'Land and Freedom' Dares to Explore Moral Issues Behind a Revolution

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

MORE than once in recent weeks, I've noted that Hollywood movies have become more willing to take stands on social and political issues.

Some are quite serious, like ''Dead Man Walking'' with its forthright skepticism about the morality of capital punishment.

Others are lighter in tone: We're supposed to be more amused than instructed by ''The American President,'' even when it makes a pitch for decidedly liberal values. Still others are downright comical, as when ''The Birdcage'' pokes fun at a politician so extreme he's almost off the map.

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I don't always agree with the views expressed in such movies. There are moments in such Oliver Stone pictures as ''Nixon'' and ''Natural Born Killers,'' for instance, when I feel like flinging something at the screen. But I applaud the trend. Hollywood has enough money and power in its collective grasp to vault beyond straight-out entertainment once in a while, even if this means some angry moviegoers will retaliate by boycotting some films.

During the current spate of politically minded American pictures, it's good to welcome a new British picture by a filmmaker who has contributed more than almost anyone else to social and moral awareness in contemporary film.

His name is Ken Loach, and his career goes back to the late 1960s, when ''Poor Cow'' (1967) earned acclaim in the United States and elsewhere for its compassionate portrait of a working-class woman on the skids.

He has tackled important issues ever since, from Irish terrorism in ''Hidden Agenda'' (1990) to drug addiction in ''Riff Raff'' (1991) and the pressures of poverty in his most recent movies (the delicate ''Raining Stones'' and the ferocious ''Ladybird, Ladybird,'' both released in 1993).

''Land and Freedom'' brings Loach unexpectedly far from the British territory he usually explores. Billed as the first major international film about the Spanish Civil War since the Hollywood epic ''For Whom the Bell Tolls'' more than 50 years ago, it depicts the hard experiences of English volunteers in Spain during the fight against fascism that raged there in the mid-1930s.

Its purpose is to illuminate not only a historical moment, but also a set of complicated questions on whether revolutionaries can succeed when their use of force is not balanced by an agreement on what the ultimate goals of their struggle should be.

The main character is David, a young Englishman who arrives in Spain with all the idealistic passion such soldiers customarily have at the beginning of military coming-of-age movies. He grows disillusioned pretty soon, receiving a hasty education from the bitter realities he encounters at every turn.

Loach is sufficiently concerned with mass-audience appeal to include some fairly conventional battle scenes and even a love angle. But his heartfelt interests lie less in the day-to-day drama of David's life than in the deeper issues of the battle that surrounds him.

Chief among these is the fiercely debated question of what the socialist freedom fighters should do: collectivize the land and abolish all private property at the first opportunity, in accord with their Marxist philosophy, or concentrate on winning the war first, and leave their social programs to the quieter and more orderly time they think is sure to follow.

The scenes of ideological discussion in ''Land and Freedom'' are rarely exciting to watch, although they interestingly suggest that endless political wrangling may have contributed to the partisans' defeat by diverting their full attention from the battlefield. The combat scenes are also less than riveting, largely because Loach's budget was too modest for the kind of explosive excitement to which Hollywood war movies have accustomed us. I suspect these limitations will reduce the picture's impact on the action-drenched American market.

At the same time, the shortcomings of ''Land and Freedom'' show Loach's seriousness as an artist and thinker. Raising a blockbuster budget would probably have called for compromises in the film's style and substance, and the uproar of full-blown battle scenes would have reduced the picture's poignant focus on the human dimensions of war.

My favorite Loach movies - such as the heartbreaking ''Raining Stones,'' which recently came out on video - are smaller in scale and more modest in tone than ''Land and Freedom.'' They focus on characters so humble and hard-pressed they would hardly be noticed by a more conventional director. ''Land and Freedom'' shows that epics aren't beyond Loach's grasp, but aren't exactly his forte, either. This film's most valuable quality may be the simple fact of its existence, reminding filmmakers in and out of Hollywood that serious subjects still have a place on commercial theater screens.

'Land and Freedom' has not been rated. It contains some violence and vulgarity.

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