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The New Spanish Cinema

The New Spanish Cinema

Articles - Directing

The initial flowering of cinema
in Spain at the beginning of the 20th century occurred in much the
same way as in the rest of Europe. Spanish moviemakers grappled
with the challenge of learning to harness cinema’s artistic and
commercial potential as an international art, while at the same
time using the medium as a reflection of their own national culture.
For a good deal of its history, Spanish film, like the country itself,
was caught between a conservative take on the world and a more liberated,
internationalist view of culture and identity.

It’s said that the first movie shot in Spain was
Eduardo Jimeno’s People Coming out of the Noontime Mass at the
Cathedral of the Virgin of Pilar in Zaragoza
(1897), which was
followed by a series of shorts done in the same spirit by the Lumiere
brothers’ cameraman, Alexandre Promio. The first actual fiction
film made in Spain—written, directed, produced and performed by
Spanish film pioneer Fructuoso Gelabert—was Café Brawl (1897). Barcelona was the center of Spanish moviemaking up until
1915; in addition to Gelabert, Segundo de Chomón was busy
during those early days making a series of special effects pictures
that led up to his spectacular fantasy film, The Electric Hotel (1905). Though Barcelona remained a center of production for
the next 20 years, Madrid began to siphon off a large chunk of that
activity, beginning when Benito Perojo and his brother, José,
set up shop in the city.

Carlos Saura’s Tango (1998); Alejandro Amenábar’s Open Your Eyes (1997).

Content in these early movies reflected local Spanish
cultural tastes faithfully. Documentaries about bullfighting were
popular, as were adaptations of 19th century romantic plays, a trend
touched off by Ricardo de Baños’ 1908 version of Don Juan

In the 1920s, Spanish literature became a rich source
of material for local moviemakers, with artists like Jacinto Benavente,
José Buchs and Florián Rey all turning out successful
big-screen adaptations. A hit adaptation of Carlos Arniches’ popular That’s My Man, directed by Carlos Fernández Cuenca
in 1927, set the tone for many movies that followed. Arniches’ theater
was a prime source of material for many of the pictures produced
just prior to the Civil War. His ability to bring to life the world
of working-class Madrid, and his mastery of their vernacular, were
a key part of his work’s appeal.

The Spanish film industry was producing about 60
pictures a year at this point, but the advent of talking films soon
cut into this rapid pace. It was during this time that Luis Buñuel
and Salvador Dali’s surrealist short The Andalusian Dog (1928)
was screened in Paris, launching Buñuel’s notorious film
career. For many people outside of Spain (particularly cinephiles)
Buñuel, like Pedro Almodóvar today, came to represent
Spanish cinema at its most irreverent, eclectic best.

Francisco Elías’ The Mystery of the Puerta
de Sol
(1929) was the first sound picture produced in Spain.
But while American and other European moviemakers made significant
leaps in sound technology, Spanish films continued to be conceived
as silent works, with synchronized sound added after the fact. It
was Hollywood that gave Spanish audiences their first good sound
films, determined to keep their grip on international markets. Spanish
casts and crews were assembled in Hollywood to remake English-language
films, using the same sets but with Spanish script translations.
The technical quality of these pictures surpassed anything coming
out of Spain, even though the content wasn’t always specifically
Spanish in origin. Given the poor infrastructure for moviemaking
in Spain at the time, a significant number of film professionals
migrated to Hollywood and Paris. By 1931, the production of Spanish-language
films produced outside of Spain actually dominated the Spanish
market itself.

In 1931, Spanish and Latin American film professionals
got together in an effort to create a united front and lobby for
government protection of their industry. No tangible results were
produced. Then, in 1932, the first sound studio in Spain, Orphea
Studios, was set up in Barcelona. The following year, Cinematographia
Española Americana (CEA), a Madrid-based sound studio, went
into action, along with Estudios Cinema Español S.A. (ECESA)
in Aranjuez, just outside the capital. These new Spanish ‘majors’
were able to turn out some quality films, but nothing on the scale
that Hollywood could generate. Still, with the addition of 14 smaller
studios over the next two years, it was possible to declare a boom
in Spanish cinema by 1935—aided by a high level of support from
Spanish audiences.

While a lot of the material produced at this time
was more or less escapist fare, companies like Compania Industrial
Film Español S.A. (CIFESA) and Filmófono went beyond
this trend to create pictures that were both commercially successful
and artistically distinct. CIFESA’s early hits included Rey’s Mama’s
(1934) and Benito Perojo’s On the Road to Cairo (1935).
Significantly, Buñuel was hired to manage and participate
in all aspects of Filmófono’s activities (including directing
projects himself under other directors’ names). But Spain was still
a conservative country, and most pictures reflected the traditional
values of investors.

Popular hits of the day revealed that audiences continued
to like material that captured the urban milieu. Still, a bit of
social criticism did show up in Spanish cinema of the day, with
films like Madrid se Divorcia (1934) and Who Loves Me?
(1936). Fernando Roldán’s Fermin Galán (1931)
was clearly created to justify the existence of the Second Republic,
which would soon come to an end with the arrival of the Spanish
Civil War in 1936.

Víctor Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive (1973); and Fernando Trueba’s Belle Époque (1992) are all well-known entries
in the canon of Spanish cinema.

The period just prior to the war was indeed a golden
age of Spanish cinema, and for some, a golden age of Spanish culture
in general. Spanish cinema had a strong domestic following, which
it managed to achieve despite strong pressures from Hollywood and
the total absence of subsidies from the government. The early to
mid-1930s were also a time in which homegrown film stars such as
Miguel Ligero, Manuel Luna, Rosita Díaz Gimeno and Antoñita
Colomé captured the national imagination. Years later, Spanish
director Fernando Trueba would put his own nostalgic spin on this
beautiful time with his Oscar-winning Belle Époque (1992).

The great gains made by the industry by the mid 1930s
were effectively halted (and in some cases reversed) by the commencement
and eventual outcome of the Civil War, which saw a victory for General
Franco’s nationalist forces, who were allied with Nazi Germany.
During the conflict, many productions were halted and moviemakers
on both sides of the conflict found themselves cut off from large
chunks of their audience—as well as their collaborators, many of
whom died in the conflict or went into exile. While some of the
pictures that managed to reach completion by 1936 (such as Rey’s Morena Clara) did find commercial success on both sides of
the divide, right up until the end of the War, there was little
room for a liberated, creative cinema in Franco’s Spain.

With Franco’s government came increased censorship,
government subsidies, classifications and ideological pressures
aimed at steering content in a direction that would please the state’s
highly reactionary agenda. It wasn’t long before moviemakers were
effectively policing themselves. Ironically, the government’s edict
requiring Spanish as the only language allowed on national screens
had the unforeseen consequence of placing foreign films on an equal
footing with Spanish product since all films, regardless of their
origin, had to be spoken in Spanish. Soon, better-made foreign films
were gaining a solid base in the Spanish market.

Although cinema after the Civil War carried forward
many of the themes and trends previously familiar to audiences,
more films showed up which exalted the values and pretensions of
the new order. Juan de Orduña’s Follow the Legion (1942) and Antonio Román’s Martyrs of the
(1945) both glorified the honor of fighting and
dying for the cause. The most significant picture of this ilk was Raza (1942), scripted by Franco himself under a pseudonym.
It managed to succeed by couching the values of the nationalists
inside a highly melodramatic plot featuring chaste love between
two romantic leads. The picture underscored Franco’s fetish for
heroic death, and his vision of the traditional Spanish family as
the ideal mechanism for producing ‘good’ Spaniards.

The regime’s idealization of a supposedly glorious
past spawned a string of opulent costume dramas such as Manuel Augusto
García Viñola’s Inês de Castro (1944),
José López Rubio’s Eugenia de Montijo (1944)
and two major pictures of the period, de Orduña’s Love
(1948) and Agustina of Aragón (1950), both
products of CIFESA. A steady crop of religious-themed films was
also churned out around the same time, with titles like The Saintly
(1947) and Loyola, the Soldier Saint (1948). The
hunger for a mix of melodrama and eroticism was satisfied by a number
of costume dramas, done in the spirit of the escapist novela
, or pink novels. Movies like José Luis Sáenz
de Heredia’s The Scandal (1943) and Rafael Gil’s The Prodigal
(1946) were popular examples. Up until its fall in
the mid-1950s, CIFESA (often compared to MGM because of its penchant
for lavish costume dramas) became the quasi-official studio of Franco’s
government, rolling out film after film that reflected the regime’s
tastes and thematic obsessions.

In the 1950s, there were rumblings for modernization
and liberalization in Spain, as many people compared the country
unfavorably to a more modern and dynamic Europe. The government
responded with a few cosmetic changes, allowing the publication
of dissident film journals that advocated a cinema that was more
connected to the everyday realities of Spanish life. Ironically,
the formulation of a community of moviemakers with a desire for
real change was formed at the National Film School, a government
institution. Luis García Berlanga and Juan Antonio Bardem
were principal figures in this group, inspired in part by the Italian
school of Neorealism. The Bardem-Berlanga collaboration That
Happy Pair
(1953) was an early example of where this influence
was showing up. The films of Marco Ferreri and Rafael Azcona—El
(1959) and El Cochecito (1960)—were good examples
of the cinema of dissidence, as was Carlos Saura’s The Delinquents (1962). Saura would go on to have one of the most prestigious careers
in Spanish cinema, a career that continues today with pictures like Tango (1998).

Many innovative moviemakers like Saura got their
start just as the state was trying to put a liberal face on country.
Government-sponsored support for new talent, offered under the guise
of a program called New Spanish Cinema helped usher in some highly
original films, including critical and commercial successes like
Miguel Picazo’s Aunt Tula (1964) and Mario Camus’ With
the East Wind

Over the next 10 years, along with all the pulp fare
that had always been a staple of the country’s cinema, moviemakers
like Saura and Víctor Erice developed a talent for allegory
that helped them get around continued government censorship. True
liberalization of culture didn’t come until Franco’s death in 1975
and the subsequent transition to democracy, ushering in mavericks
like Pedro Almodóvar (the poster child of ‘liberated’ Spain),
J.J. Bigas Luna (Jamón, Jamón), Vicente Aranda
(Mad Love) and Fernando Trueba (Calle 54). With them
came a generation of new Spanish stars including Victoria Abril,
Carmen Maura, Antonio Banderas and Penélope Cruz.

If the democratic era can be faulted for anything,
it would be the government’s tendency to subsidize serious films
over populist cinema, leading to the production of 20 bad films
for every good one. Throughout the 1990s, Spanish moviemakers lost
market share at home to foreign (mostly Hollywood) competitors.
But this is changing. A second front of gifted moviemakers, personified
by such directors as Alejandro Amenábar, Julio Medem and
Álex de la Iglesia, seems even less interested in pursuing
respectable obscurity than their predecessors. Instead, they have
chosen to embrace many of the strengths of commercial narrative
moviemaking, while maintaining a refreshing degree of individuality
and personal authorship.

For Pedro Almodóvar, the level of personal
authorship enjoyed by Spanish moviemakers would not be possible
within the mainstream. “By definition, mainstream cinema avoids
anything that is personal, anything that might remind us of our
human nature. What is it that makes Spanish cinema ‘Spanish’? First
of all, it is the absolute freedom to write, produce or direct anything
you want. Secondly, we have no film industry—or what we have is very small. That means we have to make less compromises for
money than big-budget films. The director’s criteria are the only
ones that matter. There aren’t hundreds of agents with their respective
stars telling you what you can and can’t do. There is no producer
demanding that you cut the running time by 20 minutes, or the producer
just doing it himself without even telling you. There aren’t 10
people from the production company going over your script with a
magnifying glass and cutting out anything original, because it doesn’t
remind them of any other film or because it’s just too dark. We
don’t have the shadow of the MPAA hanging over our heads like a
phantom menace. When we write a script we don’t have to worry about
how many times the word ‘fuck’ appears. This doesn’t mean that all
Spanish films are art, but it does show that films like The Spirit
of the Beehive
would be completely impossible with the prevailing
mainstream climate.”

Amenábar’s Open Your Eyes (1997) and
Imanol Uribe’s Running Out of Time are two films that show
a basic alignment with modern commercial sensibilities. Though shot
in English, Amenábar’s The Others, starring Nicole
Kidman, was made with Spanish money and went on to be honored with
eight Goya Awards. Though thoroughly contemporary, the film reveals
a taste for a secular mysticism, which has its spiritual antecedents
in the history of Spanish cinema. The work of Julio Medem, one of
the most thrilling new Spanish directors at work today, carries
with it this spirit of existential inquiry, wrapped in the form
of an often playful, searching narrative.

It’s not unusual to find characters in any picture,
be it the latest Hollywood movie or a ‘serious’ foreign film, in
search of change or some missing part of their lives. What is unique
about the best Spanish cinema, whether it’s Medem’s Sex and Lucia or Almodóvar’s Talk To Her, is its ability to keep
audiences engaged and entertained even as it explores life’s biggest
questions. MM

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Von Rothenberger says:

    SIR or MADAM:

    I am from the hometown of William Hardesty Layton (1913-1995), a noted teacher, director, and actor in Spain from 1960 until his passing in 1995. I am trying to discover where his grave is located, and hopefully I can find someone to email me a photograph of his gravesite and tombstone. This year his hometown honored him with an entry into its local Hall of Fame. I ask that you might help me in spreading the word of this request. Any help that anyone can give would be greatly appreciated.

    Von Rothenberger
    P.O. Box 41
    Lucas, KS 67648 USA

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