Movie Review: ‘Forbidden God’

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What would you do if they came for you? It’s a question religious people sometimes ask themselves, hoping they’d give the right answer.

Forbidden God is a movie about several dozen Roman Catholic seminarians who were rounded up by anti-clerical leftists during the early days of the Spanish Civil War. It is a powerful, historically accurate drama depicting courage, faith, fear, temptation, betrayal, and perseverance.

Most Americans know little about the Spanish Civil War, even if they have visited Spain. If they know anything at all, they will often mention Pablo Picasso’s famous painting Guernica, which depicts a bombing by Nazi Germany, which was allied with General Francisco Franco’s Nationalists.

But very few Americans know the details of what took place between August 1936, when the Spanish Civil War broke out, and April 1939, when Franco’s Nationalist Army completed its military and political victory over the leftist Republicans. It was a vicious and brutal war. It was a war of class struggle, of revolution versus counterrevolution, of atheism versus Christianity, and of communism against fascism. The fascist governments of Germany and Italy supported the Nationalists militarily, and the Soviet Union aided the Republicans.

Forbidden God is a new dubbed and edited English-language version of a 2013 Spanish movie called Un Dios Prohibido. It tells the story of 51 young men in their last year of theological studies for the priesthood at a Claretian seminary in Barbastro, a town in northeastern Spain about 115 miles from Barcelona. When the war breaks out, their world is turned upside down.

Catholic priests and seminarians are initially targets because the revolutionaries associate them with the old order, and suspect they may be hiding weapons for the leftists’ enemies. When a search of the seminary turns up nothing, local leaders of the revolutionary movement are initially satisfied with threats, humiliation, and propaganda, rather than sterner methods.

There are three main characters. Esteban is a young, handsome seminarian who is faced with the choice of staying with his brothers or renouncing his vocation and marrying Trini, a lovely young anarchist woman in love with him. She does all in her power to convince him to join the revolution and marry her – or face possible death.

The other major character is Sopena, an idealistic Republican who leads his band of anarchists against the clerical power of the Catholic Church. But his revolutionary fervor begins to wane as the revolutionary forces, made up of communists, socialists, and anarchists, deteriorate into an irrational and violent anti-clerical mob. He tries to steer his allies toward reason, yet eventually loses his grip.

The iron law of modern revolutions is that power always gravitates to the left, to those who are willing to use force and terror to accomplish their goals. Ernest Hemingway’s great novel For Whom the Bell Tolls chronicles how the Russian NKVD end up leading the leftist Republicans in Spain, as does George Orwell’s memoir about his time with the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, Homage to Catalonia. The history of the revolutions in France, Russia, China, and dozens of others tell this story over and over again.

So it is in Barbasto, Spain in 1936. Each of the seminarians thrown into jail is given the choice of saving his life by renouncing his faith and joining the Republicans. It isn’t an easy decision for all of them, and not all choose their faith. But most do. Along the way, they show remarkable fortitude. The young men sing, pray, and forgive their persecutors, knowing that the end may be near but never knowing when it might come.

Two of the seminarians arrested were from Argentina, which eventually led the Republican government to release them. They returned to Argentina and related the story, which is how we know about it in such detail. (The Spanish seminarians who persevered were beatified by Pope John Paul II (now himself a canonized saint) in 1992. Their feast day is August 13.)

The movie is not a history of the Spanish Civil War. We see little fighting, and the action never leaves the small town of Barbastro. Instead, we get to know a small group of young men through their struggles in the frightening situation they unexpectedly found themselves in.

Yet through the lens of one small group, we learn a lot about the larger story. During the Spanish Civil War, 6,832 Roman Catholic clerics and religious women were murdered by leftists. They include priests, monks, friars, and nuns. The movie is a cautionary tale about religious intolerance and hatred, which can ultimately lead to murder.

The director of Forbidden God, Pablo Moreno, does a fine job of focusing on the lives of the key players so the movie does not come across as a political documentary. It is instead an intensely personal tragedy centering on the lives of three young men and women. The story is well told, and the movie is a must-see for those whose faith is important to them.