Dictator’s Cinema

by | Mar 26, 2020 | 0 comments

A View at the Evolution of Spanish Film During and After Franco’s Reign

In the tumult of the 20th century there have been many dictatorships that have risen and fallen throughout the world; in Europe the idea of such a regime seemed to have mostly dissipated after World War II. However, there were enclaves such as in Portugal and Spain (and the USSR if inclined to include it) that had dictatorships until well into the 1970s. While the rest of the western world developed their art forms in painting and film, these holdouts, and in particular Spain, were greatly affected, as artists had to cope with strict censorship.

Spanish dictator Francisco Franco is by some considered a fascist. However, historians of the fascist movements of the 20th century disagree with this notion, claiming that Franco was more of a Catholic-conservative autocrat than a leader resembling Hitler or Mussolini. The emphasis of Franco’s regime was to harken back to the “glory days” of imperial Spain, which had completely disappeared after the Spanish-American war in 1898. Franco’s regime thus sought to infuse traditionalist values such as those of family and religion into its populace with the heavy use of art and cinema.  

During the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) many of the films that had been made in Spain up to that point were destroyed, with soldiers and survivors using the celluloid of film reels as supplies. Thus only 10% of silent films pre-Civil War remain. The war itself sent many of the liberal-thinking artists into exile, leaving the cinematic infrastructure in Spain barren. It was thus in the 1950s that Franco’s regime began to promote Spain as a setting for international productions. This convinced the likes of the French and Italian film industries, thanks in large part to the cheap Spanish labor, but it most significantly attracted the American film industry. The Spanish plains turned out to be great doubles for the American West, that now had been heavily industrialized. Thus the spaghetti western craze of the 50s and 60s retrained and rebuilt most of the Spanish film industry. Such grand US productions that filmed in Spain included the epics Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Dr. Zhivago (1965), and The Good the Bad and the Ugly (1966). Franco went on to institute the San Sebastian Film Festival in 1952 in order to attract a series of prestige to its industry as well as validation of Spanish cinema; such honorees ended up including Alfred Hitchcock, Audrey Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, and Gregory Peck.

Up to that point, however, Spanish cinema had largely fallen into blatant propaganda films that dealt with the values that had propelled Franco to power. Last Stand in the Philippines (1945) took on a tale of Spanish soldiers who bravely fought a losing battle for the pride of their country. Such a tone harkened back to the days of the Spanish Empire, encouraging citizens to exemplify such bravery and sacrifice for country. Miracle of Marcelino (1955) exemplified the more religious aspects of Franco’s intentions, showing a story of an orphan boy who lives with friars and communicates with the chapel crucifix, stealing bread and wine to surrender to the altar. By the end of the film, the boy himself dies in the hands of the crucifix being reunited with his dead parents. Finally, there was La Gran Familia (1962), a story of a large family comprised of 15 kids, the parents, and their co-habiting grandfather. The film is a comedy, showing us a year in the life of this family, with the kids ranging from toddlers to college students; the snapshot it provided was one of a unified and dedicated family, giving population and values to the Spanish state. The film also exemplified the idea of a patriarchal family, with the men and women having clearly defined roles in the family and society.

However, during the 50s and 60s there were directors that were pushing the limits of the censorship and looking for ways to criticize the regime and speak freely with ingenious concepts. One of the big critics and filmmakers of this time was Luis Garcia Berlanga. Many of his films were structured around the expectation for a big event, only for his characters to be miserably let down in the finale. His film Welcome Mr. Marshall!! (1953), looks at the American Marshall Plan that sought to rebuild much of Europe after World War II. A small village on the way to Seville receives news that the Americans will pass by on their way to the Andalusian capital; the film thus revolves around this poverty-stricken town using all its resources and saved up wealth to prepare a grand welcome. There are lists of things they will ask for that they’ve seen Americans use in movies (Washing machines!). There’s a hilarious parody scene of villagers recreating scenes that they’ve seen in American westerns, complete with gibberish dialogue that is what English sounds like to Spaniards. However, as the American convoys approach the village towards the end of the film, the black cars speed past the village without a second glance and continue on to Seville. While this film is a literal criticism of the American state’s neglect of the Spanish poor, it was really Berlanga’s way to indirectly criticize Franco’s own regime and the neglect and poverty that he was causing. He does so in similar fashion with Placido (1961), which looks at the neglect of banks and the state to the poor. In Miracles of Thursday (1957), Berlanga subtly criticizes the catholic church as the film follows a small town, that had been famous in the past, but has since been forgotten. The villagers come up with the idea of faking the apparition of a saint in order to attract tourists; the film’s characters are shown as completely incompetent dressing up in cliched holy garments and bickering about the true formalities involved in miracles.

But Berlanga was not alone. The more internationally acclaimed Luis Buñuel, sought exile in Mexico where he found greater freedom to make his films. He did return to his native Spain once, however, and made the controversial Viridiana (1961), which is a near parody of the class and religiosity in Spain. Such was the backlash in Spain and the censors that Buñuel was forced to flee back to Mexico.

By the late 60s and early 70s, however, Franco’s advancing age and deteriorating health forced him to stand back from many governing duties, leaving responsibilities to his hand-picked cabinet. Said cabinet was seeing the resistance and push from such filmmakers like Berlanga and Buñuel, and after witnessing that many Spaniards could easily cross the border to France to see a banned film, they decided to loosen their grip. This loosened censorship only applied to the religious authority–the political criticisms were still strictly outlawed–but this opening of censorship was notably felt. El Turismo es un Gran Invento (1968) follows a small-beachside town that tries to attract international tourists for business. However, the crux of the film and its humor is in the view of Swedish bikini-clad women; in a prominent scene, the Spanish men abandon the Spanish women (depicted as old and completely covered in black) and stampede to the beach to catch a glimpse.

However, the big change in Spain would not really occur until Franco’s death in 1975 and the transition into a democracy in 1977. This entrance into democracy would unleash Spanish cinema, sprouting a behemoth of new voices and directors that would reshape the entire industry. However, one familiar face will remain: Berlanga. The Spanish filmmaker, now fully unshackled from censorship, got to work on a trilogy  composed of Escopeta Nacional (1978), National Heritage (1981), and National III (1982). The three films were a deep satire of the change in Spanish society and of the dying breed of “old Spain.” The last two films focused on the Spanish aristocracy returning from exile and finding that the old Spanish ways would not work anymore; their reluctance to adapt ends up being their downfall. Meanwhile the first film of the trilogy is the more direct criticism of Franco, by focusing on the military and portraying them as extremely incompetent in Catalonia (a Spanish region that had been heavily repressed by Franco).

The absence of censorship allowed for many Spanish directors to begin emulating American films with much more freedom; Spanish film-noir was thus reinvigorated with Jose Luis Garci’s El Crack (1981), which took the famed Alfredo Landa, an actor known for his purely comedic roles, and cast him against the type as a dark and brooding detective. Garci and Landa’s success was such that it spawned one of the first sequels (along with Berlanga’s trilogy) in Spanish cinematic history with El Crack II (1983). The duo also produced Begin the Beguine (1982) between their detective noirs. This film ended up being the first Spanish film to win the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. The film follows a Spanish literature professor that had been living in exile in the US since the Spanish Civil War. After winning the Nobel Prize in literature and Franco finally being gone, he decides to return to Spain, and pick up his life where he and left it off nearly 50 years ago. This American recognition of Spanish cinema would continue in the 80s with Spain having Foreign Language Oscar nominees in the successive two years (Carmen (1983), and Double Feature (1984)). In total six Spanish films were nominated in the 80s, one of the films nominated was Women On the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988) directed by Pedro Almodovar.

In the late 80s and the 90s Almodovar exemplified a continuing liberation push by filmmakers. Many of Almodovar’s films would end up focusing on female characters as leads, taking away much of the glamour that had been attached to them. You could see them arguing and behaving very much like men in his films (farting, drinking, cursing). His first film, made in 1978 was an example of his bold foray into previously limited territory. It starred his frequent muse Carmen Maura and had the title Folle…Folle…Folleme Tim!, which translated to “Fuck…Fuck… Fuck me Tim!” The film itself ends up being about a blind guitarist and his girlfriend that works at a general store, with the entire project seeming more like an experiment of how much he could get away with in a title. Almodovar’s subsequent films would end up not only centering on women, but showing gay and transgender characters in a normalized light–under Franco homosexuality had been illegal. Almodovar’s breaking of many of the taboo subjects that previous filmmakers had been afraid to approach allowed for a wave of daring filmmakers to emerge in the 90s.

With the end of the Franco regime  in the late 70s, a generation of filmmakers was educated in film schools that had no influence from the government. It was this along with forays by bold older directors that helped usher an original wave of sci-fi and horror films in the 1990s. Such filmmakers as Alex de la Iglesia and Alejandro Amenabar emerged, setting daring precedents for what was allowed as well as building on the breakthroughs from the likes of Garci and Almodovar.

Alex de la Iglesia was an older cineaste that had lived significantly under Franco but hadn’t entered the film world until the 90s, it was his film The Day of the Beast (1995) that broke into cult favoritism amongst the world and propelled his career. The film was the furthest push into finding the limits of playing with religion that a director had done in Spain. The narrative follows a priest that is convinced that the apocalypse and the rise of Satan is happening soon in Madrid. He thus searches for a way to contact the Devil, journeying through 90s Madrid. De la Iglesia infused The Day of the Beast with the Heavy Metal culture that was developing in Spain, but that had gone largely unnoticed by the mainstream; his appreciation of the niche and ugly won him many fans across the world and influenced filmmakers such as Guillermo del Toro. De la Iglesia followed his breakout film with the US-Spain collaboration Ride with the Devil (1997), which starred Rosie Perez, Javier Bardem, and James Gandolfini. It showed American audiences that Spanish filmmakers were able to translate their tones and stories well in their own language. Thus De la Iglesia was able to transition from radical shaker of the status-quo to a validated filmmaker ending up as the president of the Spanish Film Academy from 2009-2011.

One of the early effects of Alex de la Iglesia’s cheek was the product of Santiago Segura. The Spanish actor had appeared in his first role coincidentally in The Day of the Beast, but he proved to be much more successful in the director’s chair when he made his first feature film: Torrente: El Brazo Tonto de la Ley (1998). The film was vulgar and dirty and centered on a corrupt cop who was a sympathizer of the long-gone Franco regime. The character is portrayed by Segura himself and is shown as a heavy, bald, drinking, and smoking man with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. The film became a runaway success spawning four sequels, each breaking Spanish box-office records, the latest having come out in 2014 and starring Alec Baldwin. Segura’s direct take on Franco and the evolution of his cronies into modern society was a take that many filmmakers previous to him had not dared explore. There had been a wave of revisionist historical films right after Franco’s death, seeking to correct the perspective of Spain and the Civil War that the dictator had tried so hard to change. There was a slew of Civil War films with handfuls coming out every year subsequent to Franco’s death. And such films as Daddy’s War (1977), La Colmena (1982), and Year of Enlightenment (1986) were the first films to prominently show what life under Franco was truly like. Segura, however, was the first one to look directly into how Francoist followers were very much still a part of public life and holding offices of power. It also looked at how certain Spanish institutions were deteriorating into corruption. Segura’s risk helped open up the space for further analysis of this ghostly presence with films such as Unit 7 (2012) and Marshland (2014) both directed by Andalusian filmmaker Alberto Rodriguez and No Rest for the Wicked (2011) and The Realm (2018).

Alejandro Amenabar, meanwhile, was a more direct product of the new reformed film school, with his thesis project for graduation being the horror film Thesis (1996), which had a female protagonist and focused on the craze of snuff films that was going around Spain. The young director would follow-up with Open Your Eyes (1997) a sci-fi film that looked at the deformation of a handsome man’s face and the limits of reality and dreams. The film would be remade by Hollywood as Vanilla Sky (2001) starring Tom Cruise. While in the 80s Spanish films were free to borrow and be influenced by American cinema, the 90s showed that this relationship had evolved into Hollywood poaching ideas from Spain instead. Amenabar would prove to be incredibly adept at navigating the pan-Atlantic relationship, collaborating with international stars like Nicole Kidman in The Others (2001) Rachel Weisz in Agora (2009), and Emma Watson and Ethan Hawke in Regression (2015).

Opportunities for women to direct in Spain had been stark under Franco’s regime given the traditionalist perspective of a woman’s duties. As the country transitioned into democracy, it also took a while for producers to bet on women filmmakers. The pioneering figure was Pilar Miró who had managed to be a TV director during the latter years of Franco’s regime and had her first feature film The Request (1976) premiere a year after Franco’s death. She would go on to make nine films between the 80s and 90s before tragically dying of a heart attack at age 57 in 1997. Her output had accelerated so much by the end of her life that the previous year she had managed to premiere two films The Dog in the Manger (1996) and Your Name Poisons My Dreams (1996). It was Miro’s pioneering work and success, along with international validation of risky movies from Amenabar and de la Iglesia that helped usher an era of opportunities for women filmmakers. There were opportunities for writers such as Isabel Coixet, who had been a prominent screenwriter in the 80s, but she finally got to helm her first films in the 90s, ending up with 34 directing credits as of the writing of this paper. Her latest was again another international collaboration The Bookshop (2017) which starred the likes of Emily Mortimer and Bill Nighy. The opportunity for actresses to sit in the directors chair was also opened up with Iciar Bollain becoming the most prominent of these as well as one of the most respected Spanish directors of today. Her films of the late 90s and the 2000s dealt with domestic abuse (Take my Eyes (2003)) and revisionist history (Even the Rain (2010)) echoing the frustrations and liberation feelings of post-Francoist Spain.

The rigors of the Franco censorship were not only overturned legally, but artistically as well. A complete overturn of previous taboo subjects was witnessed with pioneering filmmakers in the 80s and later disciples in the 90s and 2000s. The Spanish film industry proved to be so reinvigorated that Hollywood began to take notice, creating a partnership and channel of talent and ideas that will continue to fuel the artistic intentions of both, as well as validating the struggle that filmmakers such as Berlanga and Buñuel went through to preserve their voices and opinions against the last dictatorship of Western Europe.

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