Director: Alberto Rodriguez

by | Apr 13, 2020 | 0 comments

 A View at the Andalusian Filmmaker and the New View of Spain

My first job was serving popcorn and cleaning movie aisles; it was a summer job of a few weeks, and yet the feeling of being a little closer to the world of movies was a motivating factor that would fuel me to explore the filmmaking world. My second job was working on a Spanish film production for two and half months. That is where I met director Alberto Rodriguez.

The Sevillian native blended with the rest of the crew, wearing ripped jeans and a dusted shirt. You could easily have confused him for a grip or the catering crew. He was thin and gangly, with a size that would allow him to be easily lost in a crowd. His unkempt salt and pepper hair and beard, looked riper for a construction worker than an intellectual filmmaker. He would be known on set for his serious face, extremely focused on each matter at hand; I would later learn that this would only emphasize his jokes and quips. The brain behind this man is one that few in Spain would be able to emulate. Rodriguez grew up in Spain, just coming out of Franco in the 80s, and he was able to see first-hand the attempts to distance the new Spain from the old one as well as the evolution of the Spanish government from a hopeful Nobel-peace-prize worthy body, to an entrenched and embarrassing corruption factory.

Rodriguez first came into the spotlight when he made Grupo 7 (Unit 7) (2012) a police-noir film set 1992 just before the World Expo was to be set in Sevilla, which would showcase how far Spain had come from Franco’s dictatorship less than twenty years ago. In the absence of the dictatorship’s authoritarianism, laws on importation and travel became lax, allowing Spain to flourished with new music, mannerisms, and culture. But softer borders also allowed for a steep influx of drugs, something that would climax most prominently in the north-western region of Galicia, but which in Grupo 7 is seen affecting Sevilla. The film is an exploration of the means to get to an end, and questions the line that authority now faced between emulating the cruelty and injustice of the past and going about justice in a morally correct way. Grupo 7 takes its title from the special unit of men brought together in Elliot Ness-style in order to take a “different” approach at tackling the drug and crime problem of Sevilla, and therefore clean up the city’s image before it was exposed to the world. Safe to say, the unit doesn’t go about correct ways of cleaning up the streets, instead planting drugs on suspects, utilizing violent methods, and breaking many of the laws they themselves were meant to uphold. There are certain allusions to how Hitler cleaned and controlled the image of Germany when Berlin hosted the 1936 Olympics, and yet the true destiny and verdict of the unit’s morality and justification is left up more to the audience than resolved in a specifically biased manner by Rodriguez.

In many ways Grupo 7 is his most personal film, being set in his own hometown and during a time when he was a student and seeing the effects of the drug influx and the subsequent crackdowns by police. In a desperate attempt to showcase Sevilla with pride, it caused Sevillians to take on shameful methods. Rodriguez is questioning the true nature of Spain, whether they are able to put an acceptable image internationally naturally, or whether Spaniards have become to ingrained with the utility and effectiveness of repression and authoritarianism.

Rodriguez saw the moral quandaries that authorities found themselves in to rein in the rabid underground that had festered in the 80s, and he himself must have struggled to see what his city and his neighbors would benefit from. Would it be right to falsely incriminate a bad person, or was that breaking the purity of the good-intentioned authorities? Rodriguez thus went about in creating a “bridge” movie that looked at how the aspects of Franco and its pressures would lead to the current stages of corruption in government. The film itself is pitched as an action thriller, not seeking to explore historical aspects as much as prompt a moral searching from the viewer. Rodriguez’s next film La Isla Minima (Marshland) (2014) would take a more meditated approach in analyzing the echoes of Franco, being set in 1980 a mere five years after the dictator’s death and three after democracy had been re-established in Spain.

La Isla Minima follows two detectives as they investigate the homicide of a young girl in a particularly unique ecological part of the south of Spain called the Guadalquivir Marshes in Rodriguez’s home-region of Andalucia. Boggy swamps make an ideal place to hide bodies and thus allow this fictional mystery to set the stage for a more personal and quieter thriller that would nevertheless have a deeper message and exploration about the Spanish transition from dictatorship to democracy. The two detectives have a significant age difference, with the young one Pedro (Raul Arevalo) being a twenty-something, while the veteran Juan (Javier Gutierrez) is well into his fifties. This age difference, while seemingly cliché at first, will end up proving to be a crucial difference in the story.

The film maintains a certain entrenched and slow feel, mirroring not only the dissatisfied looks of the detectives, as they struggle to make a head-way with their investigation, but also with the Spanish police and military forces in the transition years. These authority institutions had helped maintain Franco, but in making the decision to allow a peaceful transition to democracy, were now seeing consternation and rejection from the populace for what they represented. Rodriguez coming from Sevilla, also wanted to show how the transition and “liberation” period that many urban Spaniards experienced, was blunted and sometimes hardly felt in the more rural parts of Spain. Andalucia being an infamously impoverished region of Spain, is exemplified with the Guadalquivir Marshes acting as literal entrenchment and impediments to our characters in La Isla Minima whenever they attempt to find clues or chase suspects. The muddy waters and surrounding land is holding back authority and government from imposing order and justice in the land, thus adding to the frustrations of the detectives as well as the disbelief by civilians.

Pedro and Juan, however, seem to be very detached from the Franco administration, living in the rural desolation instead of the heated urban centers; Pedro himself wasn’t even in the force during the Franco regime. The distanced detectives soon get to have a somewhat closer and admirable relationship together–that is until Pedro discovers pictures from Juan’s past, showing that he had been a part of Franco’s secret police that had murdered and tortured handfuls of Spaniards. This comes as the two detectives brought a semblance of justice to this small town. The reveal at such a point reveals the great conflict that many Spaniards faced with the conditions of the transition, of whether future acts of good could truly balance horrid ones from the past. When Pedro had finally seen Juan as a human being and a companion, he then discovered the incredibly inhumane acts he had committed. Does this disqualify Juan’s humanity?  

When Spain transitioned into a democracy, prime minister Adolfo Suarez and King Juan Carlos I feared that a simple shift to democracy, holding military and police accountable, would lead to a coup and possibly another civil war. This led to the still controversial decision of full amnesty to everyone (Franco-supporters and exiled Republicans), leading to a fresh start for the entire country. This is exemplified in La Isla Minima with the struggle of Pedro in seeing Juan as a person after he discovers what his past was. The film brings up questions of how effective it is to bury the past, and whether people should be forgiven and given a second chance, after such atrocities. Again, just like in Grupo 7 Rodriguez doesn’t give a specific answer, but simply shows the conflict that exists and invites discussion to take place instead of burying it as well.

Rodriguez culminated his analysis of Spain’s authority institutions and their evolution with El Hombre de las Mil Caras (Smoke and Mirrors) (2016), which would bookend this spontaneous trilogy. It was also the film I got to work on with him.

It is not surprising that this is the film that would follow Rodriguez’s two earlier successes. It was certainly the most expensive film as it would require extensive location shooting on an international scale. It would be Rodriguez’s first project not to be centered in Sevilla or the larger region of Andalucia. It was an adaptation of a controversial book about controversial figures; Rodriguez’s spotlight now extended onto the national level.

El Hombre de las Mil Caras is essentially a spy thriller with the quiet and tense meditations of La Isla Minima. It tells the true story of a spy named Francisco Paesa (Eduard Fernandez), and how his helping of a Spanish minister led to the eventual fall of Felipe Gonzalez, who was the longest serving (1982-1996) and most successful Prime Minister in Spain–by some still regarded as the best of the post-Franco era. Gonzalez helped bring Spain’s economy into a global system, helped join the EU and NATO, recreated and expanded welfare services, and decentralized the government. Rodriguez, thus chooses a lauded figure to feature as the backdrop of El Hombre de las Mil Caras, and reexamines the impeccable history that had been pinned to him.

Paesa’s story starts with him returning from exile to Spain, but no longer working as a spy; he is shut out of his house by his wife. It is only then that Luis Roldan (Carlos Santos), the new director of the Spanish Civil Guard, the most respected police outfit in Spain, comes to ask Paesa for help in moving embezzled money. Paesa grabs this opportunity and goes about on a wild goose-chase internationally, involving Interpol and the Spanish authorities. In the end, Paesa is shown to fool everyone, from his own accomplices, to the authorities, to even Roldan himself who ended up in jail in 1995. The film also shows how Paesa had no problems with making deals with both sides, helping the government fund the paramilitary and controversial group GAL in the late 80s and early 90s, and later also selling the ETA terrorist group (which GAL had been set up to fight) weapons and ammunition–only to have ETA realize that government location trackers had been attached to these weapons. Paesa is shown to be a man with no morals or ideology; he is simply in to win. Our narrator however is the semi-fictional character of Jesus Camoes (Jose Coronado), Paesa’s confidante. As the movie progresses, however, Camoes is shown in a light of naïveté, certainly looking to make a profit for himself, but believing in interpersonal relationships values. In the end, as Paesa manipulates Camoes for his own purposes, and tactlessly fakes his own death to cut ties, Camoes is left with a conflicted feeling of hate and admiration. 

In the end El Hombre de la Mil Caras might be the most complex of the films as it looks not only at real events that happened, but also at the culture of not caring about ideology or sides, but simply on making a profit. This is mirrored in Roldan’s character and is a clear allusion to the political scandals of the mid 2010s, that saw heavy corruption cases amid then Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy (it would later lead to the end of his legislature in a motion of no-confidence in 2018). No other films in Spain had dealt with governmental corruption so directly, and yet Rodriguez never once mentions Felipe Gonzalez or how his government was finally toppled in the 1996 elections thanks to the GAL and Roldan scandals. Rodriguez only goes as far to show the resignation of then Minister of Interior who had become publicly entangled in the Roldan scandal, but doesn’t look to give a historical wide lens.

As historically present as Rodriguez’s subject-matters might be, he never cared about teaching and informing, but rather to explore the struggle of morals and ethics that these real situations had brought up. That is why Camoes is torn between disliking and admiring Paesa in the end of the film. Is it so bad that Paesa brought to light the corruption of a government official, and decided to make a profit on the side as a result? If Spain had truly transitioned into a capitalistic democracy, then the pursuit of individual betterment was a right of Paesa’s; he was only hurting dark groups like ETA, GAL, and corrupt officials. Again, Rodriguez relishes raising questions rather than giving answers, looking for an emotional and psychological analysis of Spaniards and urging them to always be a bit skeptical. It begs the question of whether history has to be cold and factual always, or can the like of Rodriguez and Oliver Stone make emotional explorations of the past, and have their analyses be just as valid? It is also of note that Rodriguez was able to detach himself from the Civil War aspects of Spanish history and look at modern Spain as an entity of itself, not always intrinsically linked to Franco, and yet inevitably hearing the late dictator’s echoes.

But Rodriguez’s messages and themes in his films would not mean as much if he turned out to be different in his methods behind the camera. After all, he frequently questions in his films if the “ends justify the means.” I was privileged to be able to work with him and was given many answers to his methodology and atmosphere that he gives about in his films.

 It should first be noted that the film industry in Spain is incredibly centralized in Madrid, with some notable contributions from Barcelona. However, the rest of Spain is at loss for studios and experienced crew. Rodriguez should, thus, be considered a pioneer in how he pushed to make his films in Sevilla and Andalucia. It allowed him to pick from an Andalucian crew that were able to prove themselves to be more than up to the task. The recognition that Rodriguez’s films achieved helped his crew gain a reputation, to the point that when foreign crews and projects came to Spain, the Andalucians would be the first in line. Such was the case, for example, with the HBO behemoth TV show Game of Thrones (2011-2019), which decided to film entirely around the outskirts of Sevilla, employing “nearly half the city” as a crew member cheerily reminded me. It might not have been that exaggerated, but when finishing the shoot on El Hombre de las Mil Caras I asked around the crew and learned that in fact nearly half of them were heading to Sevilla to work on the new season of the HBO series. Rodriguez thus helped crucially with the decentralization of Spanish film, which would allow for a greater diversity of stories. With the great success of this make-shift trilogy, Rodriguez was given a carte-blanche by Movistar Studios, which he used to create the most expensive Spanish TV series to date, La Peste (2018-), which is a period piece in Sevilla during the Spanish Golden Age, showing an equally intriguing stories from Spanish history as those that took place in Madrid and Barcelona.

 To observe Rodriguez as he works would not give the impression that he was some pioneer, bound to be in the Spanish cinematic history books. His intense watching of the monitor as he plays and twirls with his beard is only one part of his genius. Working with him I saw how close to the crew he was, how he would eat alongside me (the least experienced and least important member of the crew) and would not only remember my name but would quip comments and crack jokes with me as well. In one particular scene in El Hombre de las Mil Caras, we required a deer to appear in a make-shift airport. The deer, probably due to some stage-fright, relieved himself on set; I dutifully went with paper towels to clean up, but as I looked up to see the PAs helping me, I saw Rodriguez crouching down as well and helping us out. It is perhaps these anecdotes and this method that makes Rodriguez such a great leader and the perfect man to be the pioneer in Andalucian film. I was also privileged to work with his Andalucian crew which had been working with Rodriguez since his first films (the DPs and Producers since his short films in University). It exemplified a sense of loyalty and authenticity to his explorations of his home and his neighbors. In the film world of high budgets and dazzling awards it can be easy to lose touch with one’s origins and settle for the comfortable experience of the Madrid and Hollywood crews; thus these examples of Rodriguez only add to his merits.

I am aware, that in certain praise pieces it can be hard to look at a character objectively and see him or her as a human with flaws. No doubt, Rodriguez has many flaws, and his own filmmaking has not been perfect–Grupo 7 certainly had a habit of falling in certain noir clichés and never-ending action and darkness. But I cannot deny that the hard-working ethic and humility lie as core aspects of Rodriguez’s person and lend the greater admirable dimension of his character and add weight to the questions he raises in his films and our interest in debating and answering them. Rodriguez and his work have proved to be apt analyses and provoking thought pieces that have shaken Spaniards into considering difficult subjects that they may have wanted to bury.

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