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Storm the Skies
(Asaltar los cielos)

Storm the Skies (Asaltar los cielos)
Cinemateca / Facets
1996 / Color / 1:78 anamorphic 16:9 / 96 min. / Street Date August 29, 2006 / 24.95
Starring Laura Mercader, Elena Poniatowska, Sara Montiel, Charo Lopez (Narration)
Film Editor Pablo Blanco, J. Fidel Collados
Original Music Alberto Iglesias, Cuco Pérez
Written by José Luis López-Linares
Produced by Frida Torresblanco, Vicor Andresco, Silvia Martinez
Directed by José Luis López-Linares, Javier Rioyo

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Less than a month ago Savant reviewed Joseph Losey's The Assassination of Trotsky, filling in that feature's lack of background on its own subject with factual tidbits from the Internet. Now comes Facets Video's impressive Storm the Skies, an absorbing account of the life of the mystery assassin known as Frank Jacson, told by people who knew his family or who even met him personally. The docu starts with the life of Ramón Mercader but ends up representing the viewpoint of an entire generation of Spanish communists caught up in complicated and turbulent times.

The documentation behind Storm the Skies is phenomenal. Never-before-seen photos, newsreels and clippings come from archives in Mexico, Spain, France, Cuba and the former Soviet Union as well as (presumably) the private collections of the many interviewees. The aged witnesses to history happily tell their personal stories of the Spanish Civil War as well as explain their connection to Ramón Mercader. The Spanish-produced show allows them all to speak their minds, giving us an appreciation of a group of people that have different political ideas, yet are definitely not "enemies of freedom."

Storm the Skies starts with the story of Ramón Mercader's mother Caridad, a rebellious young bride from a privileged, liberal family who rejected her husband after having five children with him.  1 More interested in the vibrant political life in the cafés of Barcelona, Caridad took her children to France, returning only when the Spanish Republic was founded. The film covers the Spanish Civil War through the experience of interviewee witnesses who were among hundreds of children shipped to the Soviet Union for safekeeping. Coddled by the sympathetic Russians, the Spanish children (many of whom were orphaned) grew up with conflicted national identities. They certainly didn't consider themselves Russians, but when some returned to Franco's Spain in the 1950s they discovered they had little in common with their own relatives.

Caridad became a fiery communist dedicated to the destruction of capitalism. Her son Ramón was also committed to the cause and, using his mother's connections, trained to become a deep-cover assassin in the late 1930s. Stalin wanted Leon Trotsky dead for political and personal reasons, and Ramón dedicated his life to that cause alone. Speaking perfect English, Mercader moved to New York and managed to meet and start a relationship with a young woman in Trotsky's inner circle. He eventually went with her to Mexico City. After a bungled attempt by other Stalinist agents, Mercader succeeded in killing his prey with an ice climber's pickaxe, and was captured. According to the witnesses here, Ramón's mother Caridad was waiting in a getaway car outside the Trotsky compound, but he didn't have a chance to escape.

We pay even closer attention to Storm the Skies' witnesses from this point on, as they become a resource as precious as the interviewees seen in Warren Beatty's 1980 Reds, the 1920s activists who remembered American communist John Reed. Most of the witnesses are not identified by name, and we have to listen to learn how they figure into the larger story. Convicted of murder in a Mexican court and sentenced to a long prison term, Ramón was almost released after four years, but his notorious mother made a trip to Mexico at the wrong time and attracted publicity that kept that from happening. In prison, Mercader was visited by the Spanish movie star Sara (Sarita) Montiel (!!!) who sympathized with his plight. It sounds impossible until we see Ms. Montiel in person providing her memories of the story. Mercader served his full 20 years, getting out just as Castro took Cuba. He split his time between Havana and Moscow and was given the Soviet Union's highest honor. Mercader married -- his wife remembers telling him to wear his medal so they could skip to the front of the lines in the supermarket. Caridad Mercader died, with the oath that as an individual egotist she was made to fight capitalism but no good at building socialism.

Storm the Skies provokes thought by giving us a point of view directly opposed to what we're used to hearing in the Western media. These citizens of the old Soviet Union look like retirees in a rest home, sweet-looking old folks still proud to be communists. They have no problem with the fact that Stalin destroyed Lenin and Trotsky's perpetually self-renewing revolution at the earliest opportunity. The witnesses do not mention that Stalin had several of Trotsky's relative murdered, even some of his own children. The docu does say that Trotsky was sexually unfaithful to his wife Natalia Sedowa, and states that the reason he had to stop living as a guest with Frida Kahlo was that Natalia discovered their affair.

As even more evidence of the selective memories and moral blindness of some of the witnesses, several insist that Ramón Mercader is a hero, and become misty-eyed at his memory. They compare Mercader to a soldier in a war, but he still comes off as a loathsome assassin, striking down a defenseless and harmless man. The only significant thing in his life was to use stealth, cruel deception and ruthless violence to murder on behalf of a ruthless dictator. Absolving Mercader opens a moral door to killing people wholesale or individually, on the basis of the ideas they promote or the thoughts they think.

Facets Video's DVD of Storm the Skies is a fine encoding of a program master produced by the Cineteca company. Although the 1996 film is not given an enhanced transfer; the image is sharp and the film photography from three continents is stunning. There are no extras, and the English subtitles on the mostly Spanish audio are removable.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Storm the Skies rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Very Good
Sound: Excellent
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 5, 2006


1. The docu takes a stumble when explaining Caridad's reasons for leaving her husband. After bearing children she was no longer interested in sex, and wrote that the last straw was when her husband took her to a brothel to "learn how she was supposed to behave." All well and good except that the docu shows us twenty seconds or so from a real 1920 or thereabouts Spanish stag film that is definitely hardcore XXX material. I can see a great many viewers interested in the political story being told, ejecting the DVD at this point.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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