Wikipedia Description:Patria is a 2020 Spanish historical drama web television limited series […which…] follows two women who used to be close friends and become estranged when the husband of one of them is killed by Basque separatist group ETA.”

Why I Took it off the List

If you live in Spain, I doubt you’ve been able to watch a single YouTube video in the past couple of months without being bombarded with ads for this series, produced by HBO Europe and based on an internationally successful novel by Basque writer Aitor Gabilondo.

The subject matter interested me, as I didn’t have that much of an idea of the mechanics and impact of the ETA Basque separatist group apart from learning about some of their devastating attacks in Spanish history class at uni.

I’d already had an ETA-centered thriller film, El Lobo (2004), about a Spanish government-backed mole infiltrating the group, on my watchlist for a while that I had been meaning to get around to seeing.

But the all-encompassing look at the situation that Patria promised, seen from both sides, as well as the high quality that HBO productions usually guarantee, pushed it to the front.

Expectations

I heard great things about Patria after its premiere at the San Sebastian Film Festival in September of this year, so my expectations were quite high.

I haven’t read the novel on which it’s based, but the trailer for Patria promised a humanistic and balanced look at the impact of ETA’s terrorism. If nothing else I expected an informative breakdown of what life was like in the Basque country during the height of the conflict.

Spoilers? Nope, I’ll keep descriptions of plot vague and focus instead on the outstanding elements that make Patria a series you shouldn’t miss out on.

Review of Patria

The masterstroke of Patria is that it focuses not on those of the frontline of the conflict, but on the regular citizens who, in one way or another, had their lives irrevocably changed by some kind of contact with it.

The key players in the conflict, the agents of both the terrorist organization and those of the state out to stop it by any means, are certainly present in the story. However, unlike something like Shadow Dancer (2012), James Marsh’s criminally underrated thriller about the similar situation surrounding the IRA’s activities in Northern Ireland, they are not the focus.

Instead, Patria is a universally accessible story simply by the fact that the focus is placed squarely on two regular families who get caught up in the escalating situation and the societal pressures and violent consequences that come with it.

Expertly Balanced Narrative

Patria also excels in the shades of grey it manages to portray at both extreme ends of the conflict: both the terrorists and the agents of the state are depicted as similarly brutal, but they are also sons, daughters, mothers, and fathers driven by their own strongly-held beliefs and propelled forward by societal pressures.

The choice to flash backward and forward in time to both the periods when ETA’s activities were at their height and after the cessation of armed activities was declared in 2011 works incredibly well.

Smartly structured, the narrative gradually, expertly fills in the blanks to why the main characters are still so haunted by the conflict and gives a real sense of the enduring, painful legacy it has left behind.

And most, importantly, the decision to repeatedly show the senseless assassination that shattered the two families apart forever never lets us forget the raw human pain that the brutal activities, regardless of their motives, caused to ordinary people just trying to go about their lives.

Excellent Characterization and Acting

The biggest strength of Patria, apart from its street-level and balanced approach, is its vividly-drawn characters, pretty much all of whom come across as flawed but sympathetic human beings with their own quirks, trying to navigate their lives amid the powder-keg situation with as much humor as they can muster.

The backbone of the series is undoubtedly the excellent performance of Elena Irureta as Bittori, who we first meet as an elderly lady visiting her husband’s grave. Almost immediately, it’s impossible not to warm to this strong-willed, no-nonsense character who merrily chats away to the tombstones as if having a mundane chat over breakfast.

In flashbacks, we are treated to the charmingly close, vivid relationship she has with the equally bullish Miren, played by Ane Gabarain, which quickly becomes painful for both the characters and the audience as they are slowly driven apart by the differing stances their family members take towards ETA’s modus operandi.

Both Irureta, Gabarain, and the rest of the cast impressively and convincingly portray their characters across the vast span of time the series covers, aided by some subtle changes in attitude and gesture, as well as impressive hair and make-up work.

The stand-out scenes for me were those in which the older Bittori attempts to mend old wounds by reconnecting with Miren’s tragically disabled daughter, played to heartbreaking effect by Loreto Mauleón.

The mix of joy, regret, and loving acceptance shared between the two actors is palpable, and really hammers home the senselessness of the grudges and divisions that the extreme ideology of ETA produced, perhaps only matched by the absolutely perfect, incredibly bittersweet final scene.

Final Score: 10/10

Worth Checking Out?

Yes, Patria is a masterful, humanist, and affecting drama that will draw you in with its excellent acting, writing, and direction, regardless of how much you know about ETA and Basque separatism.

Patria (2020)

Created by Aitor Gabilondo

Based on the novel by Fernando Aramburu

Cast: Elena Irureta, Ane Gabarain, José Ramón Soroiz, Mikel Laskurain

Stay tuned for my next review, a verdict on another recent Spanish production.

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