Storm the Skies (1996)

“Exile was not enough.”

The documentary Storm the Skies digs into the life of Ramon Mercader, the assassin of Trotsky and argues against the idea that Mercader was a disillusioned Trotskyite. The film begins by tracing the life of Ramon Mercader’s mother, Calidad. Although she came from a wealthy Spanish family, in adulthood, she became a committed communist and an enemy of her class–even robbing her family’s own factories at one point. Married off to a wealthy man, she rejected a great deal of her domestic life–and her hubbie dragged her off to bordellos so that she could understand what male-female relationships were all about.

Mercader’s mother sent her children from civil war Spain to the relative safety of the Soviet Union. Here, the so-called “war children” were treated well and given a stellar communist education, and it’s emphasized that even at this point, Mercader was treated as a special case. The film argues that Mercader was a committed KGB agent when he undertook the mission to assassinate the exiled Trotsky. The film traces his relationship with Trotskyite Sylvia Ageloff, reveals Mercader’s various identities, and how he penetrated Trotsky’s household in Mexico.

Some parts of the film seem quite disconnected from the main narrative–for example, the film begins with footage of the Rolling Stones performing in Barcelona in 1975, and while it’s always great to see this band, the exact relevance to the subject at hand remains unclear. Also when describing Calidad’s marriage, the filmmaker tosses in some ancient footage of rather large women engaging in hanky panky at a Spanish bordello–again, the footage seems irrelevant. Also the exact relevance of the interview with a Spanish actress who visited Mercader in a Mexican prison remains cloudy. One of the biggest faults with the film, however, lies in the fact that those interviewed are never identified. Documentaries usually identify those interviewed with a few words at the bottom of the screen. This device is completely absent from the film, so it’s impossible to identify those interviewed–although a few people identify themselves by giving statements such as they guarded Trotsky, etc.

There’s some marvelous footage in the film–Trotsky’s funeral, and scenes of Trotsky’s house, and it’s possible to see the security reinforcements Trotsky added to the house (raised the wall, built guard towers, etc). Unfortunately, the film vacillates between treating Trotsky and then Mercader as heroes. Of course, some of those who are interviewed were in Trotsky’s innermost circle, and worshipped the man, so a certain amount of the hero-worship factor is unavoidable. When tracing Mercader’s life post prison the film asks the question whether or not he was a hero to kill Trotsky or just another pawn of Stalin and the Soviet government. By the time the film ends, there’s an overwhelming sense that Mercader is supposed to be a great hero for bumping off Trotsky. The film doesn’t elaborate on the subject of Trotsky’s many crimes to humanity–that’s clearly not the subject of the film–but instead of being caught in the argument that one of these two people is a hero, the time would have been better spent on relevant information and filling in some of the gaps. After all some of us don’t see either Trotsky or Mercader as heroes and would prefer more background information on the subject matter. The film only briefly touches on the involvement of Diego Rivera and Frida Kalho, for example, and this section could bear much closer scrutiny. In Spanish with English subtitles.

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Filed under Documentary

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