Almodovar’s choice, Homage to Spanish Cinema, plays at the Lumière Festival, featuring films often little-known outside Spain
“Without cinema, we are nothing,” says Pedro Almodóvar, in a quote used for the intro clip to this year’s Lumière Festival in Lyon. Anyone who has seen an Almodóvar film will sense how deeply he is influenced by movies that went before him, a passion of youth transformed into a source of inspiration and sentiment in maturity. For his Lumière Award, like Clint Eastwood and Quentin Tarantino before him, Almodóvar chose some of his Spanish favorites, which he has channeled in his own films, for a Homage to Spanish Cinema. Here he talks about these films in a text written especially for the Lumière Festival.
With this selection of seven films, which aims to pay homage to the Spanish cinema, I wanted to first propose works that have stood the test of time and proven their aesthetic value. I also wanted to show the Lumière Festival audiences works whose renown have scarcely reached beyond Spain’s borders. Mostly shot during the Franco dictatorship, these works – in addition to being beautiful films – knew how to ingeniously circumvent the censorship laws of the Church and State, which were as absurd as they were unforgiving.
Two of the best known films outside Spain, “The Executioner” (“El verdugo”) by Luis García Berlanga and “The Spirit of the Beehive” (“El espíritu de la colmena”) by Victor Erice, each had their own radically different but equally effective method to fool the censors. Erice’s film is a masterpiece of codes and symbolic signs. Berlanga’s is social comedy (a “costumbrista”), which relates to Italian neo-realism. The censors failed to grasp the true significance of these two films. “The Executioner” is played by the wonderful José Isbert, who portrayed a kind of idealized Spanish grandfather in the popular comedies of the era- a charming old man, perfect in every way, attentive to his family, with only one requirement of his son in-law, to work and feed his daughter and grand-son. Everyone can relate to that. Mystified by the sympathy the film received, the censors failed to see it was a condemnation of the death penalty. Spain was then a totalitarian regime and the film directly accused the state – which continued to muzzle the convicted – of criminal conduct. The officials involved in censorship had been fooled and had completely missed the point of its true narrative. In civilized countries, “The Executioner” was considered a masterpiece. In the Spain of 1963, its value was even greater; those in power had “discovered” the film at the Venice Film Festival where it won the FIPRESCI Critics’ Prize. Then the censorship the film had previously eluded had to be faced upon its return to Spain. But that’s another story, one that Rafael Azcona and Luis García Berlanga could have invented themselves, had they not actually lived it.
“The Spirit of the Beehive,” by Victor Erice is on the opposite spectrum from “The Executioner.” The film is a lyrical tale that takes on the appearance of a children’s story, in which the movie “Frankenstein” by James Whale awakens the curiosity of a little girl. She lives in an environment of death and ghosts haunting a village in 1941, a year after Franco had announced the end of the Spanish Civil War. Unfortunately, it was a year full of ghosts. The film is nearly silent, leaving the adult characters to both internalize and incarnate censorship. The parents of the girl (played by Ana Torrent, five) are the living dead: silent, distant and closed. Ana spends her time taking care of an elusive “spirit” (a fugitive soldier) hiding in an abandoned livestock shed. One day, the spirit disappears, shot by the Civil Guard. The questioning look of the child, the innocence and recklessness in Ana Torrent’s eyes, speak louder than any other image on the uncertainty of the times and the thirst for knowledge and awareness we had in 1973 (the year of the film)…We began to realize that the country in which we lived was not the one we were told about at school or at home.
“Poachers” (“Furtivos,” 1975) by José Luis Borau, is chronologically the last film of this carte blanche to have been made during the Franco era. A highly audacious film for its time, it seems in retrospect that if the author was free to tell this brutal tale, it was only because the Franco regime and censorship were coming to an end. But in 1974, the year the picture was filmed, no one was aware of this. And it would be another three years before the country could benefit from the work of José Luis Borau and his co-scriptwriter Manuel Gutiérrez Aragón, thankful for the freedom they had to produce such a sharp, precise script. The film is a “Goyaesque” fresco where the action takes place in a forest, a microcosm of a crystallizing Spanish society. One can see the forest as a symbolic representation of society or consider the character of Martina, the mother – an abusive, immoral, hypocritical, incestuous and murderous woman – as a metaphor for the country.
“Poachers” is a film that combines two genres rarely tackled by the Spanish cinema: the Western and the film noir. The authors pay explicit homage to Luis Buñuel by choosing the actress Lola Gaos to play the mother. The husky-voiced actress with the unattractive physique was directed by the Aragonese genius in “Viridiana” and “Tristana” where she played Saturna, the maid to young Tristana (Catherine Deneuve). As the director himself acknowledged, the name Saturna was a metaphorical key to the character of Martina for Poachers, an allusion to Goya’s “Saturn devouring one of his sons.”
“Rapture” (“Arrebato”) by Ivan Zulueta, though shot in 1979, just four years later, seems to take place in a totally different Spain. The story is deliberately apolitical and the context is a cosmopolitan Madrid at the beginning of the Movida. The main character is a director of horror films, mysteriously “engulfed” by his super 8 camera. The film is a horrific fantasy tale of “self-immolation” whose true subjects are heroin and filming, with darkness proposed as the only way to self-discovery and personal growth. In just four years, the new Spain was as different from the former years as are the characters in “Rapture” and “Poachers.” Over time, the film by Zulueta has become a kind of modern classic, although it remains a work apart in the film industry and for the Spanish public.
This is not the only singular film on the list. “Embrujo” by Carlos Serrano de Osma (1948) is another condemned film, despite its seemingly harmless theme of flamenco singing and dancing. The participation of two popular figures of flamenco at the top of their careers, the singer Manolo Caracol and flamenco dancer Lola Flores, also a singer and actress, is a phenomenon in itself. These two legends help us understand the unfathomable mystery that is the art of flamenco. The film was reviled upon its release; critics could not accept that the time and space of the narrative deviated from convention. The flamenco song and dance that mattered to the director were like two sides of a mysterious coin. The enchantment to which the title alludes [Embrujo: bewitchment, enchantment ] refers to the spell and mystery of flamenco, depicted through cathartic and expressionist images, far removed from the norms of Spanish folk cinema. Even today, “Embrujo” remains a very modern film.
Another “cursed” masterpiece is “Strange Voyage” (“El extraño viaje”) by Fernando Fernán Gómez, even though the censors hardly knew how to justify their sanctions. In 1964, when the country embarked on a wave of modernization and development, tourism was seen as one of the great hopes on which to base our economy. However, showing the image of a Spanish beach with the bodies of two fat, ugly and drunk brothers was not the best way to promote the beauty of our shores! Seven years after its completion the film was finally released, and only as part of a double feature. Since then, it has continued to win over admirers. Fernando Fernán Gómez was a true Renaissance man: actor, director, novelist, playwright; he was good at all disciplines. “Strange Voyage” was based on the real story, still unsolved, of the murder of two brothers in a small port on the coast. Unlike other films shot in rural areas, the work of Fernán Gómez is full of black humor. This is an example of the particularity of Spanish neo-realism, where Italian sentimentality is less prevalent and where the narrative naturally incorporates the grotesque and the “surreal,” infused with an acerbic black humor.
“Main Street” (“Calle Mayor,” Juan Antonio Bardem, 1956) and “Aunt Tula” (“La tia Tula,” Miguel Picazo, 1964) are counterparts to Fernán Gómez’s film. Both melodramas focus on the character of an unmarried woman. I have a weakness for films that evoke the rural and provincial life. Social prejudice and Catholic morality were particularly harsh on women. Until the age of 10, I lived surrounded by women, some of them very similar to the ones in these two films. I suppose that explains my fondness for these characters. In any case, they are both gems. “Aunt Tula” triumphed at the Festival of San Sebastian in 1964, winning the awards for Best Spanish language film and Best Director. At the Venice Film Festival in 1956, Main Street won Best Picture, the FIPRESCI International Critics’ Jury prize for Best Director, and a Special Mention for Betsy Blair’s performance.
In “Main Street” and “Aunt Tula,” respective protagonists Isabel and Tula comply with all the expected women’s rituals of daily life at the time: the church, the family, the meetings between women. In both films, they are reduced to solitude. In the 1950s and 1960s, a woman’s loneliness was always due to the absence of a man. The fate of a woman over 30 was to stay in the kitchen, go to church, or become obese. In both films, the characters live in similar environments, but an essential point differentiates them: in “Main Street,” Isabel is a victim of the repression of the era, whereas in Aunt Tula, the protagonist is her own executioner. At the turn of the decade, far from gaining greater liberty, women were subjected to even more stringent rules. A spinster in the early 1960’s was a girl who grew up in the 1950s, denying herself physical pleasure, harboring old-fashioned ideas on women’s chastity and dignity.
In “Main Street” and “Aunt Tula,” the stories embrace the perspective of their heroines. It is also striking how, with no nudity or explicit erotic scenes, there is an intense atmosphere of lust. I do not remember any other Spanish film of the era or in the subsequent years in which carnal desire is so prevalent and so intense. For this, we must be grateful to the directors and their wonderful actresses.