Carlos Saura Challenge, Part 7: El jardín de las delicias / The Garden of Delights (1970)

Director: Carlos Saura
Screenplay: Rafael Azcona and Carlos Saura
Cast: José Luis López Vázquez, Francisco Pierrá, Luchy Soto, Lina Canalejas, Esperanza Roy, Charo Soriano.
Synopsis: Important businessman Antonio Cano is left partially-paralysed and an amnesiac after a car crash. His family and friends try to recreate key moments in his life in order to give him an emotional jolt and aid his recuperation.

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

In structural terms El jardín de las delicias was by far the most complex film Saura had made to date. A deliberately intricate structure was intended to act as a smokescreen for the more political aspects of the film in an era when censorship by the Franco regime was becoming increasingly arbitrary. The original script was passed by the censors – with one writing in his evaluation that ‘the advantage of such an intellectualised plot is that nobody can grasp the key to it, and the set-ups are so extremely limited in meaning that nobody can identify with anything’ (D’Lugo 1991: 106) – and although specific cuts were later made to the film by the censors, the excised sections have either been reinstated or did not undermine the overall whole. The shooting script identified five temporal planes, which we move between without transition (following Antonio’s own amnesia-befuddled consciousness): the recreated past; the evoked past; the present; the hallucinated world; and the future. [see my original post for more detail as to how these planes have been interpreted by different writers].

Although the structure of these temporal planes appears complex when written out (which is no doubt why the script censor thought that nobody would be able to follow what was going on), it is perfectly comprehensible when watched onscreen. Some confusion/disorientation is intentional – it is a point of connection between Antonio and the audience – but differing levels of theatricality are utilised to mark out the different planes. For example, there is some wonderful over-acting by the actress hired to impersonate Antonio’s late mother in the scenes from his childhood, whereas his wife Luchy (Luchy Soto) is more subtle in her manipulation of ‘reality’ – we see that she is playing ‘mood music’ on a cassette player when she takes Antonio for a walk (the film is often darkly funny).

In terms of the way moments in Antonio’s life are shown to parallel key episodes in Spanish history, you don’t need to be aware of all of the references to know that a point is being made. For example, I didn’t know until reading up on the film that Antonio’s car crash was inspired by the 1962 death (in a car crash) of Juan March, an industrialist who had helped bankroll the July 1936 military uprising against the Republic. There are enough parallels with that story to see Saura as deliberately baiting the censors, but even without being aware of the specifics, the backgrounds and social status of the characters are sufficient to signpost their alignments within the political landscape of the time. Tatjana Pavlović argues that the moments of historical significance that parallel (and interrupt) the restaged moments of Antonio’s life clearly indicate that his ‘identity is inseparable from a broader historical context. […] These national “traumas” give rise to personal ones, showing how the individual is an inscrutable product of the nation’ (2006: 156).

Meanwhile the ‘ideal’ family, so deified by the state, is shown to be anything but: not only are they collectively a suffocating and repressive force in Antonio’s life, but we eventually find that their interest in his recuperation isn’t motivated by love and affection (his father needs to know the number of the Swiss bank account, and his wife wants the combination to the safe in the bedroom). This mercenary – rather than therapeutic – intent behind the need for his recovery explains why some of the events that they chose to recreate to jog Antonio’s memory include childhood traumas: being locked in a dark room, aged 5, with an enormous pig that you’ve been told will eat your hands off, seems an horrific thing to inflict on someone twice in their lifetime (although, again, in keeping with the thread of dark, esperpentic humour that runs through the film). The final sequence of the film, another of Antonio’s hallucinations – each family member in their own wheelchair on the vast lawn – has been taken as a contemporary approximation of Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Delights. But with his family in a similar state to Antonio (who having made progress, is now regressing), I read it as representing the wilful amnesia of people avoiding their own culpability, and also (as they are all facing in different directions) unable to see things from alternative viewpoints.

The impression that we get of Antonio as he recovers what he was – before he seemingly consciously rejects that vision and slides back into oblivion – is that he was not a likeable man. But when we first meet him, he is a blank slate and as confused as we are by the events being staged in front of him; I think that the audience remains on his side because of that initial blankness (the innocence of a child), and also because of the associated affability of López Vázquez, who is quite brilliant in the role.

D’Lugo, M (1991) – The Films of Carlos Saura: The Practice of Seeing, Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Pavlović, T. (2006) – ‘Allegorising the body politic: Masculinity and history in Saura’s El jardín de las delicias (1970) and Almodóvar’s Carne trémula (1997)’, Studies in Hispanic Cinemas, 3:3, pp.149-167.