MADRID — Carlos Saura is famous for his dance pics: “Blood Wedding,” “Carmen,” “Salome.” But his latest film, “El septimo dia” (The Seventh Day), has just produced a political song-and-dance, the biggest film rumble in Spain’s political jungle in years.
The kerfuffle could be manna from heaven for producer Andres Vicente Gomez’s Lolafilms. But as Spain tenses for general elections early next year, it raises a question marks over whether the country, despite its vaunted political transition, has really attained the status of a full-fledged democracy, at least as regards freedom of expression.
Shooting started July 28 on “Seventh Day,” which turns on a true event, a massacre in Puerto Hurraco, a village in Extremadura, western Spain, one of the poorest parts of the country.
On Aug. 26, 1990, farmers Emilio and Antonio Izquierdo emptied their shotguns on a rival family, the Cabanillas, and any Hurraco villager who got in their way. Nine people died in the biggest multiple murder in modern Spain.
Seen from the point of view of a Cabanillas daughter, “Seventh Day” turns on whether the girl survives the slaughter and charts how violence snowballs from petty causes.
Saura’s direction places the massacre in a wider social context, Gomez adds. Even in pre-production, local politicos took the pic as a slur against small-town folk. “Saura is a New York paparazzi … offering an image of Extremadura, which is stolen, dark, shadowy, distant,” thundered the president of Extremadura, Juan Carlos Rodriguez Ibarra, in the runup to recent regional elections. Saura was a “mediocre director,” his culture counselor added.
The “Seventh Day” rumpus carries a strong sense of deja vu. In 1932, Spain’s original bad-boy director, Luis Bunuel, visited the benighted Extremaduran mountains of Las Hurdes and shot scenes of such harrowing poverty — hunger, cholera, dysentery, incest, death, dwarfs, all to the sound of Brahms Fourth Symphony — that Spain’s normally progressive Republican government banned the film outright.
No Spanish docu is held in higher regard.
President Rodriguez Ibarra is unimpressed: “Now we’ve got Carlos Saura. Haven’t we had enough with Bunuel’s ‘Las Hurdes’?” he complains.
” ‘Seventh Day’ is a creative take on real events,” says producer Gomez. “It doesn’t put down all Extremadura, though it does suggest there are pockets of backwardness in Spain.”
Rodriguez Ibarra, a socialist, probably would normally agree with the last point. But he doesn’t want a high-profile helmer observing that one such pocket exists in his own backyard. Broiling behind the whole fracas, some commentators argue, is a growing wave of neo-conservatism in Spain.
Former San Sebastian Fest director Diego Galan points to a Spanish university study concluding that characters in Pedro Almodovar’s first 13 films spend three hours smoking, drinking or drugging. Almodovar said the study filled him with “fear, disgust, amazement, fury and indignation.”
Beyond gradually stepping up state aid, Spanish politicians have generally left the cinema alone. But film now seems fair game to score a point in Spain. And as parts of the country — Barcelona, for instance — now challenge France in chic modernity, the worst thing a filmmaker can suggest is that aspects of the old days still fester in Spain.