MADRID — Few faces — maybe Richard Harris’ — have weathered life so much. A repentant womanizer, an unrepentant communist, in old age, Spanish actor Francisco Rabal looked like he’d come through a string of Prussian rapier duels, then been put out to dry on the prow of a mid-Atlantic whaler.
Such is the way of the world. A conventional leading man in Spanish cinema of the ’40s, Rabal’s nonchalant manliness was used by Luis Bunuel to searing ironic effect in “Nazarin” and “Viridiana,” two of the surreal maestro’s greatest films. Rabal’s final seduction of goody-goody former novice Viridiana seems as inevitable as the poverty that surrounds her in the Spanish countryside, or the dullard egotism of the poor.
Thrust into the international arthouse limelight, Rabal worked for famed directors such as Michelangelo Antonioni (1962’s “The Eclipse”) and Jacques Rivette (1966’s “The Nun”).
On Glauber Rocha’s “The Lion Has Seven Heads,” Rabal took off his toupee. He went on to play character roles to superb effect, such as the idiot savant in Mario Camus’ “The Holy Innocents,” for which he shared an actors award at Cannes in 1984.
Gnarled, bloated but unbowed, in the ’90s you could still catch Rabal at Madrid restaurants, roistering with friends, reciting improvised ballads, or talking, his eyes bleared with reminiscence. He said he dreamed of Bunuel a lot; was concerned for his grandchildren; and would not live much longer.
Having accepted the offer of a San Sebastian Donostia honor, Rabal died Aug. 29 of pulmonary complications on a flight back from the Montreal Film Festival, where he was the subject of a tribute.
His was a mastery of what Spanish cinema has given best to the world: a sense of porous, physical humanity, its grand desires, the reality of the flesh.