Spain’s Mario Camus, Director of ‘La Colmena,’ ‘Holy Innocents,’ Dies at 86

Mario Camus, Goya
Courtesy of: Academy of Cinematographic Arts and Sciences of Spain

This year’s San Sebastian Film Festival is in mourning as Spanish director Mario Camus, celebrated for his sober but caring adaptations of distinguished Spanish novels such as “La Colmena” – written by Nobel prize winner Camilo José Cela – Ignacio Aldecoa’s “Young Sánchez” and “The Holy Innocents” by Miguel Delibes, died on Saturday in Santander, northern Spain, the city where he was born. Camus was 86.

Among his career achievements, Camus took the Berlin Golden Bear for best film with “La Colmena” (1983), a Cannes Prize Ecumenical Jury prize for “The Holy Innocents” (1984). Such films proved a highpoint in Spain’s ruling socialist left’s dream, pushed when Pilar Miró took over as head of Spain’s ICAA film institute in 1982, of maintaining Spanish cinema’s social edge but priming its production levels and taking it onto a European stage.

Camus also participated in Cannes’ Directors Fortnight and at the Moscow Festival for “Shadows in a Conflict” (1993). The director was also honored with the Spanish Academy Goya lifetime achievement award in 2011.

He belonged to the so-called New Spanish Cinema generation which includes directors Carlos Saura ­– Camus collaborated with the Spanish master on his gritty 1959 feature debut “Los golfos” and second outing, 1963’s Buñuel-influenced Western “Weeping for a Bandit” – Basilio Martín Patino, José Luis Borau, Francisco Regueiro, Julio Diamante and Miguel Picazo.

Camus’ career spanned more than forty years, from his feature debut “Los farsantes” in 1963 to his swan song “El prado de las estrellas” in 2007.

In addition to his adept ability to elegantly adapt the works of Spanish-language masters such as 17th century writer Calderon de la Barca with 1973’s “La leyenda del alcalde de Zalamea”; poet-playwright Federico García Lorca in “The House of Bernarda Alba” (1983); and Eduardo Mendoza with “La ciudad de los prodigios” (1999), his skill shone in several other genres including popular musicals featuring Spanish stars Sara Montiel, Raphael and Marisol among others, thrillers like “Shadows in a Conflict” and even dramatic comedy as was the case with with “Self Esteem.” His work was always executed with trustworthy craftsmanship.

Also noteworthy are two films with a charismatic Antonio Gades, 1966’s lyrical “Con el viento solano,” a Cannes Palme d’Or contender, where he plays a gitano on the run from the Spanish law, and the 1945-set “The Days of the Past,” where he’s a maqui who will not lay down his arms.

In total, the filmmaker shot 30 features and was behind the camera for some of the most enduring Spanish TV series ­–”Fortunata and Jacinta” (1980), the acclaimed “Curro Jiménez” (1977) and one of the most ambitious series ever madee in Spain, “La forja de un rebelde” (1990), to name a few.

A few days after Camus missed out on the Palme d’Or at Cannes 1984 with “The Holy Innocents,” the director was in a restaurant when actor Dirk Bogarde came in. Bogarde had just served as the jury’s president, and, with the help of a server, sent a note written on a napkin to Camus which read: “milana bonita” (beautiful kite, the bird), an expression that the great Spanish actor Francisco Rabal repeated throughout Camus’ feature, recognizing that Bogarde was a fan, and perhaps indicating he would have liked Camus to have won.

Like so much Spanish cinema, the director didn’t receive the recognition in life he deserved save, in one exception, a splendid full retrospective at 1984’s Valladolid Film Festival.

Camus used to humbly say that great Spanish cinema was always written with a “B” – referring to the three greats of Luis Buñuel, Luis García Berlanga and José Antonio Bardem.­ Now, one of the longest and most brilliant careers in Spanish cinema ends with a “C.”

John Hopewell contributed to this article.