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Judging by some review notices, casual viewers don't always see what the Glasgow scenes in Carla's Song have to do with the second half of the movie, which takes place in war-torn Nicaragua, in 1987. That's the whole point. A young Scot needs a reason to go halfway across the world to learn about a woman he's only known a few weeks. The way information is 'managed' in England and America -- especially information critical of those in power -- warps how we perceive what's going on in the world. In the 1980s, when awful war crimes being committed in Nicaragua were grossly underreported. Carla's Song takes a young, spirited and slightly irresponsible Glasgow bus driver out of his element and into a world of violent reality he had no idea existed. George Lennox is no idealized Hemingway soldier of fortune, no Robert Jordan from For Whom the Bell Tolls. After he gets his first taste of unpleasantness from the insurgent Contras, he wants to go back home, away from the 'fucking bloody chaos.' We like Lennox quite a bit. He makes perfect sense.
'Social realist' director Ken Loach has been a thorn in the side of Brit conservatives for decades. For Carla's Song he collaborated with writer Paul Laverty, a man with a mission who has seen Latin American politics firsthand. Laverty's excellence is evident in the celebrated The Wind that Shakes the Barley and the recent, less seen but essential film about the Global Economy, Even the Rain (También la lluvia). Carla's Song is a less didactic, more emotional look at Central American misery than John Sayles' grim, stylized Men with Guns. This story finds a way to be mostly positive. Very sad things happen, but at the center is a moving, quite positive romance.
Glasgow is a wet and cold place for Carla (Oyanka Cabezas), a Nicaraguan who dances on the street for tips. She's caught not paying a bus fare by young George Lennox (Robert Carlyle of The Full Monty), the driver. George defends Carla against a police inspector, putting his job in jeopardy. She runs away from him but he persists in trying to help her. Carla remains mum on how she got to Scotland and why her only possession is a sack with some clothes and letters from home. She has a friend named Antonio back in the hill country of Nicaragua, but nobody will tell her what happened to him. George doesn't realize how emotionally desperate she is. Having lost his job, he buys plane tickets and insists that they go back to find Antonio. Although they are lovers; she won't explain anything, including the scars on her back. George's trip to the New World is a leap into an unknown where he can't even speak the language.
"You must promise. No questions."
Clearly filmed on a shoestring, Carla's Song takes off via the intensely warm and likeable Robert Carlyle and Oyanka Cabezas. He's an accomplished professional actor and she a dancer that didn't speak English. Loach and his producer found Ms. Cabezas on a trip to Nicaragua and convinced her to take the role -- learning English along the way. The film's George lives in a housing project, the common denominator in many films by directors Ken Loach and Mike Leigh. Carla is holed up in a closet-sized room in a women's shelter. She's no easy pickup and even after they become lovers she's not forthcoming with information about herself. (I won't be either, because finding these things out is what makes the movie good.) We see strange dream flashbacks of Carla in a forest, screaming as some atrocity is performed on a companion just a few feet away.
In Nicaragua the socialist Sandinista government is trying to keep order despite the disruptive attacks of Contra forces. Carla and George travel by bus out into the country. We see and hear idealistic young people determined to keep the country together despite the insurgent violence. Carla reaches a close friend named Rafael (Salvador Espinoza), a literacy teacher in the provinces. He and others claim not to know what has happened to Antonio, or tell her to ask someone else. Their jeep ride into the hills is provided by Bradley (Scott Glenn), one of a number of Americans working for peace 'witnessing' events that the North American press and TV won't report. They're trying to document Contra war crimes, basically the terror tactics of rape, torture and mutilation killings against helpless civilians. George is charmed by everyone he meets. The general feeling is one of solidarity, even though he fears what will happen when and if Carla finds Antonio.
Carla is emotionally honest but withholds information from the chivalrous (St.) George, who has crossed half the world on an impulse. George is surely invested in a permanent relationship with Carla. We don't know what she thinks exactly, but she has had experiences she cannot share with anyone. Cultural differences, pride, sexual self-respect have something to do with it, but also what the Glasgow doctors described as a post-traumatic personality. 1
There is an obvious political dimension afoot. Scott Glenn's Bradley is an ex- CIA operative now doing social work. After an attack on Carla's village Bradley lectures George on what's really going on. The Contra insurgents were carrying American-style military maps, and satellite photos showing exactly which buildings to destroy: the school, the medical clinic. It's all being funded, organized and supervised by the CIA. This film from the U.K. states facts that Americans find it easier not to acknowledge. 2
There are no heroics in Carla's Song. Much like George's fellow Glaswegians dealing with life in the urban fringes, the Nicaraguenses are just trying to get by. The difference is that they're in a war zone as well. Bradley at first thinks George is an idiot, waltzing in harm's way without a clue. But he changes his mind when he sees George's commitment to Carla, and vice-versa. George's mechanical expertise and fast thinking become important assets as well.I found George and Carla much more compelling than the average 'adventurers, thrown together in a time of tragedy.' Their relationship is not a simple exchange of philosophies. George is educated and open-minded, but hasn't yet found himself. Like many of us first-worlders enjoying 'lifestyles', he's unconnected to a human struggle beyond his personal wants. Carla knows exactly who she is, what she's doing and where her loyalties lie. Oyanka Cabezas is wonderful in the role; I think she's more vital even than the beautiful Catalina Sandino Moreno in María Full of Grace. Her broken-voiced dialogue in the back of a truck, trying to explain why 'the revolution' has won the devotion of the Nicaraguan population, is deeply affecting.
Ken Loach avoids the pitfalls of many a politically committed filmmaker by not changing his style to make Carla's Song into an epic. Nobody waves a flag; it's at all times about the people, not the action or the scenery. The romance is both intense and believable, but it hasn't the kind of pat resolution that satisfies a fan of excapist adventure romances. Yet the show sticks very strongly in the memory. I'm sorry that I didn't know it existed until now. Loach and Laverty are to be congratulated.
The Twilight Time Blu-ray of Carla's Song is a visually beautiful transfer of this very special picture. Glasgow looks damp and chilly and the Nicaraguan scenes were filmed on location. Alex Cox still holds place of pride for commitment to the cause; he filmed his fiery American adventurism western Walker partly during the Contra war, when the events of Carla's Song are supposed to be happening.
The audio is a big frustration. I wanted very much to review Twilight Time's earlier disc release of Ken Loach's Riff-Raff and Raining Stones, but the thick Scots dialogue, naturally spoken, is impenetrable. With no subtitles, those movies might as well have been in a foreign language. I stumbled along, loving the parts I could understand, but there's no way I could review them ... I wouldn't have known what I was writing about. Carla's Song is different in that only about a fifth of the dialogue is exchanged between Scotsmen, and is therefore lost on American ears. And most situations are clear enough that we can absorb the gist of what George is saying to his fellow countrymen even if we're not getting specific lines or understanding the jokes. Luckily, when George and Carla speak to each other they must talk more clearly to bridge the language barrier. So I still recommend Carla's Song. I understood enough of what was going on in the Glasgow scenes to get by. Once we're in Nicaragua, un-translated Spanish is covered in subtitles.
Twilight Time provides an Isolated Music & Effects track and an audio commentary with Ken Loach and Paul Laverty. Several years after the film was completed they decided to drop several minutes of footage from the picture. The deleted scenes are all presented as an extra. The big casualty of the cuts is the actress playing George's younger sister Eileen (Pamela Turner). She takes care of George, reads him the paper announcing he's been let go by the bus authority (for good reason, too) and is the one to explain to him where Nicaragua is and what the civil war is about. The cuts are really interesting -- one is a 'first introduction' of some characters, yet is not missed. An original trailer is present as well. It's really lame, and generates little interest in the movie.
Julie Kirgo's notes point out more interesting actors in the show, like Gary Lewis. We learn about Ken Loach's problems during the Thatcher years. She is equally impressed by Ken Loach's insistence on making films that reflect real problems for ordinary people, in the real world.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. (Veiled Spoiler:) I doubt that the comparison ever entered into Carla's Song, but film fans of Budd Boetticher's Randolph Scott western Comanche Station may recognize a similarity in George's predicament.
2. Screenwriter Paul Laverty has some pretty choice words for about the covert U.S. activities in Nicaragua in a short 2005 Guardian piece that explains that era's direct influence on the neo-con millennial wars in the Middle East: We Must Not Move On.
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T'was Ever Thus.