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‘Still-Life’ in Spain

Vivian Van Blerk reviews Barbican resident Mark Maxwell’s latest short film inspired by the role of the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War. The film was shown at the Cannes Film Festival last year and at the Paris Film Festival this year.

Desert scene

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n Mark Maxwell's “Naturaleza Muerta” (Still-life) a soldier of the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War is shot in combat. A stranger in a strange land, he falls in an olive grove. This soldier's fall marks the shift from the urgency and heat of action to a slow speed where contemplation is possible. When the action ceases we stop watching a story or event unfold from the outside and we begin to penetrate and analyze a being. ‘A still-life gathers pieces of the real world into a defined space and submits them to examination. Looking at and thinking about a still-life is a fundamental act of consciousness where we try reconcile our abstract or spiritual sense of being with the fragile and temporary physical facts that permit our existence.’

Dusk and then nightfall flicker past in seconds as the night sky stars travel over the inanimate body of the soldier. Here begins the still-life, a soldier fallen on soil that is not his own. This sequence filmed in stop frame animation, the body,

grasses and leaves twitch – it is no longer action that is being shown, but the pulse of life itself. Dawn breaks as the sun rises in the sky, the shadows cast from the olive tree cascades over his ‘decomposing’ body. In the middle of the sequence the man appears to dream of a previous scene in his life, a familiar setting of a room with sparse furniture in which he walks around as if in slow motion and bathed in a mottled light. The soldier is submerged in watery environment…a baptism in reverse. Then we are once more in the olive grove. The soldier stirs, he coughs, awakens, and touches his seeping head-wound.

Then he begins to walk. Like the beetle we glimpse crossing a patch of burning sand he passes over the land as a small dark silhouette leaving only a delicate ephemeral trace of his passing. He walks the foreign land, personally a stranger to it, yet its olive groves and neat fields are the work and trace of all men – the individual's plight is also the greater universal plight of mankind and of all living and material things. The film

alternates between close-ups of the man's face and views of his ant-like progress across the sun-soaked land, between the lonely individual and his universal destiny. During his long walk, images of the soldier double and grow to tower over the land. His shadowy double is shed as beetles and ants shed their exoskeletons. This giant phantom is no longer a lost individual man but a memory of the fighting soldier he had had been. Like the Colossus of Goya, the vast ghostly figure is War himself who bestrides the land and even when conflict is over and the soldiers are all dead, his memory haunts the fields and hills. Maxwell's integration of a man and a historically specific place sometimes evokes paintings by Poussin and Le Lorrain whose landscapes are further humanized and made meaningful by the presence of tiny figures - mythological or biblical scenes enacted afar. Through walking the land the soldier slowly apprehends the limits of his life within the physical world and accepts his mortality . By contemplating this soldier's

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