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Akelarre / Sabbath

Posted by keith1942 on September 18, 2013

Inquisitor questioning a supected 'witch'!

Inquisitor questioning a supected ‘witch’!

Spanish / Basque 1983. In colour.

The film was screened at the Hyde Park Cinema, with the print provided courtesy of an Academic Conference on European Issues at Leeds University. We also enjoyed an introduction on the background to the film.

The film’s production was interesting. In 1979, after the demise of Franco, the Basque region achieved a level of autonomy. One of the ways it sought to promote Basque culture was through cinema. Pedro Olea, then working in Spanish television, in advertising and on film features was one of the directors who benefited. The films were mainly shot in the Castilian Spanish language as many of the cast and the technicians were non-Basque speaking. However, the Basque government received a copy of the finished film, which was then dubbed into Basque and circulated, including a print with English sub-titles. The print we enjoyed was about 20 years old, but in good condition. And the titles translated a soundtrack of both Spanish and Basque dialogue.

The film uses a Basque tradition of a Mari or a Mother Earth figure associated with celebratory rituals. There were also associations with a he-goat figure and accusations of Satan-worship. Practitioners were often targeted as witches and the film uses the activities of the Spanish Inquisition in the C17th Navarre as the main plot, [though with considerable licence]. The Basque title of the film refers to the sabbat of witches. Essentially the film charts a conflict between the large landowners in league with the Church against ordinary Basque villagers. Don Fermín (Walter Vidarte) and his son Iñigo (Iñaki Miramón) represent the land-owning class. The Church is represented by the servile local priest Don Angel and the more liberal Prior of the local monastery.  Then there is the Inquisitor (José Luis López Vázquez) sent to investigate by the Tribunal of the Inquisition. Among the villagers there are ordinary folk caught up in the conflict like Antxón (Sergio Mendizábal), the local innkeeper and an elderly couple of poor tenants. The key villagers are centred around a mother figure, Amunia (Mary Carillo). She presides over traditional gatherings in caves, with fortune telling and traditional or magical potions. The other key female figure is Garazi (Sylvia Munt), daughter of a migrant from France, where an ancestor had been burnt as a witch. Garazi is in love with Unai (Patxi Bisquert), a farmer, but she is the object of sexual desire for Iñigo. One can surmise how the conflict will develop.

The Inquisitor is a particularly impressive figure. And the torture scenes are fairly explicit, with a degree of voyeurism. I was fairly sure that the film was influenced by Michael Reeves’ UK film Witchfinder General (1968). This seemed to apply to parts of the plot, to the torture scenes, and notably to the final freeze frame of the film.

But this is a Basque film rather than an English foray. It is easy to read parallels between the repression by the C17th Century Inquisition of local traditions and the conflict between the Basque region and the central Spanish government. The Basque films of the 1980s and 1990s frequently used historical settings to draw parallels with their contemporary situation.

I found the early parts of the film rather laboured: the often obvious dubbing does not help. But it picked up when the Inquisitor arrived. It is not exactly a horror film, though it relates to that genre in a similar fashion to Witchfinder General. There is a Spanish tradition of such films, ‘black legend’. And continental films, as in Italy, have tended to be more explicit than those from Britain. It is definitely an intriguing 109 minutes, and a rare example available from the Basque cinema.

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