El Lobo is an absolutely thrilling and amazing film from Spain which outlines the Spanish police and government’s battle with the ETA (Basque Separatist Movement) in the 1970’s. The film is based on real events, which can sometimes lead to rather dry and un-involving storytelling, but not so here. Each of the characters is portrayed as human with good and bad traits. They aren’t just black and white or good and evil. They all have many shades of grey, and just when you start to sympathise with a character, they’ll do something reprehensible which turns you off.
The film starts in 1975, and Txema Lygorri (Eduardo Noriega), a member of the ETA, is running from the police through the streets of Madrid. From the front gate of his house, and old man strolls into the path of Lygorri. Lygorri grabs him and holds a gun to his head and demands to be taken inside and given shelter. The old man reluctantly agrees, but what can you do when there’s a pistol pressed against your temple? Inside the house is the old man’s wife. Lygorri makes the old couple sit down and shut up while he makes a phone call. He rings a pre-designated number and much to his chagrin, he gets an answering machine. Into the mouthpiece he keeps shouting, ‘I’m El Lobo!’
The film then flashes back to 1972. Lygorri was a different man then. He worked in construction and lived with his beautiful wife and baby son. At two in the morning, there’s a knock on the door. It’s two acquaintances of Lygorri, who just happen to be members of the ETA. They are looking for a place to hole up that night. Lygorri allows them to stay, but only if they agree to be gone by dawn.
The next day, Lygorri finds out that his two house guests are planning to murder a local taxi driver, who the Basques believe is an informer. This taxi driver happens to a friend of Lygorri’s, so Lygorri tries to warn him by leaving a note on his car windscreen. His attempt fails as the ETA hitman shoot the informer before he reaches his car. The shooting enrages the local authorities who throw a net over the whole Basque community. It isn’t long before Lygorri is rounded up and brought in for questioning, and he breaks, revealing all that he knows about the hit. Just for harbouring the hitmen, he is considered an accomplice and is looking at jail time.
Then into the picture steps Ricardo (José Coronado) who is a CEPED (Spanish Secret Service) officer. He needs a mole to infiltrate ETA and work his way up through the terrorist cells, and in Lygorri, it looks like he has found his man. Ricardo cuts a deal with Lygorri, but in truth Lygorri has no idea what he is really getting into. He thinks it is simply passing on a bit of information, but Ricardo needs someone who can reach to the top of the ETA movement – and to do that, you have to be in very deep.
As a time capsule of the 1970’s, El Lobo doesn’t really work. The film feels very ‘now’, but that isn’t a hindrance. In fact, I’d say it’s a deliberate attempt to juxtapose the events of the past, with the events of today – remember in 2004, eight months prior to the release of this film, an al-Qaeda-inspired terrorist cell conducted a terrorist attack on the Madrid commuter train system. At the time, three days out from an election, initial reports suggested that the ETA may have been responsible for the bombings – but generally it is believed that was a ploy by the incumbent government to keep control of power. A Basque attack would look better in the eyes of the voting public than an attack by al-Qaeda in response to the countries involvement in the Iraq War.
Politics aside, El Lobo is a story about people and choices, and ultimately the emotional cost, or sacrifice if you prefer, that have to be made to stand up for something you believe in. The story and the well acted characterisations flesh the film out and drive it forward making you feel the pain as Lygorri changes into a man he doesn’t want to be. El Lobo is a masterful film, and well worth the time to seek it out.