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‘Arde Madrid,’ Ava Gardner, Flamenco and Feminism under Franco

Movistar +'s latest original series yokes Spain’s grand tradition of bathetic humor with a modern feminist gaze

Once again, Telefonica’s pay TV unit Movistar+ is offering a completely different and new experience to its viewers, while demonstrating a core principle that plays through its original series: High-end scripted content derives from high-quality scripts and creative freedom.

Arde Madrid” (Madrid on Fire) takes the audience back to a 1961 Spanish capital and the often mundane but sometime vibrant adventures of Ana Mari, a governess dispatched by Franco’s neo-fascist regime to become a spy, working as a servant in the house of one of the most incredible female figures of her time: Ava Gardner.

Channeling Spain’s grand movie comic tradition – think Rafael Azcona and Luis Berlanga – this black and white comedy manages to mix suspense and romance while profiling real life figures such as Gardner, Argentina’s General Perón and Charlton Heston, endowing them with large humanity. While playing the male lead, Spanish actor-director Paco León also directs, with up-and-coming co-screenwriter Anna Rodriguez.

It’s a sincere story that observes Spanish identity with large humor. Though the often intimate narrative has a male director, and female co-director, its focus is on women. As never before Spanish and international audiences will be able to discover Madrid’s Dolce Vita via its feminine universe, filtered through a thoroughly modern feminist filter, at a time of repression and yet splendor, swilled with flamenco, gypsy clans, sex and whisky.

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Variety interviewed Paco León and Ana Rodriguez as they prepared for the Movistar + series’ world premiere at San Sebastian.

The series feels contemporary, but channels Spanish filmmakers such as Berlanga, Azcona and Fernán-Gomez, yet filtered through a thoroughly modern gaze, opening the door to a revisionism not always present in the original comedies.

Rodriguez: Yes, I believe their films are embedded in us more than we think. It was a moment in Spain, during the dictatorship, when Spain was basically an illiterate country, in contrast to foreigners such as Ava Gardner, and all the stars that were here in Madrid. There is something in our DNA, our humor is the humor of catetos – hicks. The clash between those two cultures was always in Berlanga’s cinema.

León: I think there’s something very Spanish about laughing at yourself, to define yourself,  saying a little about the country, and laugh at oneself. Ava Gardner said that she liked Spaniards’ capacity of laughing at themselves. There’s also the picaresque, that mix of social strata present in Berlanga’s work. There are many things that we like about the cinema of the time, the impact of Italian neorealism and the [films’] aesthetics.

The series is led by strong female characters and deals with their femininity under Franco’s regime. As a male director, what was your approach to this very much feminine narrative?

Rodriguez: Manolo (Paco León) has an emotional arc while Ana Mari has an active one. Given the series’ plot, it seems completely natural. In that sense, we tried to go to the human, always avoiding a militant discourse. For me, this was very important, that the feminist discourse derives naturally from the character’s arc. It has to be consistent with the character, that what Ana Mari does is a logical evolution of her emotions and what she experiences. What happens to Manolo, no matter how drastic it is, must also be logical from a character perspective.

León: To me it is a search for intimacy and sexuality, not only from the erotic point of view, but from the physiological. It was the search for small details of intimacy and a search for the truth of those details. Ava, for example, was the freest woman in the world. She didn’t wear a bra and that says a lot of the character. We shot, and actress Debi Mazar was very generous, keeping all those things that you want to see, but you don’t get to. You can see her impudence, her freedom and her sensuality.

This is a period piece. Can you talk a bit about how you researched it?

Rodriguez: The research work turned most specifically on Ava Gardner, what she was like, how her life functioned. She was a person who almost always lived alone, so those who worked for her were a great support. So we used biographies of Ava Gardner, her films, Hollywood films in Madrid, Madrid’s society, music, everything about the time.

León: We wanted to avoid a biopic on a public figure, to default to the anecdote, to find her point of view. We also went for a premise that was difficult to comply with, but one which I think gives character to the series: Viewers don’t see or hear anything that the servants don’t see or hear. It was very complicated. And the same happens for Ava.

Rodriguez: And we looked for intimacy, an intimacy between her and her servants. During the whole documentation process we put a lot of effort into the intimate parts of her life, the relationship she had with her servants, how important her home was to her – a refuge where she took people she liked and expressed herself as she wanted. She spent whole days naked in her house when she wanted and needed intimacy.

In each Movistar + original series it’s immediately obvious that there is a creator with a personal vision and a creative freedom. How was the development process with Movistar +?

León: As you say, there is a great freedom. They also have a very demanding development team, but very respectful with our proposal, what you wanted to do, to take it further and do more.

Rodriguez: At the beginning, it took them time to really see the series being shot in black and white. It was hard for them to come to a decision. We presented  a lot of arguments. Finally, it was Domingo Corral, who said: ‘O.K., you’re in charge.’ We really appreciated that sign of confidence.

Which leads to the series’ aesthetic which stands out as contemporary, but also meticulously crafted…

León: Some aesthetics were always clear to me: The credits and the format. I have done a lot of TV and have a lot of respect for TV. So we did “Arde Madrid” with some TV hallmarks, like opening credits. Most series nowadays do not have opening credits because that’s thought to be too TV.

“Arde Madrid” explores Spanish identity. How do you think intentional audiences will respond to it? 

Rodriguez: People around the world are already very accustomed to international content. We see Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Australian series. There is a common language throughout the world.

León: Apart from that, I think it is noticeable whether something is authentic or not. There are universal things that you speak of when you speak about your own people. It may seem exotic, but there is something that everyone can understand. They may never have gone to a Spanish party, or even know what flamenco is, but there is something that is real when you see something that has a truth to it. That is anthropologically interesting, something which surprises us, which we may not understand or share but still find authentic.

Jamie Lang and John Hopewell contributed to this article

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