Film Film Reviews

Digging for Freedom in Fascist Spain – Operation Ogre

THE ongoing crisis in Catalonia has placed Spanish politics back under the microscope.

Those familiar with the nation’s history will understand that such an emotionally-charged struggle for independence is not unique to Catalonia. In the fascist grip of Francisco Franco, a region to the north west of Catalonia, called the Basque, resorted to violent action to achieve their own autonomy in the early ‘70s.

The ETA, a nationalist Basque group, assassinated prime minister – and ardent Francoist – Luis Carrero Blanco. It was a daring move that damaged Franco-led authoritarianism (Carrero was said to be his chosen successor) and pushed the nation towards an uncertain future.

Director Gillo Pontecorvo’s challenging film Operation Ogre (1979) – showing on December 12 as part of the BFI’s Suspicion and Deceit season – opens on this tense and hopeful cusp of democracy with images from Franco’s funeral in 1975. It is this uncertainty that persists throughout Operation Ogre as the film delves back to the origins of the ETA’s plans to provoke change.

First, they vote on a plan to kidnap Carrero in return for 150 political prisoners. It is a decision met with disagreement by Txabi Etxebarrieta (Eusebio Poncela), popular leader of Euskadi ta Askatasuna. He sees assassination as a more impactful route.

With his youthful impatience, Txabi is desperate for freedom at the soonest possible opportunity – and at any cost. To kill Carrero is their moral duty, as he claims: ‘Whatever is against fascism cannot be wrong’.

The group moves to Madrid where they start to shadow Carrero. Each member takes turns to attend the politician’s church and track him from a few stalls behind. Their covert task is made even more difficult by the city’s suffocating atmosphere of paranoia, an everyday reality under totalitarian rule.

According to one of the ETA’s more senior members, Izarra (Gian Maria Volontè), more than half of Madrid’s taxi drivers are government informers. Pontecorvo’s camera mirrors this paranoia, often nervously peering across the street.

When Carrero is elected prime minster, the ETA agree to attempt an assassination. They plot to dig a tunnel under the road and detonate a bomb when Carrero is leaving church. With this, they battle against the dangers of a gas leak, cave-ins and further paranoia on their route to force the hand of fascism.

Operation Ogre is a disciplined and creeping film. Most interestingly, it challenges the means of violence for change.

What extent of terrorism, if any, is right in the face of fascism? When should the fighting stop? Should we ever have to wait for freedom? These dilemmas mostly take form in conversations Txabi has with Izarra and his long-suffering wife Amaiur (Ángela Molina), who must both contend with Txabi’s tunnel-visioned pursuit of change.

Tellingly, Operation Ogre was a film looked back on with regret by Pontecorvo in light of the kidnapping of beloved Italian statesman Aldo Moro by extremist leftist group The Red Brigade in 1978.

Such is the complex nature of the issues raised by Operation Ogre, even Pontecorvo continued to wrestle with them long after the film was released.

Challenging cinema which the Catalonian crisis has given a current edge.

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