Land and Freedom (Ken Loach)

Rating: ***1/2 (out of ****)

Ken Loach seems constitutionally incapable of making a bad movie, or a dispassionate one. Land and Freedom finds him straying from contemporary working-class England for the first time in recent memory; set during the Spanish Civil War, it follows working-class Englishman David (played superbly by Ian Hart, best known for his portrayal of John Lennon in two very different films, The Hours and Times and BackBeat) as he sets off to help fight Franco. Though Loach's viewpoint is unapologetically socialist, the film is anything but a tract; it's less about the war against fascism than it is about the way in which people fighting for a common goal inevitably splinter into competitive factions, and about the death of idealism (big surprise -- all war movies since Vietnam, and many of the ones that predate it, are about the death of idealism, or innocence, or some other abstract noun beginning with 'i'). Land and Freedom's highlight, which occurs about midway through the picture, is an extended debate about the collectivization (did I just invent that word?) of some land, and it's one of the most audacious scenes I've seen in a movie in quite some time. Loach (and his screenwriter, Jim Allen) have the courage -- and, perhaps, the temerity -- to simply assemble a group of people in a room and let them argue passionately for about ten minutes about an issue of vital importance to their cause (but theoretically of little interest to those of us watching from the capitalist 1990's). I found it more exciting and riveting than just about anything in Broken Arrow, but I should also note that the scene prompted quite a few walkouts at the NYFF screening I attended -- clearly, some people just don't give a damn. Like too many other recent films (Rambling Rose, The Bridges of Madison County, etc.), Land and Freedom is hampered considerably by a stupid bookend-flashback structure -- if your story is set in the past, set it in the goddamn past!! -- but the majority of the picture is as good as anything you're likely to see this year.