Given the monumental nature of the Spanish Civil War, the outcome of which is one of the greatest tragedies of the twentieth century, Frédéric Rossif’s compilation film, to which ghostly tracking shots have been added, amounts to a disappointing historical overview. Lorca’s capture and execution, vast human dislocation and suffering, Franco’s insufferable monstrosity: none of these register with particular force in Mourir à Madrid. Rigid chronology even attaches to the archival materials a sort of spirit of adventure that the heinous reality freshly betrays. This film has nothing on Joris Ivens’s staggering, quicksilver The Spanish Earth (1937) in either version, whether Welles or Hemingway is narrating.
Rossif’s film has its own roster of narrators headed by the superlative Suzanne Flon; but the multiplicity of voices seems a tad sensational, and the heart-plucking music by Maurice Jarre—one of his finest scores—rather patly manufactures a “haunting” quality. I am afraid that Rossif has done for the Spanish Civil War what Steven Spielberg would do for the Holocaust in Schindler’s List (1993): sentimentalized gargantuan horrors. I found the film to be cloyingly French.
Franco was still in power in Spain at the time of this film, and this insinuates caustic irony into the proceedings, while a good many of the images are trenchant; but a self-congratulatory air hangs over and cheapens everything. I cannot comprehend that so opportunistic a work should have won Rossif both the Jean Vigo Prize in France and the Robert J. Flaherty BAFTA Award for best documentary.
The film’s producer is Nicole Stéphane, whom you may recall as a splendid young actress in films by Jean-Pierre Melville in the late 1940s. How I wanted to like this film; indeed, I expected to. But watching it proved a shallow, suffocating experience.