Spanish Cinematic Identity

by | Apr 24, 2020 | 0 comments

A View at the Search for a Filmic Personality Amongst a Tumultuous 20th Century

With the “discovery” of America in 1492, the curtain closed on Medieval Europe and an age of artistic Renaissance took a hold the Western World. During this time Spain rose to become not just an economic and military empire, but an artistic one as well. There would be collaborations and competitions between the artistic styles of the Spanish and those of the rest of the world. However, after centuries of cultural influence and dominance, the 19th century saw a deterioration of Spanish hegemony, as a Napoleonic invasion and frequent civil wars prevented it from keeping up in a new industrial age. As such when the art of cinema came into being, the Spanish found themselves at a disadvantage; lacking the proper infrastructure and state-sponsored drive to create films. However, in subsequent decades a new Spanish identity would develop alongside the cinematic medium, and they would both utilize each other in their search for an identity in the modern world.

The earliest of Spanish films would actually be filmed in France, due to the lack of expertise and infrastructure in Spain. These films would try and adapt other art forms of theater or zarzuela (a kind of Spanish opera) onto the screen. The only other cinematic stories one would see, harkened towards the Spanish Golden Age of imperial dominance. Such films as Christophe Colomb (1916), would come about this drive, seeking to regain a Spanish pride that less that 20 years ago had lost the last of its overseas colonies in the Spanish-American War. This grasp for Spanish imperial identity would continue to plague the Spaniards in the first half of the 20th century, to the point that it would prove to be the perfect diagnostic towards the nationalistic passions that would ignite the dictatorships of Primo de Rivera and later Francisco Franco. Amongst these political turbulences, the intellectual Spanish corners would begin to consume foreign cinema and be inspired by other surrealist artistic movements that were sprouting up in other mediums such as painting and sculpture. As such, many Spanish artists and intellectuals would head to Paris, which would prove to be a melting pot of the new Spanish art movements. It was there that Luis Buñuel first began his experimentations with film, in collaboration with surrealist painter Salvador Dali. They would both produce Un Chien Andalou (1929) and L’Age d’Or (1930), learning to use the cinematic medium to provoke as well as play with visuals and sound. While their partnership would break down following their latter film, it would catapult them both into fame. With Buñuel being accepted back by the new left-leaning Republican government in Spain at the time, he would be commissioned to work on a documentary about Spain. Buñuel, in his love for controversy and boldness at telling a story, would proceed in making a tongue-in-cheek documentary about one of the poorest regions in Spain: Las Hurdes. His film, Las Hurdes: Land without Bread (1933) pointed out to the contradictions of the current situation in Spain, which sought to portray itself as a modern European nation – corralling its artists – while at the same time an incredible medieval poverty was still rampant in the country-side.

Buñuel would be shunted aside, both for personal as well as financial reasons (his surrealist films were not helping him make a living). As he moved around the Spanish studio system, he would also shuffle into American productions, and eventually landed in Mexico. Having never felt fully at home in Spain he remained in Western Hemisphere, and with Franco in power in 1939, he would largely remain in exile for the majority of his life. It would be in Mexico, where Buñuel would regain his directorial footing, and after learning to direct melodramas and more conventional narratives (in comparison to his first films), he would produce a slew of films that would touch upon his perspectives on the world. His 1950s films Los Olvidados (1950) and Nazarin (1959) would comment on the toxicity of poverty as well as the contradictions of the Catholic religion. While both films would be set in Mexico and with largely Mexican characters, it was the issues that Buñuel had experienced and wanted to comment about in Spain that would inform the thematic crux of his films. Land Without Bread already commented on the frustrating pattern of hiding away the drastic poverty, which Spain had done for the majority of its history. Los Olvidados is certainly in line with Buñuel’s mockumentary, seeking to show how these “forgotten” youths are being corrupted and killed because of the state and elite’s ignorance of them. Nazarin and later The Exterminating Angel (1962) would comment much more on how the Catholic religion had brought about absurd and unjust actions from humanity. Nazarin places an eponymous Spanish priest in Mexico, who is naïve to a fault in his belief that his Christian faith will trump the injustices brought down on him and those around him. In a way Nazarin is admirable for his devotion to goodness, and yet Buñuel shows how ineffective his actions are at actually changing the world. In The Exterminating Angel Buñuel takes on an absurdist approach to superstition, and a feeling of stagnation that a faith can bring about. The Exterminating Angel could also be seen as commenting on human behavior, which when put in uncomfortable situations, strips away its apparent dignity and goodness (that Christianity preaches) and instead become animalistic and violent. Buñuel’s success with these films would allow him to travel around the world making his films, coming to Spain to film Viridiana (1961) a further condemnation of poverty and Christianity, as well as Belle de Jour (1967) in France. This latter film would be different in how it would be looking more at the contradictions of desire and curiosity instead of being solely fascinated with the themes of his previous films. In a way, Belle de Jour would be a first signal towards a Spanish fascination with the irrationality of emotions that would later be explored by Pedro Almodovar. Buñuel’s films could be taken to be a complete counter-point to the imperialistic passions that early Spanish cinema was trying to put forth under Franco. 

Dictator Francisco Franco was supposedly motivated in his coup to power by a desire to bring back the Spanish imperial dignity that seemed to have been lost and was being buried by the Spanish Republican government of the early 1930s. As such, his desired trend for Spanish art – including film – would be one that would once again stoke Spanish national fervor and bring pride to such a globally dominant past. Franco would realize the potential of the cinematic medium, to the point that he would secretly write a screenplay for a nationalistic film Raza (1942), which would be a required viewing in Spanish schools for decades. The film was incredibly similar to the American Southern nationalistic pride film Birth of a Nation (1915) both in its structure as well as purpose. In the Spanish film, the story would start around the time of the final fall of the Spanish Empire in 1898 with the loss of the Philippines and Cuba. The film would follow a wealthy family along the decades as they would become divided amongst a Republican-supporting brother and the more militaristic and Franco-supporting siblings. By the end, the Republican brother snaps out of his seeming delusion and helps the Francoist forces take Madrid. The last scene of the film shows a militaristic march in Madrid amongst triumphant cheers from the crowd as all perform the Nazi salute. Curiously, this scene would be modified in subsequent years with the purpose of appeasing American allies once Nazi Germany had fallen in 1945. Other Spanish films of the time would be a mix between historical epics, harkening to the past, and escapist comedies, such as the military comedy Boton de Ancla (1961) which shows a love triangle amongst a group of soldier friends and a local girl. These films were tagged “españoladas” in a deriding manner, describing their poor quality. This “españolada” style was quickly becoming synonymous with Spanish cinema itself, both domestically as well as internationally.

It was this worry of a corroding reliance on Spanish cinema, and the starting importations of American films, that alarmed Spanish cinema students of the time. The Salamanca Congress of 1955 would prove a milestone for Spanish cinema, as a declaration for a more realistic and intellectually stimulating cinema was called. The majority of these young directors had been heavily influenced by the Italian neo-realists whose rough realistic view of life seemed refreshing in comparison with the grand and escapist stories on screen in Spain at the time. These young filmmakers felt that Spaniards weren’t connecting with the national films, because they simply did not reflect their actual reality. As such, the films of Luis Garcia Berlanga and Juan Antonio Bardem would prove revolutionary.

 Both Spanish filmmakers would start out in collaboration with each other, co-writing (with Berlanga directing) Welcome Mr. Marshal! (1953), which tracked the disillusionment that Spaniards would have after the supposed American help in rebuilding Europe after World War II. The film would be a further show of the disillusionment and – as with Buñuel – the complete ignorance that the government and elites would have on small-town Spain. Both Berlanga and Bardem would part ways amicably to work on their individual films, which would have very distinct styles. Berlanga would continue with the comedic tone that he had infused in Welcome Mr. Marshal! (and perhaps helped it get past censors that way) and would go on to make Placido (1961), which would also show how big-city visitors and elites would use the poor for a PR charitable image. Placido would be ruthless with its well-off characters, showing them as selfish and exploitative of those in need. It is only the working class eponymous character and his friends who are shown being generous, sacrificing their time and possessions for the reception of the city-folk, only to be left broke and abandoned. Despite the dark material that Berlanga would be working with, his light tone would help make his films more appeasable, to the point that they would become some of the first successful exports of Spanish cinema (Placido was one of the first Spanish films nominated for an Oscar). Bardem meanwhile would have a much more dramatic and serious approach to his films. His Death of a Cyclist (1955) would infuse a noir-style along with the complex and cynical moralistic debate that his characters would embark on after their accidental murder of a cyclist on the road. The guilt would prove to push both characters to their breaking point, with each coming to their own conclusions as to what they regard as important: a selfish materialism or redeeming penance. A similar look at exploitation and moralistic debate would be wrought in Bardem’s Calle Mayor (1956) as the narrative would follow the prank on a naïve and lonely woman, as she is led to believe that one of the pranksters has fallen in love with her. The film would bring about the similar tone of tragedy, which befalls the victims as well as the perpetrators. Bardem’s films would also showcase the emerging international talent (Italy’s Lucia Bosé in Death of a Cyclist, and American Betsy Blair in Main Street) that would seek to work with these new Spanish directors, keen to align their artistic prowess with an emerging critical fame.

Having broken new ground in a Spanish cinematic identity, a new slew of directors felt emboldened to push the limits of Spanish censors as well as explore the ways that their symbolism and subtleties could further transmit their criticisms of humanity and the Spanish government. Some directors, such as Jesus Franco, would choose to make their films outside of Spain; J. Franco would prove to be the father of Spanish horror with his French-filmed The Awful Dr. Orloff (1962), which would be exaggeratedly blatant about the nudity and violence it would show on screen. Other directors would choose to work within the Spanish system in order to have their films be seen by the native Spaniards themselves. Filmmakers such as Carlos Saura and Narciso Ibañez Serrador would prove to be some of the most successful. Saura, although now famed for his Spanish flamenco musicals, would start out with character studies infused with critical symbolism. His La Caza (1966) tells the story of a group of friends going out to hunt rabbits, who slowly deride in their isolation and interaction leading to a violent end. The film’s themes of friends against friends are clear allusions to civil war, however, the greater symbolism of the massacre of rabbits that Saura captures on screen is a bigger condemnation. Although little known, to even Spaniards, Hispania (as the Spanish peninsula was called by Romans) means “land of rabbits” thus Saura’s La Caza (which translates to “the hunt”) is showing how these men in their own personal squabbles with each other are completely obliterating the surrounding and innocent rabbits who are those essential Spaniards that gave their country their name. Ibañez Serrador, more focused on the horror genre, would produce Who Can Kill a Child? (1976) surprisingly filmed in English with two British actors (Lewis Fiander and Prunella Ransome). The film would be a reflection of the difficulty of perpetrating violence. The plot revolves how an island’s population is wiped out by its murderous children one mysterious night. The film shows the savagery that these seeming children have wrought, and yet the immense difficulty that the adults have at placing any resistance or being violent with the children in any way. It is a reflection on how violence, no matter how justified, is always a nefarious action that is incredibly soul-wrenching and moralistically difficult to perform.

While violence was a central fascination for many of these new filmmakers, the subject of death brought about much deeper explorations. Saura would explore death in his Cria Cuervos (1976) while the new emerging filmmaking (and Saura collaborator) Victor Erice would do so in his Spirit of the Beehive (1973). Cria Cuervos would continue the pattern of foreign talent coming to Spain to act in rich stories, with Geraldine Chaplin playing the dead mother of the protagonist child who becomes fascinated with the end of life. The film shows the exploration and blurred lines that a child’s mind can have between death, dreams, and ghosts. The blurred concept of reality can prove to be dangerous, as death becomes a seemingly quotidian action or game to the young girl, leading to an attempted poisoning of her aunt. Spirit of the Beehive would curiously star the same young actress, Ana Torrent, as a young girl who becomes heavily impacted by seeing James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931). Erice shows how the isolation that rural Spain can bring kids can be conductive to an incredibly vivid imagination, where young children can prove to be so easily influenced. But it is the young girl’s sister, who suddenly becomes fascinated with death, seeming to play dead when young Ana comes to check on her, as well as choking her cat to its limit. The loss of innocence in children, as well as their seeming intelligence and imagination, are further warnings and indications by these filmmakers of the lack of naivete from the Spanish populace when it came to the Franco regime; able to see beyond the noble façade the government puts forth as their excuse for authoritarianism.

Once Franco died in 1975 and a democracy was established in 1977, Spain featured a boom of artistic liberty, which resulted in the “Movida Madrileña.” This liberating explosion would spout music bands, as well as cultural gatherings that would attract people from all over the world. Madrid became a “no rules” capital where sex, drugs, and rock & roll were rampant. This would be the environment that would spout a new stage in the evolution of Spanish cinema: that of Pedro Almodóvar. Almodóvar would not come from the film schools that the previous generation of Spanish auteurs had emerged from, but would instead come from the “Movida”scene. His first film, Pepi, Luci, Bom, y Otras Chicas del Monton (1980) would showcase his particular early style of sexual liberty and the uncontrollable drive of people’s passions. It would also show Almodóvar’s fascination with female characters, who would be increasingly at the center of his films as well as Spanish culture. This combination of women finding their sexual freedom and independence would appear in the majority of Almodóvar’s other early films such as Labyrinth of Passions (1982), What Have I Done to Deserve This? (1984), and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988). Almodóvar would also feature men in his films, but whose masculinity and idea of manhood were vague and flexible, such is his portrayal of men in Matador (1986), Law of Desire (1987) and Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1989). Here we would see how the ideas of traditional Spanish masculinity were being debunked in favor of sexually fluid and emotionally vulnerable men, who would submit towards their more irrational desires. But as Almodóvar aged and the initial high of post-Francoism died down, Almodóvar’s filmmaking began to shape-shift as well.

Almodóvar would move into what would be denoted as a more “mature” era of filmmaking, which would brush away the more extreme and boundary-pushing elements of his earlier films, and dive into more character-driven studies. As such we would get looks at the toxicity of love and self-hate in such films as The Flower of My Desire (1995) and Live Flesh (1997). Both films would also start a trend of Almodóvar’s in playing with time. Almodóvar’s earlier films had been focused on the present, and present alone; in fact it was as if Franco had never existed in his films’ universe. His “mature” films would start looking at the effects that time would have on characters, as well as play with certain aspects of Spanishness. This trend of looking towards the past could very well be an indication of Almodóvar’s burgeoning nostalgia towards a “Movida” culture that had dissipated by the 1990s. As such, his later films would become more infused with how a wrenching loss would force his characters to redefine their identities. Such is the case with All About My Mother (1998) in which a mother loses her child to an accident and Talk to Her (2002) where two men find their identity in the lost presence of their objects of love: two women in a coma. The same can be said of Bad Education (2004), which would look at how the past would mold and break the spirit of certain characters, resulting in a tangle of who’s who. The result of such confusion in this latter film would reach a point that an objective reality becomes hard to grasp. As such, this denial of a present reality would slowly infuse Almodóvar’s subsequent films. This denial theme was already seen in All About My Mother, where a mother tried and forget the horrible loss of her son, but it would also be featured in the confusions of characters’ sexuality in Bad Education as well as tragedy in Volver (2006). In this latter film, the aspects of reality and magic become blurred for characters, regardless of viewers knowing the logical explanations behind supposed apparitions. As such, Almodóvar longs for a past that at the same time he knows is impossible to live in anymore; his filmography continued to maintain his personal and more nostalgic tone in future films such as The Skin I Live In (2011), Julieta (2016), and Pain and Glory (2019).

Almodóvar proved to be a milestone in Spanish cinema, and certainly was able to put modern Spanish cinema on the map internationally. Along with Buñuel, Almodóvar became the most successful Spanish cinematic export. Almodóvar would help shape a modern view of Spain, where an honesty to people’s lives, dialogue, and desires would become accepted. It would prompt and free Spanish filmmakers in the 1990s and early 2000s to pursue diverse stylistic tones, splitting the hairs of a constant Spanish cinematic tone as well as promoting a visual diversity. Alex de la Iglesia would prove to be one of the most visually and narratively distinct filmmakers of this new crop of directors, with his satanic focused The Day of the Beast (1995) and subsequent horror-cum-comedy films Dance with the Devil (1997), Commonwealth (2000), and Witching and Bitching (2013). Other Spanish filmmakers would also use horror to explore new styles, and comment on the new state of Spain. The most prominent of these filmmakers would be Alejandro Amenabar, whose first film Thesis (1996) would look into the taboo subject of snuff films as well as allude to the irrational emotions and passions that characters may have; in Thesis our protagonist (curiously played by grown up Ana Torrent) is repulsed by violence while also deeply allured by it. Amenabar’s exploration of desire and horror would crop up again in his latter films Open Your Eyes (1997) and the Hollywood hit The Others (2001).

A new crop of socially conscious filmmakers would also emerge, taking stock of the modern Spain and shining a light at the ugly and forgotten aspects that the government and populace looked over. Fernando Leon de Aranoa’s Barrio (1998) would take on an Italian neo-realist tone, showcasing the summer of three kids in an unglamorized Madrid. The film goes about showing the poverty that is rampant in the capital city, whilst the news of masses of foreigners and Spaniards heading towards the beach blares in the background. Like-wise Iciar Bollain would shed a light on domestic abuse in her film Take My Eyes (2003). This particular subject seemed delicate and taboo for Spaniards, since it brought about conversations of masculinity in a much more uncomfortable light than Almodóvar had. Both Leon de Aranoa and Bollain would continue bringing to light uncomfortable truths of present Spain, with subjects ranging from the disappearing industrial sectors in Mondays in the Sun (2002), to colonialism in Even the Rain (2010), and even globalization in The Olive Tree (2016) and to a more indirect extent A Perfect Day (2015).

After seeing the trajectory that Spanish cinema took, one finds it hard to pin down a common theme or identity that would unite an entire art form, and in fact, to do so would be unfair. Even so, there are common themes that can be found throughout this diverse national filmography. As early as Buñuel one could see that there was a particular focus and fascination with rural stories in Spain, this seems to correlate with pre-cinematic Spain, whose plays, zarzuelas, and even paintings would be much keener to explore the rural Spain than the courts and palaces of the time. Spain having been such a Catholic country, the common thread of religion can also be seen throughout the majority of Spanish cinema, either as a central plot point or looming in the background. This is even true for Almodóvar’s films, who while seemingly wanting to shake off any identity with a Francoist Spain, always have a sinister crucifix or a past with a priest hurting a central character. Only in Spanish films of the recent decade has this presence of religion begun to dissipate somewhat, with filmmakers beginning to reflect a more agnostic and even atheistic Spain. The last prominent common thread that can be found, even in the darkest of Spanish films, is: humor. Buñuel’s films, while seeming dark would always carry nuggets of humor. Berlanga would be even more blatant with his humor, but even the more seemingly dark Bardem and Saura would have singular scenes where a joke is cracked or an uncomfortable situation leads to a laugh. Almodóvar would use humor widely in his films, in order to make his more unconventional explorations palatable for a general audience. The 1990s surge of filmmakers would grasp this humor even more, identifying it as a key reflection of Spanishness. Thus horror films such as Thesis or The Day of the Beast can frequently have better laughs than scares. Even the socially-conscious films dealing with the darkest of subjects, such as Barrio or Take My Eyes, will have throw-away funny scenes that the best of comedies would die to have. Humor is seemingly crucial to a Spaniards interaction with everyday life and is peppered throughout their dialogue as well as actions. This might be root to a necessity for alleviation after an immense poverty gap throughout much of history. In the end, as the analysis above has shown, all art movements and forms are constantly changing, and as Spain suffered an extremely turbulent period and crisis of identity in the 20th century, so did its art. In the end, it is hard to see whether Spanish films ended up informing and crafting a Spanish identity, or if they were simply a mirror of an ongoing evolution. In the end, probably a little of both occurred.

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