50 Spanish Films
By: Brian Davisson
This is a chronological list of some of my favorite Spanish films. This tends toward films that have a strong political content, are experimental in nature, or that concern Spanish identity in spatial and geographic terms, along with some very good popular films. It’s heavily focused on the 60s and 70s, which are the most interesting decades of Spanish cinema for me, with the output of the Barcelona School, and the emergence of directors like Manuel Gutiérrez Aragón, Víctor Erice, and Basilio Martín Patino. I’m hoping to see more films from the 30s and 40s, so things might skew earlier as time goes by.
I limited this to two films per director to keep the list as diverse as possible. Some of the films left out for this reason include: El sur and La morte rouge (Erice), Umbracle (Portabella), Cría cuervos (Saura), and En la ciudad de Silvia (Guerín).
The descriptions for El verdugo, Los motivos de Berta, and Aita are hopefully coming soon; I just need to rewatch those films.
Films that need to be given pages on the site:
Vida en sombras (submitted)
La tía Tula (submitted)
El corazón del bosque (submitted)
Click the pictures to jump to the film’s page.
El sexto sentido, largely unknown, is a gem, beautifully shot and providing a clear example of how well-developed cinema was by the late 1920s. The primary plot is simple enough, as Carmen, a stage dancer, is given a ring by her fiancé Carlos, but she is forced to sell it to support her alcoholic (and bullfighting-obsessed) father, though he almost immediately regrets making her do so upon seeing how she is treated at work. But it’s when Carlos sends his friend León to see the filmmaker Kamus that the film shifts into essentially postmodern territory, as Kamus claims that cinema can reveal the sixth sense of Truth, though his camera, and what it captures, presents a questionable reality. Nemesio Soldevila was a contemporary of Buñuel, though here he and Fernández Ardavín create something wholly unique in the same year that Un Chien andalou was first screened. As an interesting aside, the filmmaker Kamus is played by Ricardo Baroja, brother of Pío, in one of the four films in which he acted.
La aldea maldita was made in 1930, the year after talkies first appeared in Spain. Nevertheless, it is probably the most famous Spanish silent film, and makes up for its lack of sound with very impressive visuals, of towns and cities, of the countryside, and of its characters. It begins with the uprooting of nearly an entire town from the area around Segovia, due to a storm that ruins the town’s crops. It then presents a variation on this idea in microcosm, with a family reunited within one home, yet broken apart. Overall, the film depicts the difficulties of reconciling ideals of honor with the realities of rural life, and avoids patronizing the audience by focusing more strongly on secular ideas of human relationships than religious ones.
Las Hurdes, in northern Extremadura, was fascinating to many ethnographers and filmmakers in the early 20th century, largely for its perceived backwardness and lack of development. Buñuel’s film presents a visit to the region as something between travelogue and ethnographic study, coupled with a strong concern for social and economic development. It is not difficult to see the film casting a wider lens over all of Spain in the process. The shots of the goat and of the donkey (with bees) are probably the most-discussed, but perhaps more significant is the lesson in the schoolhouse, where the students learn the virtues of private property, in a place where, the film emphasizes, there is none to be had. Though filmed three years prior to the outbreak of the Civil War, the film was prohibited by the Republic, and was finally shown in Paris in 1936.
This is a zany, fast-talking comedy with strongly gothic elements, perhaps something like the Spanish Arsenic and Old Lace. Fernando returns home after completing his studies in Belgium to find that his father has killed himself due to his love for a woman. He sets out to understand the mystery surrounding the woman, and his own bizarre family inevitably comes into contact with the even more bizarre family of a beautiful young woman named Mariana who bears a strange resemblance to his father’s lover. Rafael Gil is underrepresented in critical studies of Spanish cinema, though he and his films are deservedly well-known in Spain.
As with Eloisa está debajo de un almendro, filmed the year before and with the same leads, Amparo Rivelles and Rafael Durán, El clavo was a big success in its time that is still critically and popularly respected. It is based on a short story by Pedro Antonio de Alarcón, who was influenced by Edgar Allan Poe, and carries a dark undertone beneath its at times light façade. Here a judge falls in love with a woman on a night of Carnival, and the two begin a romance that culminates in the decision to marry as he is about to begin a judgeship far from the capital. But he loses track of her until five years later, when he finds a skull with a nail driven through it, and begins an investigation that will bring them back together in dark circumstances. Gil’s films are wonderful at pacing and always present a tremendous mise-en-scène, here invoking the Spain of the 19th century.
Edgar Neville’s most famous film, La torre de los siete jorobados is emblematic of much of the production of the 1940s, when the most popular forms were musical comedies and gothic mysteries that presented little reflection of the post-war period. The film takes place in the 19th century, and its main character is perhaps its wonderful expressionist set, that recalls the German expressionist sets from two decades earlier. The (human) protagonist Basilio encounters the one-eyed ghost of an archaeologist who asks him to seek out his killer, and to protect his orphaned daughter as well. Inevitably, she is beautiful and the two will fall in love. Neville was one of Spain’s most successful directors of the 1940s and 50s, and is well-worth greater appraisal.
L’Espoir was Malraux’s only film, depicting the fight between Spanish Republican forces in Teruel and forces loyal to Franco during the Civil War. It was written by Max Aub, one of Spain’s greatest writers, who went essentially unrecognized in Spain until the last few decades, and it was filmed in Spain toward the end of the war. The conflict here focuses largely on the attempts made by the Republicans to resist the better-armed and -trained Francoist forces through any means possible. The film is rather straightforward, but is very worthwhile for its depiction of the human element in play during the Civil War, as well as for the participation of both Malraux and Aub.
Vida en sombras [Life in Shadows] (1948), dir. Lorenzo Llobet-Gràcia. (submitted but not yet in database)
Llobet-Gràcia’s most famous film was not a success initially, and went largely unknown until it was resuscitated in 1983. It is still in need of restoration, though the original stock apparently no longer exists. It stars Fernando Fernán Gómez as a man fascinated with cinema from his early childhood, and who becomes a reporter and cameraman in the 1920s and 30s, until political events lead him to question his love for the medium. The film is fascinating for its use of cuts, dissolves, and play of shadows, as well as for its depiction of the Civil War less than ten years after the end of the conflict. It is also remarkable for its love of the cinema and what it is capable of, and it is a pity the film is not more readily available, as it would almost certainly command a wider audience through its metafilmic presentation.
La corona negra is among the more cosmopolitan films produced in Spain during the 1950s. It was filmed by an Argentine director, with Mexican and Italian leads, using a script written by Frenchman Jean Cocteau, and filmed in a Spain standing in for Morocco. The story itself is a nice little genre flick that’s got it all: murder, amnesia, hidden jewels, a fortune teller, a love affair, and an exotic location. However, the pervading threat of death, symbolized by the “black crown” of vultures circling overhead, couples with surrealist imagery as Mara, played by María Félix, attempts to recall her dark past, with the help of Andrés (Rossano Brazzi), while being pursued by her former lover Maurizio (Vittorio Gassman) and former servant (Piéral). Anyone who enjoys genre films and the works of Cocteau should give this one a shot.
Luis García Berlanga’s first solo effort (he had co-directed 1951’s Esa pareja feliz the year before) is an essential film in evaluating Spanish cinema in the 1950s. It is a musical comedy that hardly qualifies as such, an Andalusian fantasy that never rises above farce, and a film that exposes the mutual ignorance of Spain and the United States toward one another specifically through their lack of contact. The film centers around a tiny Spanish village in northern Spain, so unknown (though in fact real) that officials from the national government cannot remember its correct name. The town is informed that representatives from the United States will pass through looking to distribute aid through the Marshall Plan. The manager of the town’s visiting Andalusian singer (who herself has no desire to remain in the town) devises a plan to dress the town up as an Andalusian village, since that must be what the Americans have in mind when they think of Spain (never mind the visions of the American West held by the mayor, played by the ever-fantastic José Isbert). Subtly subversive, yet filled with brilliant camerawork and complete awareness of its form.
Muerte de un ciclista presents one of the greatest opening sequences in Spanish cinema. Ominous music cues a bicyclist pedaling alone down a rainy road, the music turns lighthearted as he disappears over the horizon, then ominous again as a car swerves into view. Within the first three minutes, Bardem has established the social structure of Spain in the 50s, and then observes as the decadence of the middle class crumbles. The film would seem like an Antonioni knock-off, were it not made five years before L’Avventura, and features the once-exiled Catalán actor Alberto Closas in one of his earliest films following his return to Spain as a guilt-ridden professor, and Italian actress Lucia Bosè, who also acted for Buñuel, Portabella, and Antonioni, as his externally beautiful but internally cold lover, in two remarkable performances.
This might be my favorite Spanish film, yet Val del Omar’s name doesn’t appear in any of the books listed below. The Tríptico elemental is, as the name implies, three separate films that connect through their use of three of the classical elements linked to three different regions of Spain (earth=Galicia, water=Granada, fire=Castilla), with a fourth film linking air and Madrid never completed. It is experimental in nature, visually but also sonically, through Val del Omar’s development and use of diaphonic sound, designed to present sound both in front of and behind the spectator, to present a “frontal, physical, acoustic effect of the action… and the counterpoint that excites the spirit and presence of the listener” (Val del Omar). This is highly recommended for anyone interested in experimental cinema.
Calle mayor seems to be more famous, and was largely what helped make Badem’s name, but La venganza is a lot more enjoyable for me. This is a fairly overt metaphor of the political and social turmoil that persisted in the years following the Civil War, with a simmering feud between two men from the same town that in turn expands to cover the entire nation. Juan has been released from imprisonment for a crime he didn’t commit, and plans to get revenge against El torcido with the help of his sister Andrea by joining his enemy as they seek work as migrants. Its message often lacks nuance, such as in the scene with the traveling writer (I like to think of him as a much kinder Cela, traveling through the Alcarria), but the visuals are wonderful, and helped to build the reputation of Spanish cinema abroad. Despite its message of reconciliation and the forgiving of old wounds, the film struggled with censorship, in part due to Bardem’s affiliation with the Spanish Communist Party (PCE).
After 15 years in Mexico, Luis Buñuel returned to Spain to make Viridiana, one of the few films he said he made with complete freedom (despite having to change the ending), and only one of three (along with Las Hurdes and Tristana) that were filmed in his home country. The film continues many of Buñuel’s fetishes, such as his fascination with feet and legs–consider all of the cuts to feet to set up scenes, or the camera’s gaze on Viridiana’s legs as she removes her stockings or collects ashes from the fireplace. And at their core, fetishes provide motivation for the two key bourgeois characters, Viridiana and her uncle, the latter obsessed with his dead wife’s clothing, and in turn with dressing Viridiana up in that clothing until guilt gets the better of him, and the former with the Church, playing out its rites and icons until reality gets the better of her. Buñuel is careful throughout, though, to diminish the link between fetish and sex, sexualizing Viridiana and in turn bringing out her uncle’s impotence, and providing her with sexual agency only after stripping away her fetishization of religion. In this regard the film is more subversive for what it leaves implied, though it was still enough for it to be banned in Spain until the late 70s.
It’s a bit tricky to work out what exactly to do with Julio Diamante’s first feature film. It shows the silly partisanship of Francophiles and Germanophiles that during World War I divides a small Spanish town whose name, Ibérima, clearly intends for it to stand in for the entire country (and with exteriors filmed largely in Alcalá de Henares, in the heart of Spain). It was based on a novel by Wenceslao Fernández Flórez, a supporter of Franco, though the novel came out in 1930, six years prior to the Civil War. So Diamante gives us a film that presents a clear allegory of the conflicts present in Spain following the Civil War, though grounded in a group of men who didn’t fight in the central conflict, delivered through a reading of a text dealing with another conflict entirely, from a writer who largely supported the dictatorship, wrapped in a farce in the best tradition of Luis García Berlanga. The censors didn’t know what to do with it either, and ultimately banned it for three years. Diamante went on to have other successes, such as with El arte de vivir, but his debut is a charmingly funny film, deserving of greater attention.
The most famous film directed by Fernando Fernán Gómez (who played the father in Spirit of the Beehive), this is a wonderfully funny and demented work that shows the influence of Buñuel and would seem to have in turn influenced Almodóvar. Musician Fernando falls in love with shop girl Beatriz, while the mysterious and domineering Ignacia Vidal lives with her two siblings, whose repression has left them closer to children than 50-something adults, all in a provincial town that everyone seems desperate to leave. Perhaps its greatest charms lie in the unexpected ways in which its surreal elements appear, and in its ability to temper comedy with the grotesque.
La tía Tula [Aunt Tula] (1964), dir. Miguel Picazo. (submitted but not yet in database)
This is probably my favorite film adaptation from a piece of Spanish literature. La tía Tula is based on a novel by philosopher and writer Miguel de Unamuno, and portrays the protagonist’s attempts to balance her family with her personal desires and religious obligations. After the death of her sister, Tula moves in with her brother-in-law Ramiro to help care for his two children, but she and Ramiro clash over his advances toward her, as well as the devotion she feels toward her niece and nephew. In contrast with other filmic adaptations of classic Spanish literature, this feels like a film throughout, and could stand independent of its source, despite being less popular than many other literary adaptations.
Nueve cartas a Berta was Martín Patino’s first feature film, and was a great success in the “paradoxical opening” of Spanish cinema during the mid-1960s, when the rules for censorship were first made publicly known, though they often remained vague. This period represented a more direct confrontation with many aspects of Franco’s Spain, and includes films by directors such as Saura and Picazo, as well as Martín Patino. In Nueve cartas, the protagonist Lorenzo narrates the letters he writes to Berta, a girl he has met in London who is the daughter of Spanish exiles, but has never stepped foot in Spain. The letters, written upon Lorenzo’s return to Salamanca, describe his traditional family, the realities of life in Spain during the 1960s, and the sense of liberation he finds in escaping rural life. The film is interesting as well in formal terms, both through its use of sound and its choices in editing and montage, including intriguing shots of medieval artwork that appear during the chapter breaks that introduce the letters.
La caza is a rather disturbing film, fully within the realm of “blood cinema” proposed by Marsha Kinder. It works as a parable of the violence and the conflicts that simmered in Spain in the decades following the Civil War, and the ways in which that violence in turn affected the younger generations that had not experienced the war first-hand. Four men travel to a desolate part of the countryside near Madrid to hunt rabbits, and find themselves dealing with interpersonal disagreements and their shared pasts, inevitably leading to violence. This was Saura’s third feature-length film, and remains a difficult watch over four decades later.
Ama lur is a documentary marvel, that focuses on the culture and people of the Basque Country, extolling regional identity during the Franco years. It was produced through donations from private citizens in the Basque region, and while it did suffer some cuts and changes due to censorship, it is remarkable to consider what was included: the first film soundtrack partially in Euskara to be legally allowed in Spain, as well as a brief segment that shows the Ikurriña, the Basque flag, on screen. The filmmakers show diverse facets of Basque culture, including language, sport, song, festivals, art, and history, as well as the land and sea on and around which the Basque people live. It is a very engaging film, and one of the best documentaries to be produced in Spain at any point in the country’s history.
Nocturno 29 was made when the Barcelona School was already past its first decade, and only had three years left in it, yet it feels in many ways like a break from everything that came before. It’s so stripped down in terms of traditional narrative that it begs an allegorical reading: the monochromatic film stock (the vitality drained from the couple’s relationship, but also from Spanish society), the couple on the beach in the opening sequence (removing the thorn as the struggle with censorship was easing), or the breakdown of the couple’s marriage throughout (the need for a break with the past, and especially of the old Catholic and nationalist morality). Portabella has made no effort to hide the allegorical significance of the film, even indicating its opposition to Franco in the title (29 years of night under dictatorship), but it is notable for its depiction of a society in stagnation, yet at the same time facing immanent change, as though a coil had been compressed and was struggling against springing.
Sexperiencias (1968), dir. José María Nunes. (submitted but not yet in database)
Part of the Barcelona School, Sexperiencias is among the most explicitly political films from the movement, reflecting the events of 1968 in Europe and throughout the world. The film traces the activities of María and her relationship with an older man named Carlos after her lover Antonio is imprisoned. It uses constant voiceover from the lovers, with some interesting shifts between diegetic and non-diegetic sound, and frequent use of natural and ambient sound as well as music, even including Catalán songs. This is a great film for anyone interested in a Spanish perspective on the politics of the 1960s, with a clear influence from the French New Wave.
Los desafíos presents three separate stories that are linked by an American presence in Spain in the 1960s, with Dean Selmer playing the role of the American male in all three. It is probably of most interest initially for including the last short film directed by Víctor Erice prior to his El espíritu de la colmena four years later, but all three stories are worthwhile. It is critical of both Spanish and American cultures and characters, focusing “on violence as political commentary, reflexively comparing the Spanish mode of representation with its American counterpart and positioning both within cultural variations on the Oedipal narrative” (Marsha Kinder, Blood Cinema, p. 172).
Gonzalo Suárez stars in his first feature film as his alter-ego, the sleuth Ditirambo. The screenplay is Suárez’s, but Ditirambo seems modeled on a Borges detective, who doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke, doesn’t smile, doesn’t lie, doesn’t carry a gun, and loves candy. He states near the film’s opening, “My name is Ditirambo, and I have the feeling that the whole world was created for me,” and it’s no small wonder. He is hired by a widow to investigate the death of her husband and his connection to a young woman, and along the way he meets characters as strange as he is, who freely give him a suitcase of money, a gun, no end of helpful advice, new investigations and missions to take on, take photos with him on the streets of Barcelona, and get into bizarre boxing matches with him in hotel rooms. Julio Cortázar described Suárez as having an “ironic intelligence and deliberate marginality” and in this film it shines through.
Aoom is the strangest film from the Barcelona School that I’ve seen, and probably the most beautiful of the color films produced by the movement (I’d call Nocturno 29 the most beautiful of the black and white films). It was filmed on the coast of Cantabria and in the Picos de Europa, and is filled with wonderful greens and blues throughout. The story concerns an actor who is unhappy with life and decides to separate from his body and integrate his mind into a doll. When his body dies, a group of characters search the countryside to find the doll. It is filled with bizarre elements, including the voice of the actor Gristol speaking both in voiceover and through the doll (and later through a rock), and as a whole it makes for a lush and vivid travel-adventure-drama-comedy.
Portabella chose a provocative and fitting source for his second feature-length film. Here he shows Christopher Lee, Soledad Miranda, Herbert Lom, and Jack Taylor enacting the story of Dracula, but in fact filming the filming of Jesús Franco’s own Count Dracula, which wasn’t released until three years after Portabella’s film. In effect, Cuadecuc plays parasite to Franco’s film, feeding off of the life in it, and representing its own shell in a grainy (exceptionally grainy 16mm) black and white, with no diegetic sound until the very end, when Christopher Lee reads from Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The film’s subversion comes from its portrayal of the monster, who’s façade is stripped away to reveal a man playing a monster, all-too-aware of his role. Yet Portabella retains the creature’s evil nature in the title, “Cuadecuc” (worm’s tail in Catalán), insisting that the title figure (and the one he is intended to represent) is both man and monster, a fully conscious, and thus more frightening, source of evil.
Canciones is an amazing found-footage work that blends images from the Civil War and the early Franco years with both military and popular songs from the era. It was completed four years prior to Franco’s death, in a period when censorship had eased considerably, but was not allowed to be shown until the year after Franco had died. “The enjoyment of popular culture functioned as a survival strategy against wartime and dictatorial repression” and the film uses this to “reclaim the testimony of the popular memory to the detriment of the officially endorsed memory of the postwar years” (Tatjana Pavlovic, 100 Years of Spanish Cinema, p. 55).
Esteva’s documentary is often described as a follow-up to Buñuel’s Las Hurdes, and depicts elements of Spanish life with a strong focus on festivals and traditions from throughout the country. Also in similarity to Buñuel’s film is the consistent theme of animal cruelty, though here it is drawn with a considerably more critical and disapproving lens, with a narrator who grows increasingly ironic during the cruelest scenes. The film’s original title was “Este país de todos los diablos” (“This Country of All the Devils”), showing its intent more clearly, and in a move reminiscent of Buñuel, many of the film’s sequences, such as the “burros flojos,” were reconstructions or manipulations of the festivals in question. According to Esteva, “We manipulated so that the image would look better…. It was reconstructing an event in the closest way possible.” He would state in 1965: “We believe its sequences do not present a negative vision of Spain, but instead the possibility of forming a constructive critical judgment about a reality of Spain that needs to be considered” (from Riambau and Torreiro, La Escuela de Barcelona, p. 130).
In line with much of Saura’s output, Ana y los lobos is alternatively funny, bizarre, and disturbing. It stars Geraldine Chaplin as a governess who arrives at a country house near Madrid, inhabited by three brothers (one sexually repressed, one who fetishizes the military, and one a mystic), and their aging mother (played by the wonderful Rafaela Aparicio). The allegory of Franco’s Spain is clear, as the three poles of society represented by the brothers struggle with one another, but emerge in unity as they prey upon the foreign governess. What stands out in particular are the performances of Chaplin, Aparicio, Fernán Gómez, and the rest of the cast. Saura’s output from the 70s is among the strongest of any director, and it would be worth also exploring Cría cuervos, La prima Angélica, Elisa, vida mía, or the intriguing follow-up to this film, Mamá cumple cien años.
The Spirit of the Beehive provides a clear sense that the thirty-four years of franquismo prior to its release did nothing to heal the wounds of the Civil War. It is remarkable in part for its marking of Spain’s wartime and postwar generations in spatial terms. Ana and her sister Isabel wander in and out of their house and school building and into the Castillan countryside, too young to have faced the horrors of the war or to understand loss. Their parents however remain virtually trapped within the home, finding escape into the outside world through palliative diversions, such as their father (a wonderful Fernando Fernán Gómez)’s bees, or the letters their mother sends off by the train. Yet while the daughters are too young to have seen the war first-hand, they are trapped in the trauma of the event, learning to survive in the difficult world into which they have been thrust, much like the monster of Frankenstein that appears to pursue them.
This one is a bit of a cheat, since it’s not a Spanish production but rather a French-Italian film. It does, however, provide a depiction of the Civil War, and Arrabal is a Spanish-born playwright and filmmaker living in “half exile” (his words) in France. The name refers to the Guernikaka arbola, an oak tree that represents Basque freedom and independence, and which was protected by Carlist forces during the war. Here we see the political maneuverings of the local nobility, the futility of pacifism and political disengagement, and a metaphor of the military’s lust after a local woman standing in for the larger goal of possessing the town. Arrabal is a proponent of “cine pánico,” and his films form part of the surrealist legacy of Buñuel that should likewise appeal to fans of Jodorowsky.
Bigas Luna’s first film, and also his most disturbing, Bilbao was a major film in Spain’s destape. In the late 70s following the death of Franco, censorship eased allowing films with violent and sexual content to circulate more freely, though nevertheless there were strong criticisms leveled against this film. It is narrated by Leo, a psychopath obsessed with a prostitute named Bilbao, and both of the Almodóvar films listed below could be said to reflect it in part. It is a redrawing of the Oedipal conflict (see Marsha Kinder’s analysis), but also reads as a fascinating geographic struggle over culture, as Leo lusts after a separate site of cultural resistance opposed to Castillan dominance.
El corazón del bosque [The Heart of the Forest] (1979), dir. Manuel Gutiérrez Aragón. (submitted but not yet in database)
This is a fascinating film in terms of its visual structure, that shifts from dark to light, in shots that waver between the woods and open spaces. It details the struggles of the maquis who resisted the Guardia Civil in Cantabria and Asturias following the Civil War, through the protagonist’s search for the group’s former leader. Gutiérrez Aragón presents sounds and visions that are often shrouded in mystery, reflecting the uncertainty of El Andarín, the object of Juan’s search, about whom everyone can provide details, but who scarcely appears on camera. “Made by an always questioning member of the Spanish Communist Party, El corazón del bosque drives far deeper. Its concern is not so much what has–or should–happen, as how people come to believe in what has happened or should happen, the creation of personal, popular, and political myths, and the need, however fictitious they may be, for their existence” (John Hopewell, “El corazón del bosque: Mist, Myth, and History,” in Evans, Spanish Cinema, p. 165).
El crimen de Cuenca is on this list more for its political significance than its filmic qualities. It was Miró’s second film, and apparently was the only film to be banned after the repeal of censorship in 1977, though it likewise cemented Miró’s status as a very important cultural figure. Based on a real occurrence from 1910, the film depicts in considerable detail the torture of two men accused of the killing of another man, though the body of the “murdered” man cannot be found. “The film provoked significant social and political controversy around the cruelty depicted in the torture scenes, which were interpreted as a critique of the Civil Guard, the extremely influential and powerful military institution that policed the public during the Franco regime. The film’s title… is understood to reference the crime that the Civil Guards and the judge… committed, not the one that the shepherds were accused of” (Tatjana Pavlovic, One Hundred Years of Spanish Cinema, p. 146-47).
This film is an adaptation of Wenceslao Fernández Flórez’s novel of the same name, and much like the novel, it was a popular success that has also attracted considerable critical attention. The film concerns a diverse collection of characters who live in and around the same Galician forest, all drawn together through seemingly mystic forces, as a larger reflection of Galician society, with their loves, conflicts, desires, and tragedies. Here Cuerda reduces many of the otherworldly aspects of his source material, in particular the living aspect of nature, both its flora and fauna, focusing instead on the human inhabitants. As a result, the film is more limiting in its attempt to construct the entirety of Galician identity, though it maintains much of the charm and enchantment of Fernández Flórez’s novel, and features wonderful performances from its cast, and by Alfredo Landa in particular.
In retrospect, ¡Átame! looks like an inversion of Hable con ella. The themes of both are similar, with a clear focus on the control of a male caretaker over a woman (with the transgression of the man in the woman’s space), and Almodóvar’s frequent questioning of gender, his affection for garish colors, and the framing of films within films. Yet while in the later film, the captor remakes the unconscious captive, here Ricky (played by Antonio Banderas) must be remade so that Marina (Victoria Abril) will fall for him (even if occurs largely out of his control). It doesn’t contain as much depth in it’s treatment of gender, but I find it the most fun of Almodóvar’s earlier works (though it’s so over the top at times that it can certainly turn viewers away as well).
Vacas was Médem’s first feature-length film, and presents his clear concerns for the land, mysticism, and regenerative human interactions, though in this case presented in a much more historically rooted context. The film stretches from the Third Carlist War of the 1870s until the opening shots of the Civil War in the Basque Country in the 1930s, and depicts the struggles that emerge between two families sharing a valley in Guipuzcoa. “Just as important as the three generations of humans who succeed each other are the two caseríos, the valley, and the forest that they all inhabit…. If environment has often been figured as the generator and preserver of identity in much of the cinema produced in the Basque Country, in this film it acquires a function only paralleled by that of the three generations of cows which witness human actions” (Isabel Santaolalla, “Julio Médem’s Vacas (1991): Historicizing the Forest,” in Evans, Spanish Cinema, p. 315).
Tren de sombras skirts the border between fictional film and documentary that Guerín is masterful at exploiting, here turning the viewer to take the verisimilitudinous as factual. Shot loosely in three parts, the film reconstructs the disappearance of Parisian lawyer and amateur filmmaker Gérard Fleury (who is himself a fabrication of Guerín’s) around the lake near Le Thuit, purportedly providing Fleury’s own film of his family’s activities around the lake while on vacation, then the manipulation of his film by Guerín, who scratches, cuts, and distorts the film to give the appearance of aged film stock, and finally the reenactment of Fleury’s last days, now in color and providing a subplot of marital infidelity. Tren de sombras is my favorite of Guerín’s films, but his 1988 film Innisfree turns in many of the same directions as the later work, and is a must-see for fans of John Ford’s The Quiet Man.
Alumbramiento is Erice’s contribution to the omnibus project Ten Minutes Older, and it follows this theme well in its contemplation on time. It is sonically fed by the mentronomic ticking of a clock that marks the daily life in a small village, but also a creeping threat to a sleeping infant. Its mise-en-scène is complemented by the political context of the immediate postwar period, situated in 1940, incidentally the year of Erice’s birth. Fans of Erice’s earlier and better-known El espíritu de la colmena or El sur will notice commonality through the focus on rural and village life and emotion taking precedent over explicit meaning, but Alumbramiento provides a stronger counterpart to Erice’s La morte rouge, from 2006, likewise a short shot in black and white, that turns strongly to the autobiographical.
Álvarez’s documentary is an amazing and visually rewarding exploration of the dynamic nature of history, memory, and space, envisioned through the town of her birth, Aldealseñor, in Soria. The town’s population stood at 14 at the time of filming, with no indication that it might grow in the future. We see, intermixed with the conversations of the remaining townspeople, the scant attention paid by the major political parties (who arrive with speakers blaring their ideological platforms, only to put up posters and leave), the monument erected outside of town noting the prehistoric presence of dinosaurs in the area, and the meeting of two Moroccans, one a distance runner and the other a shepherd, who discuss the ancient legacy of Al-Andalus throughout the Peninsula. Most significant for the filmmaker, though, is the tree that stands visible in the distance from the window of her old bedroom, which stood long before she was born, and will stand long after the town has passed from notice.
In an immediate sense, Hable con ella is among the more mainstream films of Almodóvar, as it turns to a more straightforward melodrama. Behind this lies a rather complex distillation of Almodóvar’s questioning of gender and social expectations, and their resulting moral conflicts. The film presents a pastiche of a fairy tale, with two separate sleeping beauties watched over by ogres and protected by knights in shining armor, yet these traditional roles are undercut by constant shifts of gender and the subversion of the camera’s gaze. In this respect, the audience is made complicit in the possession of the comatose beauty, and subversively drawn to Benigno, her protector, caretaker, and sexual assaulter. The silent film sequence, starring Paz Vega, is particularly inspired, and perhaps more consistent with Almodóvar’s earlier output.
This is Albert Serra’s second feature (after Crespià, the Film not the Village), giving a reworking of Cervantes’s Don Quixote. Here the heroic adventures are replaced by contemplative meditations on themes of valor, religion, brotherhood and friendship, and perhaps in one of the strongest shifts from the classic text, faith. By taking such a canonical work as its source, the film works concertedly against expectations, minimizing the novel to incidents that escape attention but explode the central link between the knight and his squire. The meandering pace demands the patience of the viewer to comprehend both the exasperation of Sancho and the escapism that the two protagonists seek within the stark Castillan landscape.
Villamediana’s short film is a marvelous evocation of bullfighting, specifically through its remove from the bull ring. It is without dialogue except for the voice of the protagonist reading books in Catalán on the art of bullfighting. Intercut with these scenes are shots of him practicing on “bulls” made of hay bales, removed from the violence, the crowds, and in a perhaps subversive way, from the cultural implications of bullfighting that hold different connotations in Cataluña than in Castilla. This film is a co-pruduction of Luis Miñarro, who is responsible for a surprisingly large number of successful films from the 90s and 00s, including by Albert Serra, Lisandro Alonso, and Apichatpong Weeresethakul.
Serra’s follow-up to Honor de cavallería shifts slightly in visual style, electing a monochromatic digital camera in place of the yellows, browns, and greens of the earlier film, but it likewise adopts well-known source material to alter the viewer’s focus. The journey of the magi in search of the infant Jesus takes the form of an epic search, as their wanderings in circles through the desert eventually lead them to the ruins housing Mary and Joseph, the latter played by Marc Peranson. (Peranson also filmed a documentary about the making of Honor de cavallería titled Waiting for Sancho.) The film gives interesting choices in mise-en-scène, including the use of a lamb in symbolic representation of Jesus prior to the magis’ arrival, and includes dialogue in both Catalán and Hebrew. One of the wise men remarks how easy it is to be amazed by the marvelous world around them, and it is easy to feel the same viewing this film.
El somni is a beautifully shot and incisive film concerning the reduced role of shepherds in Cataluña. This documentary follows Joan Pipa, an aging shepherd, who will take a flock over the mountains to graze in the highlands of the Pyrenees over the summer, and return them in the fall. The film provides a strong elegy for the land and its rural beauty and value, while simultaneously presenting a rounded portrait of a man. “By painting the portrait of a free man, I have tried to sketch an outline of humanity itself. I walked by his side, scrutinising his face, his hands, his feet, listening to the words he spoke, sharing his intimacy and his authenticity…. [Through this film] I would like to transmit the sensorial richness of nature, and to evoke the absolute beauty and the immense frailty of humankind and the world in which we live” (Farnarier).
Something of a contemplative companion piece to El corazón del bosque or Luna de lobos, Caracremada tells the story of Ramón Vila, a Catalán maquis who continued a solitary struggle against Franco in the mountains of northeast Spain following the Civil War. The film depicts his actions against the regime, in particular the destruction of power lines and towers, yet almost entirely without hearing his voice or determining much of his background. In contrast, the voices we hear are largely those of the guardia civil attempting to locate him. Unlike El corazón del bosque, Galter’s film is largely located in the open spaces of the mountains, though like Gutiérrez Aragón’s film from thirty years before, it (visually) depicts a land worth struggling for, even as those figures of the regime against whom the protagonist struggles remain largely absent.
Two ghosts, one with emotional problems, travel together along the Camino de Santiago to discover how to make themselves real. Sergio Caballero’s debut film contains the marks of contemporary contemplative cinema, with long takes, scant dialogue, minimal non-diegetic sound, beautiful visuals, and the form of a road movie, and turns it into something that seems to be farce. However, beyond the film’s droll humor and bizarre characters, Caballero expands the borders of Catalán cinema in a distinct way from the other films on this list. Here the Russian-speaking ghosts turn west, crossing out of Cataluña and toward Galicia, seeking a way to make their existence concrete, and showing how the abstractions of boundaries and genres break apart.
For further reading:
Peter William Evans [ed.]. Spanish Cinema: The Auteurist Tradition.
Marsha Kinder. Blood Cinema: The Reconstruction of National Identity in Spain.
Alberto Mira [ed.]. The Cinema of Spain and Portugal.
Tatjana Pavlovic, et al. 100 Years of Spanish Cinema.
Joan Ramón Resina [ed.]. Burning Darkness: A Half-Century of Spanish Cinema.
Esteve Riambau and Casimiro Torreira. La Escuela de Barcelona: el cine del gauche divine.
Other lists of interest:
Spain: Mystery, Passion, and Life, by Kenji– includes a lot of the Spanish films listed on Mubi
Explore Spanish Cinema, by Zeppo– another list of around 50 Spanish films, with a good mix of both popular and “artier” films
In Spanish, by Angel– includes a lot of very good Spanish and Latin American films
Homage to Cataluña, by Laali– films from Cataluña, including some very good reading links
…and a few of my own lists on Spanish cinema:
Spanish Civil War, with films from Spain and various other countries that depict the Civil War
Spanish Documentary Filmmaking, with a variety of documentaries by Spanish filmmakers or documentaries about Spain
Basque Cinema, about the films and filmmakers of the Basque Country
01Eusebio Fernández Ardavín
09Luis García Berlanga
10Juan Antonio Bardem
11José Val del Omar
12José Val del Omar
13José Val del Omar
14Juan Antonio Bardem
17Luis García Berlanga
18Fernando Fernán Gómez
19Basilio Martín Patino
27Basilio Martín Patino
28Jacinto Esteva Grewe
34José Luis Guerín
35José Luis Cuerda
38José Luis Guerín
43Daniel V. Villamediana
46José María de Orbe