The first feature film from Pilar Palomero beautifully explores the contradictions of modern Spain
Spain has undergone a rapid modernization since its impressive transition from a dictatorship into a democracy in the 1970s. It skyrocketed from a rickety country struggling not to be of the third world, to a first-rate nation of the envy of many. However, in such a rapid and complex transition, Spanish society itself has not been able to keep up, as such there has been a divergence between the sheen that Spain sold to the world, and the actuality lying beneath.
Schoolgirls (2020) is the triumphant winner at the biggest Spanish cinema awards: the Goyas. It made the rounds in film festivals as well, winning an accolade at the San Sebastian Festival, and being included in the Berlin Film Festival’s competition lineup. The film follows schoolgirl Celia (Andrea Fandos) in 1990s Spain, with the backdrop of the Barcelona Olympic Games, as she starts to undergo puberty and the beginning of adolescence, which clash with the all-girls catholic school and poverty around her.
This is director Pilar Palomero’s first film, and she is quick to demonstrate an impressive hand at restraint and symbolism that never verges on pandering surrealism. Cinematic comments on the Spanish transition and the fake sheen of modernity have been made in the past, by no less than the likes of Luis Buñuel in The Obscure Object of Desire (1977) and Carlos Saura with Blindfolded Eyes (1978). However, those films leaned heavily into symbolism, leaving the suggestive parallel narrative slightly bereft of emotional heft. Saura corrected himself with the more rounded Deprisa, Deprisa (1981), but even then would indulge into the attractions of the crime genre. Schoolgirls is not afraid of taking on a gentle and pensive approach, a decision that might alienate viewers looking for more straightforward entertainment, and yet will reward those who admire filmmaking that staves off noise.
Palomero’s framing of her characters’ journey as a coming-of-age story is a perfect way to bring forward the deeper messages about the Spanish transition and a confused “young” Spain entering the world arena. However, the whiplash of the decades of dictatorship is still apparent, and it would have been foolish to think that these would simply dissipate with the arrival of democracy. Schoolgirls is able to make curious parallels between Celia finding her femininity, her curious forays into her first cigarette, alcoholic drink, or being asked out by a boy, and the contrasted reactions with her teacher nuns and stressed mother (Natalia de Molina) who resort to a subtle humiliation and imposition of Catholic dogma, and outright lies to tame Celia’s newfound curiosities. However, Palomero doesn’t resort to over-the-top cruelty or repression to showcase the restrictions and emotional censure that Celia undergoes, rather it is through the more subtle comments, or gestures, which crush and embarrass Celia into keeping her head down.
As with Buñuel and Saura’s work, Palomero also focuses her criticisms of modern Spain and the democratic transition on the silence that was imposed around the horrors of the dictatorship period. This was in itself an actual law, “The Pact of Forgetting,” where total amnesty was given to all those of Franco’s dictatorship, and nothing more was to be said about it. This has carried over, decades later, into a surrounding taboo around the subject of Franco and the dictatorship years (not so much on the Civil War, though that’s a whole other essay), which are framed as being best forgotten in the past and not discussed. Palomero makes intriguing parallels with the lies and suppressed truth that Celia is inevitably curious about, and yet when asking about it is quickly shut down with a quick lie and told to never speak of such subjects again. Palomero is incredibly effective with the use of a child’s curiosity as a lens to show how it is necessary and natural for Spain to face and discuss its past in order to “grow up.”
Celia’s troubles and conflicts are perfectly showcased by the fabulous young Fandos, who is a true revelation. It is always hard to get not only acceptable, but watchable performances from any child performer, and yet every once in a while you get a truly adept performer who feels like a veteran. Such was the feeling with Abraham Attah in Beasts of No Nation (2015), and Fandos brings a similar subtlety and internality to her performance. Staying in line with the minimalism and theme of concealing from the film, Fandos’ performance is an absolutely perfect fit. The partnership between director and actor works beautifully to channel the confusion and irritation from the continuous suppression and patronizing actions of the adult characters.
Schoolgirls proves to be a fascinating look at the contradictions that modern Spain purports, one of a country putting forward a veneer of great progress, but whose innards are still scarred from the suppressed horrors of the dictatorship. Palomero’s ingenious way of framing this subject with a coming-of-age story works to perfection, bringing forth a straightforward and emotionally wholesome narrative, that also works as a parallel exploration for those viewers seeking to dig deeper into the thematic elements. For a first work, to produce a project that can speak on both those levels is truly impressive; to then harness incredible child performances is just showing off. Palomero has come forth onto the cinematic stage with a meditative bang; I can’t wait to see what she does next.