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Close-Up on Pere Portabella’s “Nocturno 29”

Whether seen in 1968 or in 2018, Pere Portabella’s first feature teams with images of Spanish class consciousness.
Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Pere Portabella's Nocturno 29 (1968) is showing May 9 - June 8, 2018 in the many countries around the world as part of the series The Directors' Fortnight.
Pere Portabella’s Nocturno 29 arrives at the beginning of his directorial career, the film being his first feature after the short No compteu amb els dits (1967). Together, these form the start of a filmography marked with the political charge and deliberate abstraction that were hallmarks of Spain’s so-called Barcelona School. There is a tendency among film writing to see films of the Barcelona School in light of ‘authorial intention’—that is, as a deposit of a social relationship brought about by a specific time and place. Yet one can also view the film individually as a collection of unique iconography pertaining to Spanish class consciousness in its own right.
The film is, ostensibly, about an unnamed bourgeois couple (Lucia Bosé and Mario Cabré) who engage in extramarital affairs, though the narrative is ultimately a backdrop against which a larger landscape of random and often surreal images take shape. These images are intended it seems not to be ‘followed’ in a narrative sense but rather experienced and, perhaps, deconstructed. Nocturne 29 turns half a century old this year, lending itself to the kind of deconstruction that would parse what Iván Villarmea Álvarez refers to as a film’s historical value and identity value. One derives a film’s historical value primarily from its containing evidence of the culture that produced it, while one derives a film’s identity value from various criteria about which our understanding can change over time—language, gender, ethnicity, and so on. While Álvarez uses this template to address documentary films specifically, one can also apply it heuristically to Nocturno 29, both in its portrayal of Spanish social class and as an exemplar of the state of filmmaking in Spain in the late 1960s. 
It would behoove the viewer in 2018 to parse a film from 1968 in such a way, since the immediate reception of Nocturno 29 upon its release reveals an awareness of authorial intent—being Portabella’s examination of social class—while the modern viewer may watch the film largely divorced from authorial intent. Luc Beraud’s original 1969 review of the film in Cahiers du cinéma, for instance, described the film as a sketch or diagram that functions as a critical probe into Portabella’s own social class. The viewer today might be tempted to chalk the images up to larger cinematic trends that took place in Europe throughout that decade—and they wouldn’t be incorrect, as members of the Barcelona School had access to international festivals and the works of the ‘New Wave’ movements from France, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and elsewhere. Most film writing associates Portabella in that light: The Barcelona School flourished throughout the late 1960s on the heels of other European New Wave movements, and included the now-canonical works Left-Handed Fate (Vicente Aranda, 1965), Night of Red Wine (José María Nunes, 1966), Dante Isn’t Just Severe (Joaquín Jordá and Jacinto Esteva, 1967), and Esquizo (Ricardo Bofill, 1970). The School emerged largely as a reaction to the Madrid-based New Spanish Cinema—which took its cue from Italian Neo-Realism—often using non-professional actors, incomplete scripts, and natural lighting.
Nocturno 29 routinely draws one’s attention to the fact that they are watching a construct, and from the start makes the viewer aware of the mechanics of filmmaking. The film’s opening features two figures ambling on an island while the only sound heard is that of a film projector—ostentatiously loud and alluding at once to a ‘beginning’ of a film narrative and to a film reel physically starting in a projection booth. Whereas Portabella would later juxtapose staged and natural images in Cuadecuc Vampir (1970), here the use of recorded sound often extrapolates the staged and the natural: The film includes footage of a concert where the music is obscured by harsh screeching sounds, and a scene of a couple speaking to each other in a café that is dubbed over with the sound of two people singing. Nocturno 29 is also a fount of film references. At one point, the viewer sees an extreme close-up of a hand ringing a doorbell that dissolves to a hand touching a breast—perhaps a reference to Charles Aznavour’s arrival at the studio in Francois Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player (1961). Another scene features a group of bourgeois vacationers crouching underneath a tablecloth and holding feathers, overlaid by rooster sounds—perhaps a reference to the chicken feet in Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel (1962). These scenes can double as Portabella’s critique of conventional film editing and iconography (in keeping with the intentions of various New Wave movements) and aligning the film with ‘progressive’ European cinema at the time. 
These film elements indeed represent a departure from Spain’s state-sanctioned New Spanish Cinema, as those in several films of the Barcelona School did. On the other hand, Portabella broke not merely with New Spanish Cinema but also with contemporary ‘progressive’ films throughout Europe, and has also stated that he never identified his films with any ‘underground’ or ‘art’ movement. Likewise, Portabella’s biography reveals his distinctions as an individual filmmaker vis-à-vis his part in a movement. In 1959, Portabella began his own production company, Films 59, which produced works directed by Carlos Saura and Marco Ferreri, and it was Portabella who ultimately convinced Buñuel to return from Mexico to Spain, where they would together make Viridiana (1961). Portabella also collaborated with painters Antoni Tàpies and Joan Miró, not known by necessity for filmmaking. Both Nocturno 29 and No compteu amb els dits were collaborations between Portabella and the poet Joan Brossa, who introduced surrealism into his poetry after meeting Joan Miró and Joan Prats. An excerpt from Brossa’s "Prelude" functions as a template of sorts for interpreting his collaborations with Portabella, suggesting that authorial intent is not necessarily important in the interpretive process:
These lines, like
sheet music, are no more
than a collection of signs to
decipher. The reader of the poem
is a performer
With this in mind, the Barcelona School itself exists in the historical imagination as an artistic movement routinely contextualized like most: a ‘radical’ style that responds to and often supplants an established ‘academic’ style. Perhaps historical context doesn’t matter by necessity to a viewer in 2018. To see Nocturno 29 in 1968 or 2018, one can classify the film as a work teeming with images of class consciousness.
Consider a prolonged sequence were the husband walks through a bank—a space signifying personal finance and the building of wealth over time—that overwhelms the viewer with the amplified sound of adding machines, phones and deposit tubes, and another where the wife walks through a vast empty factory or warehouse—a space signifying industry and wage labor—where the viewer hears no sound at all. One might in turn compare the factory space with a later sequence featuring the wife making her way through a foliage labyrinth, which can serve as a visual allusion to labyrinths found on the grounds of large country estates throughout western Europe. Portabella also deliberately contrasts the bourgeoisie and the laboring classes in certain sequences, be it through stage direction or through editing. A scene late in the film features the wife bursting into a room wearing a mask, disrupting a maid at work dusting the furniture. Another sequence cuts between a group of four men in a cafe playing a game of dominoes and the bourgeois couple playing a game of bridge with two friends. 
Naturally, class consciousness is one of countless readings available to one who sees Nocturno 29 today, removed from Portabella’s cultural milieu. The film’s allusions to European nationalism appear, for instance, in one of its handful of color sequences where the wife browses a tailor’s fabrics that are revealed to be flags of Japan, Brazil, Portugal, and elsewhere. The film also critiques Spain’s largely Catholic population in a sequence that cuts between a church procession and a crude puppet show. Sequences such as these both lend themselves to readings attributing identity value to the film and speak to the wide-ranging iconography with which Portabella uses the film medium to abstract and, by extension, critique. Portabella said in a 2005 interview with Marcelo Exposito, “I have always thought that the main political dimension of my films lies in attacking linguistic codes. Ideology impregnates society through the dominant languages.” Nocturno 29 marks a starting point for that attack.

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