Reprint: A Collective Impulse

This piece was originally published on the old blog in April 2015; it was a culmination of my investigations into ‘el otro cine español’ thus far, and also a form of preparation for attending the D’A Festival later that month. An earlier post – this one – explains why I was looking at this particular set of films. When I first started this new blog, I wrote a post outlining where I was up to with my ‘otro cine español’ project but not much has happened since (although if you click on the ‘otro cine español’ tag at the foot of this post, you will be able to see other connected pieces). My trip to the D’A Festival in April 2015 mainly stemmed from a realisation that if I wanted to see these films (and their newer incarnations), then I would need to travel to festivals because it is difficult to cross paths with them otherwise. But I’ve had to accept that I don’t currently have the resources for festival trips, and have put the project to one side for the time being – although I keep an eye on the various Spanish online platforms that might host such films. For now, this piece and the one written specifically for this blog are a summation of the project.

I haven’t attempted to update the main part of the text (I haven’t stayed up to date with the saga of Spanish film finance, although I don’t expect that the situation has improved at all – if anything, it’s likely to have got worse) but I am rejigging the postscript because the availability status of several of the films has changed (so that info is current as of August 2017).

 

Un impulso colectivo

Marginal cinemas – or cinema being made on the margins, outside the norms of a given industrial context – are nearly always present, if not always widely visible. In the past few years in Spain, specific actions by the Rajoy government (for example, dismantling the existing film finance infrastructure without putting anything in its place, and in September 2012 raising the IVA [VAT] on entertainment (including cinema tickets) from 8% to 21%), in combination with the dire economic situation, have thrown film production in Spain into disarray and further undermined confidence in the Spanish film industry – an industry that was already habitually said to be in near-perpetual crisis. These circumstances have exacerbated the financial precariousness of those filmmakers already operating on the margins; the current reliance on self-funding and / or crowdfunding is not sustainable in the long term, and nor does it afford people a secure way of making a living. At the same time, the visibility of these films on the margins has increased because their success at film festivals abroad has raised their profiles at home. This international recognition is often presented by the press as a fillip for a beleaguered industry that these filmmakers nonetheless remain outside of.

From an outsider’s perspective (i.e. mine), there seem to be two events that crystallised the growing attention directed at goings-on on the margins: the September 2013 issue of Caimán Cuadernos de Cine, which was dedicated to ‘el otro cine español’ (the first time I had seen these films presented as being related to each other, despite their disparities), and the ‘Un impulso colectivo’ [A Collective Impulse] section (which takes its name from programmer Carlos Losilla’s Caimán article) at the D’A – Festival Internacional de Cinema D’Autor de Barcelona in April 2014. That’s not to say that these types of films weren’t being supported and championed elsewhere – many screened abroad and / or at festivals such as San Sebastián and Seville prior to these two events – but Caimán and the D’A Festival drew attention to the films and filmmakers as a group in a way that seems important to me because cinema is not created in a vacuum, and the idea of a group (however nebulous) foregrounds that these films are not isolated or unrelated occurrences.

A brief outline of each of the 14 films in ‘Un impulso colectivo’ can be found here. In this post I am going to consider the films as a group in order to highlight some areas of commonality across the programme.

Form follows content –
The ‘Un impulso colectivo’ programme offered a panorama of marginal cinema(s) in Spain, encompassing a range of financial models (including self-financing, crowdfunding, local grants and subsidies) and diverse genres and styles (a deadpan sci-fi, a musical-comedy, essay films, documentaries, and social dramas among them). The films collectively demonstrate that lack of money does not equate with a lack of ambition or signify a lower standard of visual or technical competence. For example, in El triste olor de la carne (dir. Cristóbal Arteaga) the use of one continuous take in conjunction with recurring diegetic sound (Mariano Rajoy’s 2013 national address plays on radios in cars and on the bus, making the architect of Spanish austerity almost omniscient within the narrative) reflects the way in which financial disaster pursues, and is closing in on, Alfredo (Alfredo Rodríguez); the visual and the aural are combined to position the viewer inescapably alongside Alfredo throughout his ordeal, and create an emotionally draining experience.

There are distinct forms and structures in operation across the programme. For example, Vidaextra (dir. Ramiro Ledo) and Une histoire seule (dir. Xurxo Chirro & Aguinaldo Fructuoso) create dialogues with other texts (Peter Weiss’s The Aesthetics of Resistance and the work of Jean-Luc Godard respectively) in order to expand on a worldview or explore the filmmakers’ own experiences. In other films, the actual process of telling a story becomes central to the form they take: in different ways, Uranes (dir. Chema García Ibarra), Árboles (dir. Colectivo Los Hijos [Javier Fernández Vázquez, Luis López Carrasco, Natalia Marín Sancho]), Ilusión (dir. Daniel Castro), Los primeros días (dir. Juan Rayos), and Sobre la marxa (dir. Jordi Morató) all make storytelling, or the play of artistic creation, part of their structure and exploration of broader themes. In Los primeros días, the rehearsals are interwoven with cast interviews and footage of later performances; we see the text take on new meaning for the children as they live the experience, but the juxtapositions in the structure also reinforce the theme of life’s transient nature. Filmmakers also utilise Spain’s past (in the form of Spanish colonialism and the Transition) to draw parallels and highlight connections with events in contemporary Spain in Árboles, Ilusión, and El Futuro (dir. Luis López Carrasco).

‘The crisis’ and human connections –
The economic crisis and its fallout is perhaps unsurprisingly the most persistent theme, and is manifested in various guises. Most straightforwardly, Edificio España (dir. Víctor Moreno) inadvertently captures the moments leading up to the construction bubble bursting and the subsequent sense of paralysis, while El triste olor de la carne takes up the economic theme on the level of personal devastation. In a more comedic mode, Ilusión shows economic circumstances impinging on the personal (pursuing an artistic dream) and the industrial (the film industry’s unwillingness to take a financial risk) in Daniel’s quixotic quest to make a musical about the political pacts that formed Spain’s democracy. The crisis also plays out via generational discontent, as seen in Las aventuras de Lily ojos de gato (dir. Yonay Boix) and Vidaextra where people in their late-twenties / early-thirties are stuck in a kind of arrested development, unable to fulfil the expectations of adulthood, at least in part because of social precarity and the impossibility of reliably supporting themselves. There is an undercurrent of frustration and anger – and in some cases the sad weariness of defeat – in many of the representations of contemporary social circumstances.

While several of the films – Uranes, Cenizas (dir. Carlos Balbuena), Sobre la marxa – focus on individuals in solitude (whether by preference or otherwise), the majority show informal communities held together by either friendship or shared experience. Several of these – for example, Edificio España and Paradiso (dir. Omar A. Razzak) – centre on a specific locations, and spaces in danger of desertion; the observed absences in those spaces serve to highlight the connections between those still present. But in the films where these communities represent support networks, there is an emphasis on physicality and the tactility of human interactions – whether the young immigrants playing football and larking about in Slimane (dir. José A. Alayón), the children throwing and dancing each other around the stage in Los primeros días, or the alcohol-induced flirtations and bonhomie in Las aventuras de Lily ojos de gato. Similarly, the conversation at the centre of Vidaextra explores the need for a sense of belonging, to feel part of something bigger than yourself, but also for the society you live in to in some way reflect your values and ideals. Most of the films in ‘Un impulso colectivo’ are rooted in a specific social context – with varying degrees of explicitness, they say something about Spain today – but in the parallels drawn between past and present, many of the filmmakers also suggest the possibility of (or more pointedly, the need for) change and a collective resistance to a continuation of the status quo.

I’ve only skimmed the surface, but taken together these films underline that the richness of cinema is to be found in its plurality; ‘Un impulso colectivo’ gave a taste of a multitude of styles and voices (although notably few women) standing together in the current ‘otro cine español’.

 

Availability

As far as I can tell, ÁrbolesUne histoire seule, and Vidaextra are not currently available in any format. Back in 2015 most of these films were tricky to access, so I’d like to repeat my thanks to the following people for allowing me access to their work: Luis López Carrasco (twice over), Xurxo Chirro, Ramiro Ledo, Víctor Moreno (for giving me access to Edificio España before the DVD was available), Juan Rayos, Lourdes Pérez at Producción El Viaje (and Jonay García at Digital 104 for passing that request along), and Deica audiovisual.

DVD: Edificio España, Ilusión (no subtitles), Paradiso, Sobre la marxa. [the links take you to the most straightforward way to buy them if you’re in the UK, but they may be available elsewhere as well]

Filmin: CenizasEl FuturoEl triste olor de la carne, Los primeros díasSlimane, Sobre la marxa. [although Filmin can be viewed from anywhere, it will only allow you to purchase a subscription if you are in Spain – either do as I do (buy the subscription while visiting Spain), or find a friendly Spaniard to purchase on your behalf]

Márgenes: their VOD catalogue is currently down for maintenance, so I can’t link to specific films, but they have previously had Edificio EspañaEl triste olor de la carne, and Slimane. When their catalogue is back up, I will look for links.

Vimeo: Las aventuras de Lily ojos de gato (no subtitles), Paradiso (with subtitles), Uranes (with subtitles).

Reprint: En tierra extraña / In a Foreign Land (Icíar Bollaín, 2014)

This was originally posted on the old blog in October 2014 (my practice now when I reprint something from the old blog is to remove the original content and in its place leave a link to the post here) and is an extended version of the review I wrote for Eye for Film (which can be found here). The figures quoted within the piece (such as unemployment stats) relate to that year. Back in 2014, immigration was already a toxic topic within political discourse in the UK (a certain far right sack of English shit – whose media time is out of all proportion to the size of his party – was mentioned by name during the Q&A in Edinburgh). Post-EU Referendum, I can only imagine that the participants in Bollaín’s timely film have now seen this foreign land in a more negative light – I certainly have.

 

An angry cry of indignation and a call for political mobilisation, with En tierra extraña – her seventh feature – Icíar Bollaín makes her first foray into documentary, examining the emigration phenomenon among a generation of Spaniards (mainly university graduates in their 20s and 30s) who have been forced to leave Spain due to the economic situation. The Spanish government’s official figures say that around 225,000 Spaniards have left Spain since the current economic crisis began, but independent sources put the figure closer to 700,000 – at least 20,000 of whom have ended up in Edinburgh. So it was appropriate that the film’s UK premiere was as the opening film of the inaugural Edinburgh Spanish Film Festival. Bollaín – herself a resident of the Scottish capital – explores the reasons behind this generational exodus, and the experiences of those who have found themselves in a foreign land for an extended period of time through necessity rather than active choice.

Bollaín’s original plan was to follow the stories of five people, but – she explained in the Q&A after the (sold out) Edinburgh screening I attended – people kept leaving, and she had to rethink her approach. One of the original five was Gloria, who we see organising an artistic expression of how it feels to be Spanish and far from home – she collects ‘lost’ gloves from around the city (the metaphor of the single gloves is that being an emigrant is like feeling you are missing half of yourself, which I personally find a bit twee but it functions well enough here as a connecting device). The gloves were used in a photography project (the images flash up at the end of the film) which was advertised around the city and online, with people choosing a glove from Gloria’s collection to be photographed with but also contributing their stories and experiences. The gloves find their final home on the railings outside the Spanish Embassy in Edinburgh in a show of solidarity with the Marchas de la Dignidad [Dignity March] which took place on 22nd March 2014 in Spain. The participants interviewed and filmed by Bollaín are those who turned up on the day of the photography project.

They are filmed solo or in pairs against the backdrop of Edinburgh Castle – perhaps a symbol of potentially impenetrable cultural barriers, but also conceivably a representation of a safe haven. In deeply moving, dignified, and articulate testimony, a series of highly qualified people – social workers, psychologists, teachers, and engineers among them – in their 20s and 30s (and some older women as well) explain how they came to be working in hotels, kitchens, and takeaways thousands of miles away from their homes and families. The story of a limited employment market, of short term contracts with little stability, a lack of opportunities and no clear future is a familiar one – similar situations are taking place across Europe. But arguably in Spain the problems have been exacerbated by pre-existing problems relating to their political system in combination with severe austerity measures, and they have hit the young hard – youth unemployment in Spain currently hovers at 54% (it is around 16% in the UK).

While the interviewees talk of the erosion of confidence that occurs when you are stuck doing work that you are not proud of – and that doesn’t stretch your capabilities – almost all of them also say that they have felt welcome in Scotland, and that their work is appreciated, valued, and offers the possibility of progression. Their experiences in Scotland have made many of them reevaluate how Spain treats immigrants, especially those from Latin America – and Bollaín offers illustrations of anti-immigration political campaigning in Spain (again, that’s something that Europe as a whole currently shares). Although we meet chemical engineers working as housekeepers (her revelation that she was so underpaid as an engineer in Spain that she actually earns the same cleaning hotel rooms in Edinburgh was met with a collective “Oof” from the predominantly Spanish audience at the screening), and biologists serving fried chicken, the film emphasises that there can be a life-enhancing side to being immersed in another culture. People who have been in Scotland for longer, have made it through the language barrier to develop their careers, such as the young man involved in events management at the Scottish Parliament.

But the flipside of this cultural immersion is the problematising of ‘belonging’ – on the one hand, many of the participants can’t imagine ever feeling that they belong in Scotland, but the longer they stay away from home, the more they feel ‘other’ when they return there as well. This is summed up by one woman as sometimes feeling that she has double of everything (two homes, two lives – a feeling of plentitude), but at other times that she only has half (because she is split between two places). Nearly all of them speak of the deep sense of loneliness experienced by the immigrant far from home and surrounded by a language that is not their own – another woman brilliantly describes it as only being able to offer an abridged version of yourself because your identity does not fully translate (underlined in her case by the Scottish being unable to properly pronounce her name – Mar – and adapting it into something recognisable to themselves but foreign to her self perception).

In amongst the nostalgia – Bollaín said that that was what most surprised her, that people in their 20s and 30s felt such a strong nostalgia for Spain, a longing for what they have left behind, or for those things being missed (e.g. births, deaths, and marriages, the markers in a shared life) during their absence – is a deeply-felt impotent rage at being subjected to something that is not of their making. The director’s contention is that despite what the politicians say – and Bollaín utilises news footage to give Spanish politicians enough rope to hang themselves with their disingenuous statements about enhanced employability – this mass emigration is not the same as that of Spain in the 1960s. In that era Spain was a poor country with a sub-standard education system – many of those who went abroad (predominantly to factories in Germany) were the rural poor. In contrast, those leaving today boast university educations, and head into unskilled work; the current phenomenon effectively deprives their homeland of a generation of skilled professionals and impoverishes the country in a way that goes beyond the economic.

Alongside news and archive footage (and an explanation of the socio-economic context from sociologist Joaquin Garcia Roca), Bollaín skilfully interweaves Alberto San Juan’s one-man show – Autorretrato de un joven capitalista español / Portrait of a Young Spanish Capitalist – into the film to create a recurring point of reference around which to organise the testimonies. Humorous, but also angry and educational, San Juan’s monologue questions how Spain came to be in its current economic position and proffers some explanations with recourse to history, politics, and an account of how the West (in the form of Henry Kissinger and German Chancellor Willy Brandt) interfered behind the scenes in Spain’s journey to democracy – and what Socialist Prime Minister Felipe González acquiesced to in the 1980s in order to get European membership for Spain. Cut from the same political cloth as Bollaín, San Juan pulls no punches and ends his performance by asking whether what the Spanish are experiencing now is just a continuation of Francoism under another name, wherein the vested interests of a powerful minority are protected at the expense of the common citizen. This acts as a carefully argued – although avowedly one-sided – counterbalance to the emotion of the testimonies, and as a call for mobilisation and participation in order to change Spanish politics.

At times profoundly moving (people trying not to cry is lump-in-my-throat material for me generally but the loneliness and trying-to-be-stoic-in-the-face-of-despair just made me want to hug them), En tierra extraña burns with indignation at the circumstances foisted on a generation who did what they were supposed to but who have had little choice but to abandon the careers and futures they thought lay ahead of them. While the film doesn’t offer solutions, it suggests that there is cause for hope – in one section of San Juan’s show he says that the streets of Spain fell silent on 23rd February 1981 (when Lieutenant Colonel Tejero attempted a coup d’etat in the Spanish Parliament) but that they woke up and unfroze on 15th May 2011 (the start of the protests and the Indignados movement). He argues that they won’t be silenced again, and during the Q&A Bollaín pointed to the abandonment of the Partido Popular’s medieval proposed abortion law and the appearance of new left-wing party Podemos as proof that people can make a difference when they group together. In calling Spain’s political class to account, Bollaín gives a voice to those left outside (a common theme across her filmography) – of both their country and political system – and at a time when poisonous polemics about immigration are sweeping Europe, her humane and impassioned documentary deserves to be seen far and wide.

The film is available on-demand at Vimeo.

Under Sandet / Land of Mine (Martin Zandvliet, 2015)

I reviewed Land of Mine in 2015 (I saw it at the Gijón International Film Festival, where it won the Audience Award) – and I mentioned it in one of my festival diary posts – but it finally goes on theatrical release in the UK today (after receiving an Oscar nomination in the Best Foreign Language Film category earlier this year). It’s a well-made film; although conventional in its narrative structure and character arcs, it adeptly pulls the audience into the story, constructs multiple sequences of high tension, and shines a light on a little-known event from the end of WW2. It also boasts several very fine performances. My 2015 Eye for Film review is here.

 

Watched in July

I’ve not had much time (or inclination) for film watching in July; the two features were watched on the last Saturday of the month. If I want to have the next stage of the Carlos Saura Challenge in early 2018, I need to be watching several of the relevant films each month – that’s unlikely to start before September, but hopefully I’ll manage to realign my life/work balance soon.

Radu Jude’s follow-up to Aferim! (one of my favourites in 2015) – Inimi cicatrizate / Scarred Hearts is available on Mubi until 5th August.

Carlos Saura Challenge, Part 13: Mamá cumple 100 años / Mama Turns 100 (1979)

Director: Carlos Saura
Screenplay: Carlos Saura
Cast: Geraldine Chaplin, Rafaela Aparicio, Fernando Fernán Gómez, Amparo Muñoz, Norman Brisky, José Vivó, Charo Soriano, Ángeles Torres, Elisa Nandi.
Synopsis: A matriarch’s 100th birthday is the occasion for scheming skullduggery among her extended family while an old acquaintance offers a potential lifeline.

1973’s Ana y los lobos ended with English nanny Ana (Geraldine Chaplin) being ejected from her employer’s household by Mamá (Rafaela Aparicio) – who blamed the young foreigner for sowing discord among her three adult sons (Fernando Fernán Gómez, José María Prada, José Vivó) – and subsequently attacked by the three men (they forcibly shear off her hair, rape her, and then shoot her in the head). The latter part of Ana’s departure is left ambiguous in terms of whether it is ‘real’ or ‘imagined’ (the brothers are prone to flights of reverie and the film as a whole has a fable-like quality). Mamá cumple 100 años provides the answer insofar as the same characters – including Ana – are reunited years later at the same house for Mamá’s 100th birthday celebrations, although the story is by no means a continuation of the earlier narrative and is a much more comedic take on the dysfunctional household.

The age of the youngest of the three girls Ana previously cared for – Victoria (Elisa Nandi), who seems a lot younger than her siblings, Natalia (Amparo Muñoz) and Carlotta (Ángeles Torres) – suggests that this story is set between 6-8 years later (although the age of the actresses playing the older girls could easily double that). A lot has changed: the girls have grown up; José (played by José María Prada in the previous film – the actor had died between the two productions) died three years ago; Juan (José Vivo) has run off with the cook; Fernando has moved on from levitation to trying to fly with the use of a hand-glider; Juan’s wife Luchy (Charo Soriano) is embezzling Mamá’s money with Carlotta’s help; and Ana is now married, bringing her husband Antonio (Norman Brisky) along for the party. But Mamá is still the same – omniscient (she communicates with Fernando and Ana seemingly by telepathy and can hear all that is going on in the house) and quite the character.

Mamá is aware that her extended family doesn’t view her longevity as a positive, and that in fact several of them (including her remaining sons, but marshalled by her daughter-in-law) are actively plotting her demise; Luchy is convinced that the excitement of the party will cause one of Mamá’s epileptic seizures, and is planning to administer a placebo rather than the elderly woman’s medication (hoping that she will therefore die). The family money has run out and the younger generations have caught on to the value of the land that the house sits on – while Mamá insists that the estate will stay intact while she’s alive, the others are already lining up a sale to land developers. Mamá has invited Ana to the party because as an outsider she can be trusted – she is given a vial of medication and asked to intervene if Mamá has another attack (we have already witnessed one on the day Ana arrives).

The film is anomalous within the rest of Saura’s filmography from this period. Aside from two stylised and theatrical tableaux vivant – one in the middle of a dinner when Fernando uses the remnants of his earlier mysticism to summon his wayward brother home at their mother’s request, the other in the aftermath of Mamá’s expected seizure during the party, all those present frozen in place – the film reminded me less of Saura, and more of Luis García Berlanga’s La escopeta nacional (1978). Dark humour is threaded through many of Saura’s early films, but Mamá cumple 100 años unexpectedly fits within a contemporaneous trend for bawdy post-censorship Spanish comedy (although – as with Berlanga – the bawdiness doesn’t detract from the critique or satire of Spanish society also at play) and, perhaps unsurprisingly, it was one of the bigger films at the Spanish box office in the year of its release. It is enjoyably farcical but also laced with bitterness (few of the family members demonstrate any fidelity to each other), and Saura can still be seen as engaging in social critique as per the Spanish tradition of esperpento (a dark humour in which a distorted version of reality is utilised in order to critique it).

This was the last film that Saura and Chaplin made together. It seems appropriate that their collaboration looped back on itself to revisit an earlier character, much in the same way that Saura’s films individually play with time and memory; the revisiting allows a contrast between then and now, and captures the passing of time through Chaplin’s face. Ana is perhaps more straightforward than many of the other characters Chaplin inhabits in the Saura/Chaplin films – for one thing, she is the only character Chaplin plays in this film. Ana is the only character given the privilege of a flashback (remembering José, via a sequence from Ana y los lobos) but she also represents a warning that nostalgia for the past can blind us to current realities. By reputation Chaplin doesn’t discuss Saura, but on the BFI edition of Cría cuervos there is a documentary profile of the director (Portrait of Carlos Saura (José Luis López-Linares, 2004)) in which she is interviewed. After talking about how they came to work together (the publicist working on Dr Zhivago introduced them), she says “I have nothing bad to say about Carlos. [Pause] Now, if you’d asked me years ago!” and with a grin bursts out laughing. In interviews (old and more recent) Saura repeatedly credits Chaplin with expanding his world view (and his view of women), but very little critical attention seems to have been given to her performances / contributions in these films. I’ve said before that I’d like to write an in-depth piece about her roles and performances in the Saura/Chaplin films, and it is still my intention to do that at some point in the future.

This is the last post for the ‘Carlos Saura Challenge: 1962-1979’. I’m hoping that I will manage to wrangle the next collection (1980-1999) together by early 2018 (I think that aiming for the end of this year would be a bit too optimistic given how many films it involves and how irregular my viewing habits currently are), with 2000-2017 following on that summer.

Carlos Saura Challenge, Part 12: Los ojos vendados / Blindfolded Eyes (1978)

Director: Carlos Saura
Screenplay: Carlos Saura
Cast: José Luis Gómez, Geraldine Chaplin, Xabier Elorriaga, Andrés Falcón, Lola Cardona, C.E.T. actors (theatrical group).
Synopsis: Despite anonymous threats, a theatre director writes and rehearses a play based on the real testimonies of torture victims…and begins a relationship with a married woman.

The impetus for Los ojos vendados stemmed from two events in Saura’s life: he participated in the Bertrand Russell Tribunal, which documented evidence from victims of Latin American state torture; and his eldest son, Antonio, was beaten by a group of right-wing youths. The film’s protagonist – Luis (José Luis Gómez), an acting teacher and theatre director – is therefore positioned as a kind of proxy for the director. In the opening sequence he likewise sits on the panel of a tribunal publicly denouncing state torture, and finds himself unable to shake the words of one witness (the film’s title comes from her testimony) from his mind – in response, he writes and begins to rehearse a theatrical production based on the witness testimony heard by the panel, but receives anonymous threats warning him to stop what he’s doing (which he ignores).

This was brave subject matter to tackle during the Transition. Although censorship was technically finished at this point (my 2014 article on documentary and censorship during this era points out that the State could still disrupt and obstruct filmmakers in other ways), this period was the beginning of ‘the pact of silence’ – the consensus of the Spanish Establishment being that in order for the country to move on from the dictatorship, everyone needed to forget what had happened in the past. The balance of power within this obviously sits with the victors of the Civil War – the losing side had been silenced during the dictatorship, unable to publicly mourn their dead (in numerous cases not even knowing where the dead were buried), and were now being told to let sleeping dogs lie. In this febrile social context Saura chose to make a film in solidarity with victims of state torture, and which contains the implicit suggestion that the past is inescapable – via his recurring theme of memory, he shows that we carry our ghosts with us (as symbolised by Luis’s visions of coal dust – a reminder of another life – in the bathroom sink). Los ojos vendados therefore offers a continuation of Saura’s longstanding political focus, but also coalesces with his obvious interest in performers, their inner lives and creative processes.

If Luis is a loose proxy for Saura, Geraldine Chaplin’s character – Emilia – is in some ways a continuation of Elisa from Elisa, vida mía. Like Elisa, she doesn’t know who she is or what she wants to do with her life, and is distressed by her lack of purpose; her relationship with her husband (Xabier Elorriaga) fractures because of her attempts to find herself through artistic endeavour (by joining Luis’s drama workshops). When this results in domestic violence, she flees to Luis for help. But despite his understanding some of her angst – he also questions whether he has done anything of real worth in his life – their subsequent affair doesn’t alleviate her existential anxiety (although their danced mutual seduction/striptease is easily the most joyful sequence Chaplin has in any of Saura’s films). However, Luis guides her towards self-expression and – although Emilia seems too self-conscious to let herself go during the acting exercises – her vulnerability creates a point of connection with the part she plays in the production, and she becomes a different woman onstage (in the double sense of playing a part but also becoming a more certain version of herself).

Luis gives Emilia the role of the woman with mirrored sunglasses, the woman whose testimony inspired him to write the piece. Chaplin doesn’t play the woman in the opening sequence (although the woman has been deliberately anonymised by the glasses and headscarf) but as the woman’s words echo around Luis’s imagination, it is Emilia (or Chaplin, at least) who he sees in her place – and I think that there’s some deliberate visual slippage in these sequences. Different versions of the testimony are reenacted at different times during the film’s narrative (effectively because Luis can’t shake the testimony from his mind) – sometimes Chaplin/not-Emilia is dressed in casual clothes similar to those worn by the woman during her testimony (specifically jeans and a khaki jacket), but at others the figure in Luis’s imaginings is clearly Emilia (her hairstyle, make-up, clothes and jewellery mark out Emilia as a different social class to the other actors in the workshops and are specific to her within the film’s narrative world – e.g. we don’t see anyone else wearing the pearl necklace or trench coat – so these are deliberate markers of her identity). The witness testimony relates to Latin American countries (and although as far as I could tell none are specifically named, the woman with mirrored sunglasses speaks with an Argentinian accent) but to me the visual slippage/blurring posits two things: this happened here (Spain); and this can happen here again. The latter is perhaps a fear lodged in Luis’s subconscious by the anonymous threats (but also arguably relates to the attack on Saura’s son) – I’d have to watch the film again to work out whether Emilia’s clothes specifically appear in sequences that follow a threat arriving, or whether this is something that builds up as the narrative progresses – but the film ends in a series of violent events, giving credence to that unconscious fear.

This is an occasion where writing about a film has revealed more layers to me than I was aware of while watching it. I’d like to re-watch Los ojos vendados, not least because I saw it without subtitles and was aware that in a couple of instances (mainly scenes where Luis seemed to be talking about the past) whole conversations were unintelligible to me (a combination of poor sound and poor comprehension – if I can pick up the gist of the topic, it’s easier to follow), so I know that there were things that I missed. It seems to be one of Saura’s lesser-known works, probably due to availability issues (it doesn’t appear to ever have been released on DVD), which is a shame because the way in which it brings together many of the director’s favourite themes gives the impression of someone refining his vision of the world. It’s a densely-layered film, possibly deceptively so – you could probably watch it just on the surface and still get a similar overall impression, but there’s a lot going on in relation to performance and memory (and more besides) that I’ve barely touched on here.

Carlos Saura Challenge, Part 11: Elisa, vida mía / Elisa, My Love (1977)

Director: Carlos Saura
Screenplay: Carlos Saura
Cast: Fernando Rey, Geraldine Chaplin, Norman Brisky, Isabel Mestres, Joaquín Hinojosa, Ana Torrent.
Synopsis: A man estranged from his family for twenty years is visited by his youngest daughter, who is escaping her own marital crisis.

The first film Saura made after Franco’s death – and only the second where he has the sole writing credit – Elisa, vida mía grew out of the director’s desire to make a film with a more personal resonance. In an interview given to Positif at the time, he said:

“There has always been in Spanish cinema a kind of fear of showing one’s sensitivity. […] I now feel liberated from a number of moral obligations, of certain social responsibilities, let’s say. Since Franco’s death, I’ve felt free of these obligations and I decided to focus on other aspects of my life which seemed essential to me.” (Brasó [1977] 2003: 47)

No longer feeling compelled to address themes that would lead to battles with the censors, Saura turned inwards, although he maintained the opaque style that requires the viewer to put in some effort. Elisa, vida mía is an introspective film: the central themes are solitude, the difficulty of sharing your life with someone, and self expression through artistic endeavour.

An avuncular Fernando Rey plays Luis, a writer/translator/teacher who twenty years earlier abandoned his family and moved to an isolated house in the countryside. On the occasion of his birthday (and in reported ill health) he is visited by his two daughters – Isabel (Isabel Mestres) and Elisa (Geraldine Chaplin) – and having not seen Elisa for a number of years, he invites her to stay with him for a few days. Elisa is considering the same course of action taken by her father several decades earlier; although no children are involved, she is struggling to make a decision about whether to leave her husband, and sees the visit as an opportunity to give herself space to consider the matter. It’s worth mentioning that divorce wasn’t legalised in Spain until 1981. Elisa is therefore aware that if she leaves, she will be in a kind of limbo (voiceover reveals that her mother – also played by Chaplin (with Ana Torrent playing Elisa’s younger self in the flashbacks/dreams) – was unable to make a new life for herself after Luis left them, and would have found it easier if he’d died) and this contributes to her general sense of aimlessness.

While Elisa is attempting to take control over her life and ‘find herself’, the question of who has control of the story is muddied from the start; the opening voiceover appears to be from the perspective of Elisa, but is spoken by Luis. The latter claims to be writing a memoir – and Elisa surreptitiously reads pages that detail Luis’s growing preoccupation with death (a preoccupation that she shares) – but the audience is privy to the fact that some of his writing is an account of the past from Elisa’s point of view. As he becomes familiar with her dilemma there’s something slightly vampiric in how he co-opts her words and her evident distress into a writing exercise for himself. There are also junctures where Saura deliberately obscures whose perspective we’re being given. For example, Elisa tells Luis about an anonymous caller who informed her that her husband was having an affair with her best friend. Elisa set out to confront her best friend, but was thwarted by the concierge telling her that the woman must be away because he hadn’t seen her for weeks. Elisa’s words stop at this point but the images show her entering her friend’s apartment and finding a putrefying corpse in the bedroom. Is this what really happened? Or is Luis’s imagination embellishing the story? That the audio during the unspoken sequence – the sound of men’s voices and a metallic clanking (which doesn’t fit with what we’re seeing) – reappears during a nightmare Luis has when his health deteriorates further (the sounds seem to relate to a meat market – we see haunches of raw meat skidding down a metal chute) suggests the latter.

Likewise, Chaplin playing dual roles causes confusion during a brief sex scene (featuring Luis and one of Chaplin’s characters) that occurs immediately after Elisa has definitively broken up with her husband. Has witnessing his daughter’s marital strife caused Luis to flashback to an erotically-charged moment from his own marriage, or is this an incestuous projection by father or daughter (the subsequent cut suggests that if the woman is Elisa, it is not meant to be taken as an event occurring in the present)? In the same interview, Saura suggests that the question of perspective in relation to this sequence ‘brings together all the central themes in the film: is this Luis’s story or Elisa’s? Does the story belong to a character who is double, half Luis, half Elisa, which in the final analysis would be me, the filmmaker?’ (p.50).

It’s a strange film. On the one hand, the doubling between father and daughter – they identify with each other because they share certain experiences and outlooks, but that identification seems partly misplaced and slightly out of alignment (there are secrets and misunderstandings) – creates an empathetic portrait of family bonds. But although the film is sympathetic to Elisa’s desire to ‘find herself’, some of her hysteria – a recurrent fantasy about being stabbed to death in the manner as befell a woman whose corpse Luis once found near the house, and her histrionic meltdown after she tells her husband that she won’t be returning home with him – seems incredibly overwrought to these modern eyes, and it is an occasion where (for me) Saura’s deliberate ambiguity is frustrating.

References:
Brasó, E. ([1977] 2003) – ‘Interview with Carlos Saura on Cría cuervos and Elisa, vida mía‘, Positif, no.194, pp.3-8, reprinted in Carlos Saura: Interviews, edited by L.M. Willem, Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.

Carlos Saura Challenge, Part 10: Cría cuervos / Raise Ravens (1976)

Director: Carlos Saura
Writer: Carlos Saura
Cast: Ana Torrent, Geraldine Chaplin, Mónica Randall, Florinda Chico, Conchita Pérez, Maite Sánchez, Héctor Alterio, Germán Cobos, Mirta Miller, Josefina Díaz
Synopsis: An eight-year old girl believes that she has poisoned the authoritarian father whom she blames for the death of her mother.

Link: My Eye for Film review of the film from 2014.

Link: My original post on the film, from the old version of the blog.

Probably Carlos Saura’s most celebrated film outside of Spain – which I would partly connect to the fact that it is one of the few to have been widely available in subtitled form – Cría cuervos (the title refers to the Spanish proverb “raise ravens and they’ll peck out your eyes”) won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 1976. This was the only one of Saura’s films – apart from the dance films and ¡Ay, Carmela! (1990) – that I had seen before I started the original run of the Carlos Saura Challenge. I first saw it 15 or 16 years ago on VHS, at a point when I had seen very few Spanish films. In common with another Spanish classic from the same era – El espíritu de la colmena (Víctor Erice, 1973) – it’s a film that I find easier to admire than to like. Less elliptical than El espíritu de la colmena, Saura’s film nonetheless likewise acquires much of its lasting power from the combination of Ana Torrent’s dark-eyed, solemn gaze and its representation of how an impressionable child can have their imagination activated by events they don’t fully understand.

Eight-year-old Ana – Torrent, in a role that Saura wrote specifically for her – overhears her military father (Héctor Alterio) having sex with a family friend (Mirta Miller) and subsequently dying, with the woman fleeing the house. The little girl believes that she has caused her father’s death after putting an unknown white powder – which she has been told is poisonous – into his drink. She holds him responsible for the prolonged illness and painful death of her mother (Geraldine Chaplin) a few years earlier. Saura effectively uses a child’s perspective to depict Spain in the dying days of the Franco dictatorship.

Saura manages to capture some great scenes of sibling interaction, including general squabbling and evidence of the gullibility of younger siblings. The three sisters (Torrent, Conchita Pérez, and Maite Sánchez) delight in music – if you didn’t already have Jeanette’s Porque te vas stuck in your head, you do now – and general silliness (such as when they dress up in Aunt Paulina’s (Mónica Randall) wigs and make-up, and enact hysterical scenes of domesticity), which acts to momentarily lighten the mood in what is otherwise a sad narrative of loss and suppression. Their mother’s sister, Aunt Paulina arrives to put the house and girls in order. She is of the belief that children should be seen and not heard, forgetting that that implies the presence of silent observers – and that grievances fester when they are left unspoken. Ana doesn’t take to her aunt’s disciplinarian ways and begins to plot her death as well.

The camera makes no distinction between the past, present, or future – the blurring is assisted by Chaplin again playing multiple roles, here the dead mother as well as Ana some 20 years later, talking straight to camera about the sadness of her childhood – and therefore we experience the narrative as Ana’s own stream of consciousness. Her belief in something is enough to make it true, a continuation of Saura’s repeated attempts to represent in a tangible form how the present is shaped by our understanding and memory of the past. Filmed while Franco was dying, death permeates the narrative – whether Ana’s obsession with death and dying, or the deaths of her father, mother, and the much-loved Roni the guinea pig. But despite the suffocating atmosphere of the house, the camera also repeatedly insists on showing the noise and bustle of life in the busy streets beyond the walls of the grounds. Along with Ana’s defiant stance, this glimpsed outside world suggests that the regime’s days are numbered.

Carlos Saura Challenge, Part 9: La prima Angélica / Cousin Angelica (1974)

Director: Carlos Saura
Screenplay: Rafael Azcona, based on a story by Carlos Saura and Elías Querejeta
Cast: José Luis López Vázquez, Lina Canalejas, Fernando Delgado, Lola Cardona, María Clara Fernández de Loayza, Josefina Díaz, Encarna Paso, Pedro Sempson, Julieta Serrano.
Synopsis: 1973. Luis travels from Barcelona to fulfil his late mother’s wishes to have her remains interred in the family crypt in Segovia. The trip brings him face to face with the family members he stayed with during the Civil War and leads him to confront the memories and ghosts of his childhood.

Link: My original post on the film, from the old version of the blog.

My favourite of Saura’s films from this 1962-1979 period, La prima Angélica returns to the issue that preoccupies so much of his work: memory, and how it inflects our understanding of the past and present. As in El jardín de las delicias, José Luis López Vázquez portrays the lead character (Luis) in both adulthood and childhood, as familiar places and faces cause Luis to relive events from more than thirty years ago. Family ties set events in motion in both time periods: in 1973, Luis is travelling from Barcelona in order to fulfil his mother’s wish for her remains to be interred in the family crypt in Segovia; in the 1930s, Luis is taken to the safer Segovia to stay with his mother’s family (on the right, politically) while his parents return to Barcelona. We first see Luis-as-child when Luis-as-adult pulls his car to the side of the road when he sees Segovia in the distance, and he becomes lost in the memory of the first time he was at this roadside: his father’s car pulls up behind him, and his mother (dressed in 1930s attire) comforts Luis, trying to reassure him about his stay with her side of the family. As the Civil War developed, Barcelona became cut off, and Luis will see out the war separated from his parents and in the midst of a family from the ‘victorious’ side. His return to Segovia as an adult in his 40s shows how those war years shaped the person he became and why he now feels the need to confront the past.

Still living under the dictatorship, any discussion of the Civil War that diverged from what had become the official narrative was a taboo in Spain and the losing side was rendered invisible by the silence. In this context, Marvin D’Lugo observes that La prima Angélica stands as ‘the first compassionate view of the vanquished’:

‘In choosing the theme of interdicted history – the Civil War years as remembered by the child of Republican parents – Saura pursues more than just the external demons of censorship that had suppressed all but the triumphalist readings of the war. He confronts the psychological and ethical traumas that the official distortions of the history of the war years in public discourse had conveniently ignored but that had scarred and even paralysed a generation of Spaniards’ (1991: 115-116).

In the context of Spain today – where the contentious issue of ‘historical memory’ has been openly fought over for some time – Ángel Quintana argues that Luis ‘gains symbolic force as the first fictional character that recovers the power of memory as an act of resurrection of the hidden and of justice to that which is silenced’ (2008: 95).

The past is not simply evoked, but reenacted. Although it is perhaps more accurate to say that it is being ‘relived’ because these are not the theatrical stagings of El jardín de las delicias, but rather Luis weaving in and out of the present and the past as the return to the family apartment envelops him in memories. As with his habit of having Geraldine Chaplin play multiple roles, here Saura has several actors play more than one character: Lina Canalejas plays Angélica’s mother in the 1930s segments and the grown-up Angélica in the present; María Clara Fernández de Loayza plays Angélica in the 1930s and the grown-up Angélica’s daughter (also called Angélica) in the present; and Fernando Delgado plays Angélica’s father and later her husband (although the grown-up Angélica shows Luis a photo of her father to prove that there is no resemblance to her husband). This ‘doubling’ obviously aids the transition back and forth in Luis’s memory onscreen, which occasionally becomes confusing when Luis loses himself in the past, and the lines between the two eras become deliberately indistinct.

López Vázquez is the only actor to play the same character in both eras. Luis-as-child is distinguished by voice, body language, and facial expression: for example, López Vázquez tucks his chin down so that he is looking up (his eyes wide), serving not only to indicate the shy and withdrawn nature of the boy, but also to make the actor seem physically smaller. One particular sequence that I like comes almost halfway into the film, at the point when Luis has carried out his mother’s wishes and is now driving back to Barcelona. He stops at the same roadside that we saw at the start of the film, and the same memory plays out again. But this time, instead of being immersed in the memory, reliving it, he observes it from the other side of the road; in revisiting the sites of childhood trauma, he has acquired some of the distance required to review the past objectively. He turns his car around and heads back to Segovia to confront the past head on.

References:
D’Lugo, M (1991) – The Films of Carlos Saura: The Practice of Seeing, Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Quintana, À. (2008) – ‘A Poetics of Splitting: Memory and Identity in La prima Angélica (Carlos Saura, 1974)’, in Burning Darkness: A Half Century of Spanish Cinema, edited by J.R. Resina, Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, pp.83-96.