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.

Advertisements

Carlos Saura Challenge, Part 3: La caza / The Hunt (1966)

Director: Carlos Saura
Screenplay: Carlos Saura and Angelino Fons
Cast: Ismael Merlo, Alfredo Mayo, José María Prada, Emilio Gutiérrez Caba, Fernando Sánchez Polack, Violeta García.
Synopsis: Old ‘friends’ José, Paco, and Luis reunite after eight years for a day’s hunting, with Paco’s brother-in-law Enrique also enthusiastically tagging along. As the day wears on, old tensions become apparent and violence bubbles to the surface.

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

Generally considered Carlos Saura’s first masterpiece, La caza won the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival in 1966 (the director’s first international award) and is a landmark in Spanish cinema, one of the most representative films of what became known as Nuevo cine español [New Spanish Cinema]. It also marks a new stage in Saura’s career as the first of his collaborations with producer Elías Querejeta, and represents a stylistic leap on from Llanto por un bandido courtesy of Luis Cuadrado’s cinematography and the sharp editing of Pablo G del Amo (two members of Querejeta’s preferred team of technical crew).

Watching the film today – and cognisant of Saura’s continuous problems with the censor – it’s somewhat amazing that the film exists as it does. Set over the course of one scorching day as four men – former colleagues José (Ismael Merlo), Paco (Alfredo Mayo) and Luis (José María Prada), along with Paco’s brother-in-law, Enrique (Emilio Gutiérrez Caba) – hunt rabbits in the arid countryside. The film takes place in a location (specified in titles at the start of the film) that had been a battlefield during the Civil War, and ‘the war’ (the censors ensured that the Civil War is not explicitly mentioned) permeates the narrative and the relations between the men (the older three served together). Saura cannily employs the landscape as a metonym for the psyches of those who survived the war: battle-scarred, with secrets and remnants of violence hidden in darker recesses. In The A-Z of Spanish Cinema, Alberto Mira observes that the use of metaphor and strong imagery ‘went beyond narrative needs: the heat that drives characters to madness could be read in terms of the stifling atmosphere created in the country after the Civil War, and the butchery was easily read as a reference to the conflict itself […]’ (2010: 71).

For the most part the film is realist in its depictions, but frequent extreme close-ups of sweating faces (a technique that also signals how claustrophobically trapped each man is in his own behaviour), weapons and ammunition – and of rabbits in their death throes – ramp up the tension and give a slightly surreal edge to proceedings. It’s almost a ‘heightened’ reality, as if the camera is feeling the effects of that relentless heat. It feels like a very modern film, not just visually but also in our access to the interiority of the characters, conveyed through their private thoughts in voiceover and also in having them break the fourth wall in moments of honesty and confrontation (although talking to each other, they individually face directly into the camera as they speak). Likewise their states of mind – or at least the unspoken animosity under the surface – is signalled early on via the editing in the sequence where the men are preparing their weapons: a series of shot-reverse-shots show Paco in extreme close-up checking his sites facing right, then cuts to an extreme close-up of José doing the same but facing left (making it appear that they could be aiming at each other). The sequence of shots then repeats before a mid-distance shot establishes their actual positions in relation to each other (sitting alongside one another facing in opposite directions).

Saura’s use of the implicit includes the casting of Alfredo Mayo, who had a particular set of associations for contemporaneous Spanish audiences. As Marvin D’Lugo explains in his book on Saura’s films:

‘As a young man, Mayo built his career upon a series of forties films playing the role of the stalwart Nationalist hero fighting the Republican scourge. By far, the most influential of these was the role of José Churruca in Sáenz de Heredia’s Raza. Not only did Mayo play the part of the nationalist patriot; his role was fashioned as a sanitised version of the Caudillo, replete with narrative parallels to Franco’s own biography. Nowhere in [La caza] is there any overt reference to Mayo’s former screen persona, yet implicitly, the character of Paco seems to represent a sequel to the earlier Alfredo Mayo, film-actor-as-national-hero. It is a shattering statement of the passage of time and the transformation of a bygone mythic hero into a venal and narcissistic old man.’ (1991: 57)

In contrast, as an outsider to this clique – and crucially of a younger generation – Enrique is at one remove from the associations generated by the older men. He therefore acts as witness, and audience proxy, when bitter resentments and disappointments finally cause a breakdown and the men turn on each other with spectacular violence. The film ends with a freeze frame of his face in profile – his panting still audible on the soundtrack – as he runs from the scene in horror.

References:
D’Lugo, M (1991) – The Films of Carlos Saura: The Practice of Seeing, Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Mira, A. (2010) – The A to Z of Spanish Cinema, Plymouth: The Scarecrow Press.

Libertarias / Freedom Fighters (Vicente Aranda, 1996)

10478_01

Big Picture Magazine‘s theme for January 2016 is ‘War’. Trying to think of a film that related to ‘war’ in an unusual way, Libertarias / Freedom Fighters (Vicente Aranda, 1996) came to mind – it is set during the Spanish Civil War and focuses on a group of left-wing, anarchist women who are fighting on the front line. I reviewed the film back in 2014 when the London Spanish Film Festival had a retrospective of Vicente Aranda’s work, and I was surprised by how much I liked it because I generally get a ‘flesh peddler’ vibe from a lot of Aranda’s films (caveat: I’ve mainly seen his films from the 1990s and later) but this was a labour of love for the director and a celebration of radical women and political sisterhood.

Anyway, the piece had to fit within one of the standard sections of their website so I had to decide what tack to take with the film. I knew that I wanted to spotlight its treatment of the women. I wouldn’t categorise it as a ‘Lost Classic’ – it is by no means perfect – so it has ended up as a ‘Brilliant Failure’. This category isn’t meant to classify films as disasters but to highlight those films that don’t quite reach greatness but still have plenty to recommend them. For me, the ‘brilliant’ aspect of Libertarias is the way that politically-committed women (who self-identify as feminists) are put front and centre – their relationships with each other do not become secondary to a romantic plot or other aspects of the narrative. The ‘failure’ (or the central flaw) is that the main protagonist (and audience proxy) – María (Ariadna Gil – who I usually like) – is a wet blanket and her subservience runs counter to what the rest of the women embody. But there are other issues with the film. For example, while I was taking screenshots to accompany the piece I got distracted by the camerawork and started to wonder why – when the film is shot in a widescreen format – Aranda often panned between characters rather than cutting shot/reverse shot or simply putting people in the same frame. I don’t have an answer at the moment. Plus, there’s also a sequence where Victoria Abril’s character is seemingly possessed by a spirit which just feels like it’s from an entirely different film. But it was the way that Gil’s character undermines other aspects of the film that particularly irritated me when I first watched it.

Re: screenshots. The image at the top of this post is a promo shot – you will see over at Big Picture Magazine that the image quality on the actual DVD that I have is not very good. I spotted yesterday that the film was reissued last year – as part of Divisa’s initiative to restore and reissue OOP Spanish films – so possibly there is now a better edition available but there is still no subtitled version. So I’m afraid that I’m recommending something that most of you won’t be able to watch.

Click through to Big Picture Magazine to read my piece – Brilliant Failure: Freedom Fighters (Vicente Aranda, 1996).