the fight between change and stasis expressed through the brothers, this is a key accomplishment allowing the film to flourish. The majority of the film is spent tracking the brothers and ‘impresario’ Arzadun (Iñigo Aranburu), and despite charting an essential phase in the story, the film drifts a little as this progresses. The strength of the picture lies within the brothers’ relationship, one which rarely resorts to voiced feelings in the dialogue.
“The tone is well balanced, and […] this is a key accomplishment allowing the film to flourish.”
The ventures with Joaquin – the cinematic touchstone most obviously being THE ELEPHANT MAN – are presented with an increasingly exploitative feel. Martin’s feelings are left a little ambiguous – as to whether he is comfortable, viewing this as a recompense for his own exploitation of being chosen to be sent to war. A gentle sadness in Usabiaga’s performance never needs to make this more explicit. For audiences unfamiliar with the historical context, it would have helped to lean more in to the cultural and political split in Spain at the time, beyond the first chapter. The split between factions echoes the contrasting life plans of the brothers; the thematic weight of the film would be heftier with further focus on that, rather than Joaquin stripping down for Isabella II.
The film’s concluding segments, however, revisit this dichotomy with the an example of where HANDIA employs symbolism to great effect – the modern age encroaching upon the characters we conclude with; a train steaming into the sleepy rural setting of the opening. A technically accomplished piece of work, the engaging performances of the leads ensure we are invested in this tale of two brothers who, despite their best intentions, seem destined to push fraternal hopes for the future away even as they pull each other along.