One of Arrabal's most linear films, The Guerilla Tree differs from the writer/director's prior work by depicting the epic turmoil of a nation, instead of an individual. Arrabal's naughty playfulness also manifests itself through sharp missives at the Fascist regime (underscored with a Nazi Freudenlied, as previously used by the director in I Will Walk Like A Crazy Horse), but he also characterizes the dwindling socialist factions as rustic tree-huggers and peace-loving idealists (which includes a band of disenfranchised dwarves, co-led by an unbilled Hachemi Marzouk, from Crazy Horse).
The main link between the warring Fascist and Socialist factions are two strangers who meet in the town of Guernica (before Nazi planes demolish everything in sight), and hurry back to the safety of the fictional fortressed town of Villa Romero, high in Spain's gorgeous but arid provincial mountains. Isolated from the world, the socialist insurgents 'convince' the town's baronial family to join their cause before the better-armed Fascists gain control of the Villa, and begin to lay down the law with unflinching brutality.
Arrabal doesn't shy away from any violence or R-rated nudity, and while he's hardly alone in playing out scenes of sadism - Gillo Pontecorvo's own political epic Burn! opens with a particularly nasty garroting scene - his surrealist nature comes through in a notorious sequence where town dwarves are killed in a newly-christened bullfight stadium.
The writer/director still employs more restraint in Guernica than in prior work - there's less impish shocks - but Arrabal still assaults the sacred icons of Catholicism in rough, outrageous acts of defilement.
After the more recent outrage and displeasure from religious conservatives and some critics over The Bad Lieutenant, The Last Temptation of Christ, or Ken Russell's prior naughty priest/suffering nun fetish, one wonders, had Arrabal made Guernica Tree today, whether the film would've been tarred and feathered, or become an art house smash (or both).
Cult Epic's DVD of The Guernica Tree offers a lovely transfer of the epic film - Ramón Suárez' cinematography is quite sumptuous, and reaches a near-rhapsody during the film's final shot - but the original French mono track has a noticeable shrillness in spots.
A still gallery and trailer round out the DVD, and the included featurette is really just an impromptu Q&A between Arrabal and confused passersby. Videotaped in front of Mann's Chinese Theater, "Arrabal in Hollywood" has the legendary surrealist asking people if they're familiar with the events of Guernica (most aren't), and the linguistic incompatibilities limit the scope of most responses. Rayo Casablanca's liner notes in the DVD's booklet outline the film's plotting and characters, and provides some bio material on Arrabal's early filmography.
What's really required here is a far more detailed investigation of the film (if not Arrabal's career) - ideally through a finely constructed commentary track - but perhaps the problem with Arrabal's film work is its placement under the shadow of Alejandro Jodorowsky. Receiving less distribution, and tougher to find than European tapes and discs of Jodorowsky's key works, the plight of this late-century, Spanish surrealist is still marginalized; particularly when compared to icons like Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali.
Never cinematically prolific, Arrabal also seems to prefer being an enigma; interviewed infrequently in print and in any substantive documentary, he's also maddeningly cryptic and less verbose - evidenced in prior Cult Epics interview featurettes. The trio of Arrabal's work in this boxed set should introduce fans of Spanish Surrealism to another distinct voice, and perhaps his few films - including Odyssey of the Pacific /aka The Emperor of Peru (1980) and Le Cimetière des voitures (1981) - will also be preserved on DVD in the near future.
This title is available as part of Cult Epics’ limited Fernando Arrabal Collection, of which Vol. 1 includes Vive La Muerte (1971), I Will Walk Like a Crazy Horse (1973), The Guernica Tree (1975), and Vol. 2 includes Car Cemetery (1983), The Emperor of Peru (1982), Farewell, Babylon! (1992), Borges, Life of a Poet (1998), and Arrabal, Panik Cineast (2007).
© 2006 Mark R. Hasan