We figure out “The Silent War” is Western long before the Spanish captain has dismounted and shown off his El Tigre, a Spanish knockoff of that cowboy cannon, a Winchester (’92). It’s obvious when the hero steals the horse and the leather “duster” riding coat from the gentleman/hunter.
That captain (Aitor Luna) is relentlessly hunting, on horseback, that horse thief (Asier Etxeandia) through the remote, under-populated borderlands in the North of Spain.
It doesn’t matter that the year is 1944 and the hunted man is a die-hard Spanish Republican hoping to re-start the Spanish Civil War — this time, with the help of the Allies who are nearly done defeating Germany and Italy. The Spanish uniforms and machine guns of the irregulars returning to Spain don’t hide the fact that this is a tale of pitiless murder and revenge.
And you don’t have to show cattle for your story to be a Western.
This bloody-minded last-man-standing thriller, based on a comic book, puts the viewer through a ringer. There’s a little Spanish history, a lot of stunning scenery and lots of gruesome violence and drawn out savagery.
First-time feature director Alfonso Cortés-Cavanillas shows a flare for building suspense, an unblinking eye for violence and a kind of relentlessness that wears by the film’s third act. But the man has an eye and an ear for period piece action.
The “ear” part comes from the Spanish title to “The Silent War.” “Sordo” (“Deaf,” in English) is the state Anselmo (Etxeandia, of the Oscar-nominated “Pain & Glory”) finds himself in right off.
He’s part of a group of Spanish Republican freedom fighters, returning to the country to re-start their Civil War. It’s October of 1944 and they are part of a thousand man force of infiltrators, coming in before (they’re sure) the Allies join them to “finish up” — the last fascist dictatorship in Europe.
But their “For Whom the Bell Tolls” sabotage — blowing a bridge — goes up prematurely. Their unit is all but wiped out. Vicente (Hugo Silva) is injured and captured. Anselmo is on the run, with only a little ringing to remind him of what ears used to be for.
Dogged, murderous Capitán Bosch (Luna) isn’t much on prisoners.
“The dumbest part about prisoners,” he lectures his men (in Spanish with English subtitles), “is refusing yourself the joy in killing an enemy!”
But deaf or not, Anselmo is hard to catch. Torturing Vicente in the village where he used to live isn’t helping. Perhaps his lady love (Marian Álvarez) can be persuaded to help?
And failing that, there’s always the Russian mercenary-sniper (Olimpia Melinte) who lost one eye at Stalingrad and isn’t particular about who she hurts or kills.
The mercenary’s arrival is the first sign that this WWII era thriller was born in a comic book. Spain’s Franco sent Spanish troops to fight in Russia –– against the Russians.
Everything up until then has been a collection of repurposed elements from classic Westerns. There’s a stand-off in a remote cabin, a lot of horses, a shoot-out and chase on horseback, random acts of brutality and a bit of honor among foes.
A sergeant that the insurgents capture in the opening scene is freed, and given a bullet to keep in his pocket for the next time he runs into them or people like them.
To “remember (the bullet) is in your pocket and not your head!”
The setting is striking, and the violence comes right up against the edge of “repellent.” And there’s a sense that we’re slow-walking our way towards the final showdown and whatever sadism it promises.
But Cortés-Cavanillas and his co-writer wonderfully transfer the comic’s gimmick — that Anselmo cannot hear, and thus cannot hear enemies catching up to him on horseback, cannot understand what people he’s pointing a gun at are saying and cannot logically sneak up on anybody else as he tries to survive this month-long ordeal.
It’s too grim to be for every taste. But that “deaf man hunted” hook, the novel setting and the Western archetypes parked on the edge of the 1944 Pyrenees make “The Silent War” a winner, and suggest the start to a promising feature film career.
MPAA Rating: TV-MA, graphic bloody violence, sexual assault
Cast: Asier Etxeandia, Marian Álvarez, Hugo Silva, Aitor Luna, Imanol Arias and Olimpia Melinte
Credits: Directed by Alfonso Cortés-Cavanillas, script by Alfonso Cortés-Cavanillas, Juan Carlos Díaz Martín, based on the comic book by David Muñoz and Rayco Pulido. A Netflix release.
Running time: 2:02