Sombras en una batalla (which translates as "shadows in a battle") is one of those movies that prompts questions in the viewer. Unfortunately, they're not profound, contemplative questions; they're questions like "So... what exactly is this movie supposed to be about?" and "Where is all this going?" and, later in the film, "What the heck is going on here?"
The opening is actually fairly intriguing. We meet a woman traveler, Ana (Carmen Maura), who strikes up a conversation with a man named Josť (Joaquim de Almeida) sitting beside her, only to find that he is something of a mystery. Ana ends up delivering a message for him, and runs afoul of some shady-looking characters who are looking for him. So far this seems interesting, but then that seems to be the end of it, as she returns to her daily routine as a rural veterinarian, and the film shifts into what appears to be a straightforward representation of what her life is like.
Viewers can be excused if they start feeling a little restless at this point, as it's not at all clear where the film is going. Is the movie focused on Ana and her relationships with the people around her? With Josť's return, the film seems to shift toward being a love story, so we might answer a tentative "yes" to that question... but then more spy-thriller elements begin to intrude. These might have been entertaining, but the filmmakers seem to be operating under the rule of "never tell the audience anything that will let them figure out what's going on." Ana meets more shady characters; she has cryptic conversations that reveal only that she has a shady past of her own. In scene after scene, the action is abruptly cut whenever any of the characters is about to say something that would actually let us know what's going on. Done once, this is a reasonable way to heighten our interest; done repeatedly, it's a cheap way to jerk us along, and the effect wears thin very quickly. The final result is that the somewhat "open" ending has the feel of yet another pointless ambiguity rather than something meaningful.
It also doesn't help that the script makes no concession to the fact that we, as viewers, don't know everyone's name and relationships. I went through most of the movie thinking that the character of Dario (Fernando Valverde) was Ana's ex-husband, only to become confused when Ana starts making references to her husband and Blanca's father that didn't seem to apply to him, and then finally realizing that she was referring to a different person. Other references to off-stage characters are equally confusing, and when these characters do come on stage, they're usually not identified, which really doesn't do much for the clarity of the plot. The script writers may have known the story inside and out by the time they were done, but it would have been nice if they'd remembered to let the viewer in on the story.
The various members of the cast do put forth a respectable effort to bring their characters to life; Ana, Josť, Dario, and Blanca all seem to be real, three-dimensional people. What's missing is a story that would get us interested in what happens to them.
For Vanguard, this is a passable transfer: that is, it looks like a lousy straight-from-VHS copy, but it's watchable... if you keep your expectations low. The film is presented in its original widescreen aspect ratio, but is not anamorphically enhanced. Clarity is poor throughout the film, with middle- to long-distance shots looking either blurry or smeared. Close-up shots show reasonably clarity and detail. Colors are muted most of the time, although some scenes that take place in a particularly well-lighted area show a little more life to the color palette. Print flaws are scattered throughout the film, though on the bright side there's little noise.
The English subtitles are not removable, and can get a bit distracting as they often overlap the actors' faces during close-up dialogue scenes. They are clear and readable, however, and for the most part are free of grammar or spelling errors.
I was amazed to note that the soundtrack is claimed to be Dolby 5.1; it could easily pass for mono. The sound is flat and muddy throughout the film, but at least the dialogue is understandable, and there's no background noise or distortion in the track.
There are no special features on this DVD. The menus function correctly.
Someone must have liked Sombras en una batalla more than I did, because it won two Goya awards (Spain's equivalent to the Academy Awards): one for best supporting actor for Fernando Valverde, and another for best screenplay. I can see the merits of the "actor" award, but for the screenplay... what were they thinking? Despite a good cast, including the well-known Carmen Maura in the lead role, Sombras en una batalla is ultimately pointless, with a poorly constructed story that fails to engage the viewer. Vanguard's transfer of the film is pretty lousy, so I'm giving this a "skip it", but it might be worth a rental if you're a particular fan of Maura or have a higher tolerance for weak plots than I do.