I spotted via Eye for Filmthe announcement that the Edinburgh International Film Festival’s 2019 Country Focus (a recurring strand of the festival’s programme) will be Spain. What they’ve announced so far is the retrospective part of the strand: an overview of ‘modern Spanish cinema’; a selection of ‘cult Spanish cinema’; and a filmmaker retrospective of Icíar Bollaín.
Bollaín is based in Edinburgh, so that element kind of makes sense. I like a lot of her films (I haven’t seen the two most recent ones), and I admire her commitment to exploring social issues through cinema, and her recurrent focus on the lives of women in varying circumstances. It’s a little strange that they don’t seem to be screening Te doy mis ojos / Take My Eyes (2003); it is effectively an encapsulation of her interests and cinematic style. Personally, I think that it’s her strongest film. But, that said, perhaps it is relatively well known and they’re aiming to highlight films that haven’t had distribution over here (although También la lluvia / Even the Rain (2010) and El Olivo / The Olive Tree (2016) are included)? I would recommend Flores de otro mundo / Flowers of Another World (1999), Even the Rain, and En tierra extraña / In a Foreign Land (2014) if you get the chance to see them.
But ‘the retrospective celebration of modern Spanish cinema’ is just…odd. I don’t mind the films individually – although I was among the minority that didn’t overly like La piel que habito / The Skin I Live In (Almodóvar, 2011) – but they are not collectively a good illustration of ‘modern Spanish cinema’ in its actual diversity (yes, the selected films span multiple genres, but that isn’t what I mean by cinematic diversity – i.e. a range of voices, styles, and budgets). ‘[S]ome of the finest Spanish cinema of recent times’ is making that ‘some’ do a lot of heavy lifting. ‘Films that have been nominated for Goyas in the last decade’, perhaps. Putting Tarde para la ira / The Fury of a Patient Man (Arévalo, 2016) to one side because I still haven’t watched it (aiming to over Christmas) and I have only heard good things about it, I think that there are more interesting, distinctive, and/or innovative films that have been made in Spain in the last decade (off the top of my head, Diamond Flash (Vermut, 2011), L’accademia della muse / The Academy of Muses(Guerin, 2015), De tu ventana a la mía / Chrysalis (Ortíz, 2012), many films within the Novo Cinema Galego, El Futuro / The Future (López Carrasco, 2013), La distancia / The Distance (Caballero, 2014), Dead Slow Ahead (Herce, 2015), for starters). Those films might not be for everyone (I’m wracking my brains trying to think of a ‘recent’ Spanish film I’ve liked that’s had an A-to-B-to-C style narrative structure, or otherwise been a box-office smash, so I accept that the films that interest me tend to be outside of the mainstream [although not exclusively]) but innovation and different perspectives should be celebrated alongside mainstream commercial cinema, especially at film festivals.
Anyway, I’ll keep an eye out for them announcing the ‘separate programme of contemporary Spanish cinema’ (which may not be until the full programme is revealed in May). Personal wish list (although I won’t hold my breath): Petra (Rosales, 2018); Entre dos aguas (Lacuesta, 2018); Quién te cantará (Vermut, 2018); Trote (Baño, 2018); Viaje al cuarto de una madre (Rico Clavellino, 2018); Carmen y Lola (Echevarria, 2018); and Apuntes para una película de atracos (Siminiani, 2018).
It seemed about time to post an update, given that in my last post I said that I’d be back this summer. I won’t be back posting before the autumn, but I’m intending to start with some sort of catch-up with Spanish cinema.
I’ve got a stack of Spanish films (most of which are fairly ‘recent’) that I’ve bought during the past 18 months but not yet watched – some of which can be seen above. I will hopefully start watching them next month (time permitting) – I won’t write about everything, but in terms of picking up viewing / writing again, it’s as good a starting place as anywhere else. I haven’t forgotten about the next section of the Carlos Saura Challenge (hey, I have a documentary about him right there) but I’m unlikely to re-start that in the immediate future (I’m concentrating on some job-related tasks at the moment). I should be back on here in a few months…hasta pronto. Or pronto-ish, anyway.
Yes, I said that I’d finished reprinting older pieces…turned out I hadn’t (although I think that this will be the last one). I circled around Los lunes al sol on multiple occasions on the old blog – mainly in relation to a half-seen connection between Bardem’s performances in this and Biutiful, which I was never able to fully articulate. Whatever I thought I’d seen disappeared on subsequent viewing and my dislike of the latter film stopped me from making an effort to return to the topic when I hit the buffers. But it caused me to revisit Los lunes al sol, which I had last watched while completing my PhD (it is one of the key films in my thesis). As I wrote a month or so before I published the analysis below:
You develop a funny attachment to films that feature in your thesis. Not all of them (there are a few that you’d have to pay me to watch again), but I think certainly the ones that find themselves woven into the fabric of your central argument; you are infinitely aware of their defects and flaws (you’ve pored over their minutiae for months, taking them apart and holding them up to the light), but you bristle slightly if someone else points them out. But once you’ve submitted, the idea of revisiting one of those films (for enjoyment!) doesn’t appeal; it’s difficult to view those films from any other perspective than the one through which you wrote about them in such detail. But this is where the funny attachment comes in for me because there are some that I nonetheless regard with what can only be described as affection, of which Los lunes al sol is one. There is something about the film that moves me no matter how many times I watch it, or how I’ve dissected it in the past: it is a film about solidarity, loyalty, about people being stronger together, and about how friendship can keep you afloat in the worst of times. Much of this centres on Bardem’s character, Santa, the pillar of a group of friends laid low by unemployment. If I were told that I could only watch one Bardem performance again, this is the one I would choose; in part because it is a perfect encapsulation of what ‘Javier Bardem’ and his star image mean within Spanish cinema, but also because I personally think that he has yet to better this performance.
Rereading the scene analysis recently, I was reminded of something that had stood out in a group of films I watched last year – when I had my mini Francesco Rosi season, one of the elements of his filmmaking that really caught my attention was how his framing of a scene (where the camera is positioned, how/where it moves, where/how the actors are positioned/move within the frame) visually represented the power dynamics within a group of characters and how that dynamic changed within the course of a given scene. This manner of imparting information – giving insight visually, in a way that can be read unconsciously by the viewer – seems (to me) relatively rare in contemporary cinema, which is all too often sloppily shot and edited, seemingly without a deliberate, thought-out rationale behind the choices made. Contemporary directors who do think about these elements include David Fincher, Steven Soderbergh, and Enrique Urbizu (I would like to write about the latter’s thrillers through his framing at some point) – all filmmakers who see (and represent) moving images in layers. Part of the richness of Los lunes al sol is that Fernando León de Aranoa had evidently given a great deal of thought to the group dynamics of this set of men and manages to fold those dynamics into his visual construction of a scene, as exemplified by the scene discussed below. I have only made a couple of edits to the text (originally published in October 2013) – instances where my original wording lacked clarity or was in some way confusing, and in one case to correct my Spanish.
Sequence: the argument in the bar, 01:15:51 – 01:22:32.
Los lunes al sol / Mondays in the Sun (Fernando León de Aranoa, 2002) was Javier Bardem’s return to Spanish cinema after a three-year absence from Spanish-language films, during which time he had made Before Night Falls (Julian Schnabel, 2000) and achieved his first Oscar nomination. Three years after mass redundancies caused by the closure of Spanish shipyards, the narrative follows three former steelworkers and their differing responses to unemployment: Santa (Bardem), José (Luis Tosar), and Lino (José Ángel Egido). While the film’s reception in the critical arena was generally positive (especially when Bardem is the focus), it has also received a more mixed response elsewhere: essentially, those who judge the film as formalists (the position taken by many film critics) see the film more positively than those cultural commentators (such as Quintana (2005) and Fecé and Pujol (2003)) who think that the film does not go far enough in its social commentary and who seem to judge the film by different criteria (i.e. their prescriptive ideas of what ‘Spanish cinema’ should be).
Aside from looking at how his role/performance coalesce with his star image (I think that exploring the issues of class and politics bring up some interesting issues in this context), there are a number of angles one could take in approaching Bardem’s performance in Los lunes al sol: for example, the madrileño performing a (deliberately vague – León de Aranoa didn’t want to specify location and filming took place in both Vigo and Gijón) northern accent as Santa. The film is notable for being the first (other than Before Night Falls) in which he performs an accent markedly different to his own (see E. Fernández-Santos (2002: 41)). But although I can hear that the accent he performs is not his own, I would have difficulty articulating exactly what it is he does vocally. So, for the purposes of this piece, I’m going to look at Bardem’s skill at ‘registering psychological and dramatic fullness through non-verbal representation’ (Perriam 2003: 102), effectively representing a character’s interiority externally through glances, posture, movement, and his sheer physical presence, and how that becomes an intrinsic part of his performance as Santa.
In my opinion, there are three scenes in the film that best illustrate Bardem’s performance and the essence of who his character is: the courtroom scene; the bedtime story; and the argument in the bar. I’m going to look at the last of those because it’s the longest of the three (and at 7 minutes, it’s also the longest scene in the film) and distills many of the film’s key themes whilst also giving the clearest sense of how these characters relate to one another (and what their shared history is). I’ve switched back and forth between English and Spanish in terms of how I’ve recorded specific lines – that reflects how I wrote my notes.
The position of the camera(s) in this scene is quite unusual insofar as it doesn’t respect the usual 180 degree line, mainly because of how the characters are arranged in the bar. In previous bar scenes, the camera has taken a variety of positions: near Amador’s seat at the end; behind the bar, not from Rico’s direct POV, but certainly from either his or Nata’s vantage point; and, when Lino was sitting there with Nata, from one of the tables by the door. But those sequences generally follow a shot/reverse-shot editing pattern; the camera remains static and we have a fixed sense of where people are in relation to one another (that most of the men are often standing at the bar usually allows them to be framed together). In this sequence, we still have this sense of where they are in relation to each other, but the camera angle cuts between several different positions (notably not from Amador’s angle, which foreshadows the significance of his seat being empty) and we never see more than a couple of the characters in frame together at a time (providing a visual illustration of how the sequence as a whole reveals the fractures within the group). Bardem / Santa is the axis for the camera: we don’t get his direct POV but his presence at the centre is integral to how we read the spatial relations (if he isn’t in shot, the eyelines of other characters or his voice pinpoint his location). Interestingly, it recalls the courtroom scene because the characters there are also seated in the round and the camera takes several positions, none of which strictly aligns itself with a character’s viewpoint.
The scene starts with a black screen and the sound segues from the diagetic music in the previous sequence (where the music appears to come from the stereo in the solicitor’s car) to Reina’s voice in the bar. However the first image we see is not Reina (Enrique Villén) but rather the impact of his words on Santa. We see Santa in profile / slightly from behind (the angle does not match anyone’s POV), sitting at the bar so that Bardem occupies the left hand side of the screen – when Santa reaches for his drink (drawing attention to José (Luis Tosar) sitting around the curve of the bar), he fills both the horizontal and vertical length of the frame (he is the only character in the scene who consistently occupies so much of the frame).
To begin with, the sequence cuts back and forth between the far end of the bar where Reina is standing leaning sideways against the bar so that he is facing Santa, and Santa remaining seated and looking ahead (not at his interlocutor). It then starts intercutting Rico (Joaquín Climent) on one side of the bar (in front of Santa) and Lino (José Ángel Egido) and Sergei (Serge Riaboukine) sitting at a table (behind Santa) – there are now four angles in the mix, and the only person who appears in frame with Santa is José (who will be seen nodding in agreement with Santa during the argument – framing them together underlines their unity).
While Reina talks, we continue to get Santa’s silent, yet eloquent, reactions: Bardem’s posture, sitting, leaning forward with his elbows and forearms on the bar suggests that although Santa is pointedly not looking at Reina, he is in fact concentrating on what the man is saying. We can only see his face in profile, but the roll of his eyes and the way he tilts his head conveys both disagreement and a certain level of irritation (which is disguised by feigned amusement – Santa smiles, but it doesn’t reach his eyes) – we get the impression that this is not the first time Reina has espoused such views (and we have already seen tensions between the two men in an earlier bar scene, where Santa pours away a drink Reina has bought for him).
Santa’s first vocal interjection is signalled by his standing up, which is necessary because he is seeking to involve Lino in Reina’s criticism, and Lino is sitting behind Santa; in order to look at Lino, Santa either needs to swivel the chair around or stand and turn. The camera subtly moves with Bardem as he stands (it does the same with Reina as he moves later in the sequence but it feels even less pronounced then), keeping him slightly left of centre but with the bar top no longer in frame. Bardem arches his back, one of his methods of emphasising Santa’s weight, drawing attention to his paunch but also by natural corollary (his shoulders are also back) puffing out his chest – the alpha male in the room has just stood up. Juan Marsé describes Santa as ‘un parado que sobrevive entre la rebeldía interna y la desilusión, como un gorila entre las rajas del deprimente zoológico’ [‘An unemployed man who survives between internal rebellion and disillusion, like a gorilla between the bars of a depressing zoo’] (2004: 35), and there is something animalistic about the potential threat he manifests through his sheer bulk. He doesn’t fully face Reina at this point, looking at him sideways on with his head now tilted in a manner that could be taken as a challenge, but Bardem keeps his voice at normal volume with a neutral tone – that Santa is a threat to Reina in any way is only conveyed via his body language.
When Reina uses Rico as a positive example of what the men could have done after they lost their jobs, José starts to be intercut into the sequence on his own although he never moves from his seated position at the bar and continues to be shown in shot with Santa as well. I think his being shown alone is partly to show another fracture within the group but also to suggest his potential isolation. It is significant, given that he usually sits along the length of the bar where Santa and Reina currently are, that he is instead sitting alongside Amador’s (Celso Bugallo) empty seat; Amador serves as a warning as to where José might end up if Ana (Nieve de Medina – not present) leaves him. José’s scepticism as to the likelihood of everyone managing to do as well as Rico leads to Reina’s assertion “Not if you work hard”, which harks back to the bedtime story scene and by extension leads to an audience expectation as to Santa’s reaction. On cue, on that line, the camera cuts to Santa.
Bardem fills the left hand side of the frame, standing, leaning backwards, head tilted in a way that – in combination with his gaze – suggests that Santa is assessing Reina. When Reina mentions Amador, Bardem expels air through his nose in a snort that is somewhere between derision and disgust, and he looks away from Reina and down at the ground. Cut to Reina. Then cut back to Santa as he starts to speak. Bardem is now in medium close-up (head and shoulders) in three-quarter profile. His tone is no longer neutral and he is tilting his head down, so that he is looking up, giving emphasis to both his words and his eyes. As Santa starts to warm to his theme, Bardem shifts his weight between feet and changes his stance so that he is temporarily facing Reina straight on, in the centre of the frame. He stays centre frame when he turns his body back to the bar and keeps his head turned towards Reina / the camera as he speaks. However, as Santa begins to get angry, Bardem’s stance changes again and he leans with one elbow on the bar so that he turns away from Reina, with his back / the back of his head to the camera. Santa is trying to hide his emotions but it seems a brave decision by Bardem to hide his face; we feel the anger in the tightness of the angle of his neck and the stiffness of his shoulders rather than from a facial expression. When Santa turns back, he has both arms on the bar and is leaning diagonally into the frame, occupying most of the screen (again, emphasising Bardem’s size but arguably also the character’s centrality to the construction of the sequence – everyone else acts in reaction to him).
Cut to a reaction shot of Lino, which I think serves to emphasise Santa’s emotion at this point and how it has the potential to unsettle the other men. Throughout the film, Santa reveals himself to be astutely aware of the personal dangers faced by his friends and their currently precarious sense of self-identity (engendered by their lack of employment – as León de Aranoa puts it, ‘el trabajo es su capital, su única posesión, su bien más preciado; si se lo quitan, les quitan todo’ [‘Work is their capital, their only possession, their most valued asset; if it is taken away, everything is taken’] (Ponga, et al 2002: 158)), but he presents himself as the bluff pillar of the group; his showing emotion reveals that he is not unscathed by their common experience, and that seems to unnerve Lino. It’s noticeable during this part of the sequence that in each of the reaction shots, the other men are either looking down or away from Santa – lost in their own thoughts, but also finding it difficult to look at him given what he is talking about and how he is talking about it. Cut back to Santa – now upright and standing again – who starts to point and tap the bar for emphasis.
Up until now, Bardem’s gestures had been quite contained and had more to do with posture, but as Santa’s emotions come to the surface they become more expansive and his hands and arms more frequently come into frame. Still shot sideways on at the bar, when he now turns to Reina with his head tilted forward, eyes up, you get the sense of both Santa’s need to push and Bardem’s restraint. Cut back to Reina as he asks what the strikers achieved, and then back to Santa as Reina answers his own question with “Nothing”. Santa is facing the bar, head bowed, he turns as he says “Estabamos juntos” [“We were united”] with force and Bardem shifts his weight forward as if Santa is going to start moving in Reina’s direction. Reina looks away.
Cut to a shot of Rico, this time with Nata (Aida Folch) visible behind him (the first time we realise that she is present – the scene so far has been blocked in such a way as to hide her presence, despite her being in view of all of the men). But as Santa starts to talk about what went wrong with the strike, Bardem turns his back to the camera again (hiding emotion again, but this time a mixture of anger and sadness – indicated via tone of voice as well as his avoidance of eye contact).
Santa’s attitude towards Rico (Bardem tilts his head back, listening, his chin up but not in a challenge), as the bar owner justifies his actions during the strike, lacks the hostility he shows Reina, and he concedes the point about men who had families to take care of, again leaning forward and tapping the bar for emphasis. In response to Rico’s “There wasn’t anything else”, he gives an eloquent shrug, smiles with a nod, and says “Cojonudo” [“Brilliant”] twice (the second time half muttered), turning so that he is centre frame. He looks left so that his body is facing forward but his head is in three quarter profile, and then he turns back to the bar, his head bowed; it gives the impression that Santa knows this argument is going nowhere (it has effectively already been lost – what they’re arguing about happened three years earlier) but he can’t walk away from it and is therefore tethered to these people and a need for someone to acknowledge that what happened wasn’t right (hence his moving about on the same spot).
At this point Nata starts to be intercut into the individual reactions (now the sixth angle within the set-up – and the closest to being Santa’s POV), the first lone shot of her coinciding with a heavy sigh from Santa. That her individual reactions begin at a point when Santa’s words form the audio – rather than Rico’s (her father) – and that they physically occupy the same space within the frame (as shown above), speaks to the connection between the two of them (she is the only character capable of leaving him lost for words), but arguably also re-enforces Santa’s association with children; he is repeatedly shown interacting with them – the children of the two women we see him flirting with and the boy he babysits – and he is the only male character who does so. At this point, as Bardem shifts his weight again, Santa seems more weary and sad, although his pointing towards Amador’s empty chair (seen almost from Santa’s own POV) has an emphatic flourish, and he then starts to pick up speed again. [The manner in which Amador preys on Santa’s mind is revealed a couple of scenes later, when rather than leaving to meet a woman – as José presumes – Santa instead goes to check on the older man at home (and discovers his body)]
When he talks about ‘the agreement’ that divided the strikers he taps the bar with more force and his tone becomes more aggressive. Bardem now hunches his back forward, which makes him appear smaller (a physical representation of a sense of defeat), once more leaning into the frame towards Rico to emphasise what he’s saying (and also talking much faster). “We weren’t united anymore. They’d divided us.” He turns away again and looks down at the ground rather than directly at any of them; his tone of voice and stance here (looking down, more contained) speaks of disappointment, some residual anger, but mainly sadness, and it reveals more clearly that the group is still divided because of what happened three years earlier. At the end of his explanations as to how they each ended up in the positions they are now in, he looks directly at Reina, head back and chin up, defiant and issuing a clear challenge. The look in Bardem’s eyes when (in response) Reina argues that the shipyard wasn’t competitive enough and that he’d go to a different bar if the drinks were cheaper elsewhere is one of disgust and his upper lip slightly curls. He now properly raises his voice and bangs on the bar with his hand, speaking rapidly.
As Santa outlines his explanation as to why they wanted to close the shipyard (the site is by the sea and worth a fortune to property developers), Bardem looks away, turns back with a look of resignation and looks down while shrugging his shoulders and talking rapidly with an almost exasperated humour in his tone of voice. He then looks away (Santa possibly embarrassed at how much he is revealing of himself) again as he says, with one arm extended (calling attention), “Let me tell you something…I wouldn’t leave here even if they were giving the drinks away [elsewhere]”. He looks directly at Reina and then at Rico, “I’ve been here for three years and I intend to keep coming…even if you did sign the agreement” – a line that reveals his own sense of loyalty to these men but also the stock that he places in it as a quality (he is directly contrasting himself with Reina, who looks away). He sighs heavily and then turns to face Reina, standing centre frame, smiling as he fiddles with a napkin – “I could get a job serving drinks tomorrow. But if everyone gets laid off, there’ll be no customers”, his head tilted at an acute angle to the right (his gaze looking down and to the right), which places emphasis on what he’s saying but there’s also something slightly playful about it, “That pisses me off” (repeated, the second time as a mutter, as he looks directly at Reina).
He then turns back sideways on to the camera, head inclined forward. His voice is no longer raised but is still emotional – not a neutral tone – his voice catching on the line “You signed away your kids’ jobs […] We lost.” Close up of Nata on that line, then cut to José, who sighs and asks for another drink (subtly connecting José’s drinking to the defeat / losing of self).
The end to that part of the discussion is signalled by the camera panning (rather than cutting) to Nata as Rico crosses over to José. Cut back to Reina who decides to have another go.
Cut back to Santa, back to leaning against the bar in such a way that he fills most of the frame. Bardem stands upright with a sigh as Reina continues to push, Santa’s voice now tipping into both irritation and personal hostility. When the subject of Reina’s current job comes up, both men take a step toward each other and violence seems a real possibility; the tension is heightened by the editing, which first intercuts Nata casting a worried look in Santa’s direction, then Rico and José looking, then Lino and Sergei watching apprehensively, within the shot/reverse-shot of Santa and Reina’s exchange. This particular sequence of shots also reinforces Santa/Bardem as the axis of the scene and clearly delineates the spatial relations between everyone present (at no point during the sequence are all of the characters in shot). Bardem juts his chin out on the line “Un cabrón con pistola” [An arsehole with a gun] and pulls himself up to his full stature. The line about Reina’s wife (“She wanted me closer to her”) is said matter of fact but with a full glare maintained in their eye contact – Santa doesn’t repeat it (or retract it) when challenged and a heavy silence is allowed to hang.
Reina leaves. Santa sits back down, leaning forward on the bar, head down. Mutters “Gillipollas” [Dickhead]. Santa overstepping the line actually breaks the tension in the room (he is effectively back to ‘normal’) and – once Reina has gone – the other men visibly relax and their sense of humour reappears.
This scene occurs more than halfway through the film but – despite the tensions in the group being apparent earlier on (notably at the football match and the afore-mentioned scene where Santa pours away a drink paid for by Reina) – this is the first time we’re given a proper background as to exactly what happened at the shipyard; it becomes apparent that just as work has previously united them, it is also what currently divides them, whether in terms of their having found reemployment or simply in the different ways in which they’ve coped with its absence. León de Aranoa makes the point on the DVD commentary (which also features Bardem) that Reina isn’t a bad man, but the fact that he has found work separates him from his former colleagues. This is visually suggested in the framing: if you look above, you will see that Reina is always on the right of frame whereas the rest of them are on the left. The only exception is the family shot of Rico and Nata together – and Rico is often centre-frame part way between the two opposing sides – but the rest of the time even when in a group and they spill across most of screen, your attention is drawn to the left-hand side via either an actor’s movement of the depth of focus. The editing of the sequence also reinforces Santa’s status as the pillar of the group, a central point who is relied upon for his steadfast sturdiness. He reveals himself to have a far subtler (though firmly-held) take on the situation than Reina at the same time as he shows that he is unable to change who he is for the sake of an easier life (the sequence that directly precedes this one has already shown him to be a man who has to stick to his principles, albeit in a somewhat childish way in that specific instance). He is down but not out.
In terms of Bardem himself, the dichotomy between his powerful physique and the sensitivity he conveys with his eyes (on full display in this sequence) is something that was established at the start of his career (in the films he made with Bigas Luna), but his performance in Los lunes al sol serves as one of the best examples of his ability to convey complex psychological insight through subtle gestures and modes of behaviour. As I have said elsewhere, if you told me that I could only ‘keep’ one Bardem performance, this is the one I would choose.
Fecé, J.L. and C. Pujol (2003) – ‘La crisis imaginada de un cine sin público’, in Once miradas sobre la crisis y el cine español, edited by L. Alonso García, Madrid: Ocho y medio, pp.147-166.
Fernández-Santos, E. (2002) – ‘”Mi mayor preocupación es el respeto al personaje”‘, El País, 24th September, p.41.
Marsé, J. (2004) – ‘Javier Bardem, un actor que inspira’, El País, Revista, 7th August, pp.34-35.
Perriam, C. (2003) – Stars and Masculinities in Spanish Cinema: From Banderas to Bardem, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Ponga, Martín, and Torreiro (2002) – Hipótesis de realidad: el cine de Fernando León de Aranoa, Melilla: Consejería de Cultura de la C.A. de Melilla y UNED.
Quintana, Á. (2005) – ‘Modelos realistas en un tiempo de emergencia de lo político’, Archivos de la Filmoteca, no.49, February, pp.10-31.
‘Experimental making-of’ is usually the basic description of the film Pere Portabella constructed behind the scenes of Jess Franco’s Count Dracula (1970) – next week sees its UK debut on (region free) DVD and Blu-ray, courtesy of Second Run. I reviewed the film in 2015 when it was screening at the Berwick Film and Media Arts Festival as part of their ‘Fact or Fiction’ theme. As I pointed out, Portabella’s repurposing of what Franco was doing creates an interesting dissection of several levels of mythologising:
[…] the mechanics of filmmaking are as much an element of fascination for him as the mythology of Stoker’s Count. The two aspects come together in a sequence where Christopher Lee (who would collaborate with Portabella on another film – Umbracle – the same year) removes the prosthetics and accoutrements (contact lenses, hair, fangs) that transform him into an onscreen monster – a metamorphosis in reverse and a demythologising or deconstruction of both a film star and one of his most famous roles (something that Franco was cashing in on).
Portabella has had a long and varied career and is still (occasionally) making films. His most recent was documentary Informe General II: El nuevo rapto de Europa (2016), which is a sequel of sorts to his 1976 epic Informe general sobre algunas cuestiones de interés para una proyecciónpública – I’ve seen the latter but not the former (yet), and the two are available together ina boxset that has optional English subtitles. [UPDATE 11/10/2017: Mubi are showing those two films for the next 30 days – here]. I watched Vampir Cuadecuc from a career-spanning boxset of Portabella’s work (it covers 1967 – 2009, containing all of his films apart from Informe General II), which is produced by Intermedio (I bought my boxset directly from them) and likewise has optional English subtitles on all of the films. I particularly recommend his short films (Poetes Catalans (1970) is my favourite – I wrote about it on the old blog in a 2014 ‘best of the year’ post).
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’.
As far as I can tell, Árboles, Une 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.
Márgenes: their VOD catalogue is currently down for maintenance, so I can’t link to specific films, but they have previously had Edificio España, El triste olor de la carne, and Slimane. When their catalogue is back up, I will look for links.
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.
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.
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  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.
Brasó, E. ( 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.