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Vicente Aranda's big-budget omnibus, center­ing on female soldiers during the Spanish Civil War, has all the winning ingredients: peren­nially controversial history, spellbinding visuals and polished production. Maria, a wide-eyed young nun who is forced to flee her Barcelona convent by the impending arrival of revolution­ary anarchists, seeks refuge in a brothel. Zealous freedom fighter Pilar press-gangs some of the women into the organisation of Free Women and Maria is swept up in the tumult.

The anarchists march on the town of Saragossa and the horrors of war hit home in cinematic tableaus of devastation and death reminiscent of Goya's most powerful drawings. Grisly com­bat sequences are leavened with comedy dwelling on the theme of sexual frustration. Aranda indulges his whimsical directorial style in a slapstick collective urination scene, and an hysterical episode when one of the female troops comes to believe that demons have pos­sessed her. Dramatically illuminated country­sides and city streets, impeccable attention to period detail and a rousing orchestral score round out Libertarias' abundant appeal.