Category: Spanish Cinema

Pain and Glory (Dolor y gloria, Spain 2019)

Salvador (Antonio Banderas) and Mercedes (Nora Navas) in a typical composition using vibrant colours

Pain and Glory strikes me as an ironic title for what I loved as the most tender Pedro Almodóvar film I’ve seen. It sometimes seems that Almodóvar oscillates between films about men (some of which are directly autobiographical) and films about women (and therefore about characters that remind him of the female stars that he adored as a child). But it’s also the case that many of the films are about Pedro’s mother and the other ‘real’ women of his childhood and adolescence. Pain and Glory is in some ways reminiscent of Bad Education (2004) in that it focuses on the childhood experiences of a man who grows up to be a film director and his relationships with other men. But whereas in that earlier film, there is much anger and even violence, in this new film there seems to be acceptance, friendship and love as the filmmaker ages. I think anyone ‘of an age’ like Almodóvar – approaching 70 – will have an understanding of some of the emotions of the central character played by Antonio Banderas.

Alberto (Asier Etxeandia) and Salvador reflected in a mirror. Is the ‘off centre’ position of the two deliberate? Mirror shots are common in melodrama.

The outline plot of the film is relatively straightforward (no spoilers here). Salvador Mallo, the Banderas character is a 60 something man with various physical ailments who has lost his creative energy but who lives well in a beautiful apartment (beautifully designed with paintings, fabrics and bold colours) with a maid (an indigenous woman from Latin America?) and his former production assistant/manager Mercedes (Nora Navas) both regularly visiting him. One day he learns from an actor (played by Almodóvar regular Cecilia Roth) that one of his early films has been restored and that several cinemas want to screen it. Salvador is invited to join in a Q&A following a screening. The only drawback is that the cinema would like to invite both Salvador and the star of the film, Alberto Crespo (Asier Etxeandia) – and the two men have not spoken since the film was completed more than thirty years ago. Salvador decides he must meet Alberto privately before any public meeting. Having decided to resurrect something from the past, Salvador also finds a way to re-visit his own memories so that we can experience moments of his childhood in which his mother Jacinta is played by Penélope Cruz. In the present, Jacinta is played by another stalwart from Almodóvar’s earlier films, Julieta Serrano.

The young Salvador (Asier Flores) with his mother Jacinta (Penélope Cruz) and his father when they arrive in the village of ‘cave houses’ in Valencia

Almodovar’s handling of the narrative drive is so accomplished that even though the pacing is sometimes quite slow, I was always completely engaged by the ‘action’ and never worrying or wondering what might happen next. I suspect that if it was possible to tear myself away from the screen all the events of the narrative would become predictable and many would turn out to have appeared in his films before. So there are priests (bad, as in Bad Education), a village scene with the women working (as in Volver), a beautiful young man to lust after, doctor’s waiting rooms, a cinema audience, films on TV etc. But none of this matters because the mise en scène is glorious, the performances are sublime, the music (by Alberto Iglesias) is great and the cinematography is by José Luis Alcaine. And most of all, I believe in what Salvador feels and what he does.

The most extraordinary shot in the film with Salvador and Mercedes sitting in front of a photograph which is lit in an unnerving way in a waiting room

There are excellent pieces in Sight and Sound (September 2019) by Paul Julian Smith and Maria Delgado, both reliable and acute commentators on Spanish cinema. They have spotted things I couldn’t see on a single viewing and they are able to connect scenes in the film with contemporary political and social issues in Spain. I recommend them highly. For my part, I’m simply glad that Pedro Almodóvar is still making films and most of all that the films seem to get better each time. Whatever ‘blocks’ Salvador experiences as a director, they don’t seem to visit Pedro. I’ve seen friends’ enthusiasm for Almodóvar wax and wane over the years, but for me he has never failed. He is, as Paul Julian Smith, observed on the release of the film in Spain, the only filmmaker guaranteed to bring in audiences of all kinds in Spain with virtually no promotion. Penélope Cruz grows more beautiful with every film. If she and Banderas continue to be as good as this, I hope Almodóvar will be encouraged to keep going.

Pain and Glory opens in North America on October 4th. I hope it is a big hit there too:

An Introduction to Pan’s Labyrinth (El laberinto del fauno Spain-Mexico-USA, 2006)

Cover copy

I’ve recently published a study guide (you can buy it here). Here’s the introduction: 

Pan’s Labyrinth  is set in 1944, five years after the end of the Spanish civil war, when the last of the resistance to the fascist forces of General Franco were being crushed. However the inspiration for the film was the 11th September 2001 terrorist attacks on America. In his illuminating ‘Director’s commentary’ Guillermo del Toro states his perception of “brutality, innocence and war” changed after the destruction of the ‘two towers’ in New York. He saw that the response in America to the attacks was one of fear and obedience to a national authoritarian mandate. An example of this was when the American press failed to challenge President George W. Bush’s insistence that Iraq had to be invaded because Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of ‘mass destruction’. This proved to be a lie and although the military intervention deposed the dictator it resulted increased conflict in the region. More recently the authoritarian instincts of President Trump have further tarnished America’s reputation in the world.

In his commentary del Toro was emphasising that the film is not specifically about Spain in 1944, although it has much to tell us about the psychology of fascists. By using the tropes of the fairy tale the film juxtaposes the worldview of an 11-year-old girl, who is open to new experiences, and the restricted mind-set of her fascist stepfather. By mixing the ‘innocent’ world of the pre-pubescent girl with the grim realities of Franco’s repressive Spain, del Toro shows that the brutality inherent in the authoritarian mind-set has no place in civilised society.

Del Toro’s film blurs the boundaries between reality and fantasy and illustrates how close-mindedness and self-interest corrupt the human spirit. There is a feeling of doom hanging over the film because we know the resistance, who fought against the fascists, lost their battle and Spain suffered over 30 more years of Francoist rule. Because of this we may feel that Ofelia is better off dead as Princess Moana than alive in a corrupt world. Whether she is dead or actually transformed into a princess is a key question in the film. As we shall see for del Toro there’s no doubt that she survives but the film itself is more ambivalent.

Although the film isn’t about the Spanish civil war only it is helpful to understand the historical context.

The Spanish Civil War

The Second Spanish Republic was formed in 1931 and in 1936 the Popular Front, a coalition of left wing organisations, won power in an election. Later that year a coup d’etat was thwarted however this led to the start of the civil war where right wing groups, led by the military, rebelled against the democratically elected administration. In Morocco, part of which was at the time a protectorate of Spain, General Franco emerged as the rebel’s leader and, supported by Hitler and Mussolini, was victorious after nearly three years of war. The Catholic Church, highly influential in Spain, supported the fascists.

Franco ruled Spain as a dictator until his death in 1975. Afterwards, the monarchy was restored and democracy returned though only at the cost of burying the past. The ‘Pact of Forgetting’, instituted during the transition to democracy, meant that there could be no recriminations for crimes committed during the Franco years but also that memorials to Franco were no longer maintained. It wasn’t until the Law of Historical Memory was enacted in 2007 that it became possible to officially exhume the past, both actually and metaphorically. Attempts were made to identify victims buried in mass graves and to acknowledge the crimes of the Franco era. However, when a conservative government was elected in 2011 support for the law was withdrawn. When, in 2018, the socialists regained power they proposed a ‘truth commission’ to ensure, amongst other things, those with criminal records for opposing Franco would have their names cleared.

Unsurprisingly a number of Spanish films from these years focused on the theme of coming to terms with the past and ghosts were often used as a metaphor:

Their here-but-not-here borderline existence, between the dead and the living, blurs the binary divide that constructs our perception of reality. Ghosts remind us that we need to confront our past if we want to move ahead and construct a better future. (Colmeiro 2011)

Del Toro was responsible for two of these: his third film as a director, The Devil’s Backbone (El espinazo del Diablo, Spain-Mexico-France-Argentina, 2001), and The Orphanage (El orfanato, Spain, 2007), which he produced. The blurred ‘binary divide’ between reality and fantasy is important in Pan’s Labyrinth too. This film reminds us of those who fought a losing battle against fascism to ensure, hopefully, we do not allow fascists to take power again. 

Although del Toro is Mexican, tens of thousands of Spaniards went into exile in his country so the war is also part of his heritage. This no doubt helped him represent a Spanish perspective on the war convincingly unlike Ken Loach whose Land and Freedom (UK-Spain-Germany-Italy-France, 1995), whilst a gripping film, is more obviously one made by an outsider.

Conclusion

Pan’s Labyrinth was a considerable box office success, even outside Spain. The hegemony of Hollywood in the west means that, generally, non-American films struggle to make an impact outside their home markets. Pan’s Labyrinth was successful because of the emotional engagement audiences had with Ofelia’s plight and the supreme craft of the film. It is a terrible state of affairs that his warning against the fascist mind set is even more relevant today than it was when the film was released. After the failure of ‘free market capitalism’, seen most obviously in the financial crash of 2008, right wing populism has made strides at the ballot box in many countries. Del Toro’s humanism is a potent antidote to this inward-looking politics and his film can be read as a warning, through Ofelia’s death, that we are in danger of giving in to the fear whipped up by demagogues.

¡Viva! 25 #8: En las estrellas (Up Among the Stars, Spain 2018)

This was the third film in the festival to feature a father/grandfather and young son/grandson. In Formentera Lady the focus is on the grandfather and in La teta y la luna, it’s on the son with the father only appearing at crucial moments. In En las estrellas, however, the father and the son appear together for most of the time. ¡Viva! 25‘s theme is serious fun and this film fits the bill with its credentials emphasised by the producer’s credit for the cult hero of Spanish cinema, Álex de la Iglesia.

Victor (Luis Callejo) has been devastated by his wife’s death, especially because he thinks he didn’t do enough to save her. He was a filmmaker, a creator of special effects and sets for science fiction and ‘monster movies’ – so talented that he was asked to work with ‘the Americans’. But now he has lost himself and any chance of employment. He is drinking heavily and inveigling his son ‘Ingmar’ (named after the director not the boxer) played by Jorge Andreu to help him make no budget films using a cheap video camera.

The only recreation for father and son is an old cinema which still operates even though it has no customers. But down in the basement are hundreds of reels of classic SF and monster films. Back in their rundown apartment every square inch is taken up by books, videocassettes, robot toys etc. It’s an existence that cannot continue indefinitely and there is a social worker sniffing around. The other major feature of the plot is a series of fantasy sequences in which Victor tells his son the stories that he would like to film. Inevitably these involve memories of the missing wife/mother Ángela (Macarena Gomez) and they are illustrated by quite beautiful painted sets and fuelled by an inventive imagination.

Ingmar (Jorge Andreu) and Victor (Luis Callejo)

I enjoyed this film very much. It follows a Spanish tradition of child-centric films, once revered by Franco’s censors as ‘innocent’ but since the 1970s used to critique fascism (e.g. in The Spirit of the Beehive and later in Pan’s Labyrinth. More recently the Spanish director J. A. Bayona made A Monster Calls (Spain-UK-US 2016) with some similar elements. As well as the role of children, Spanish cinema is also known for its interest in SF/fantasy/horror genres. Up Among the Stars is a title that also recognises cinema history and in particular the monsters and robots who are the stars of classic movies. The obvious references are to Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon (France 1902) which is arguably the basis for the father’s fantasy, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) and the legacy of King Kong. I was also intrigued by a 1934 colour cartoon of Don Quixote from UB Iwerks shown on a TV set. I wonder also if writer-director Zoe Berriatúa was influenced in any way by Martin Scorsese’s Hugo (US 2011) and its portrayal of the Méliès studio?

Victor’s car – another example of still-functioning old technology

I realise that I’ve focused mainly on the cinematic references to the monster/robot films and also on the child in the film. I’ve underplayed the element of the father’s grief and guilt about his wife’s death and I guess that there are other cinematic references to horror films/ghost stories and romances that I haven’t really thought about. There is also a gentle critique of the film industry and the way it funds/doesn’t fund creativity. I doubt the film will appear in UK cinemas which is a shame. I think it may be available on Netflix or Amazon. I’d recommend it as a diverting 86 minutes but its ‘Scope presentation would work much better on a big screen.

Here’s a trailer. There are no English subs but it does give you an idea of the wonderful mise en scène and the music:

¡Viva! 25 #7: La teta y la luna (The Tit and the Moon, Spain 1994)

Tete is fearful in his role as the enxaneta who must climb to the top of the ‘human tower’ at his father’s command

This year’s ¡Viva! included a retrospective tribute to the Catalan director Bigas Luna who died just six years ago. The festival screened his ‘Iberian trilogy’ and a documentary BigasXBigas (2016) was screened alongside a video art exhibition at the Instituto Cervantes in Deansgate. The exhibition runs until April 13. The whole tribute was curated by Prof. Santiago Fouz Hernández of the University of Durham and Betty Bigas, multi-disciplinary artist and daughter of Bigas Luna.

The screening of La teta y la luna was introduced by Dr Abigail Loxham, University of Liverpool and she and Prof. Hernández conducted a Q&A/discussion after the screening. Unfortunately I could only stay for the first half of this. The screening used an archive 35mm print from Metro Tartan and on the big screen in Cinema One at HOME we noted all the problems with an aged film print but also the real pleasure of watching a well-made ‘film’.

The two previous films in the trilogy Jamón, jamón (1992) and Huevos de oro (1993) were set in Aragon and Alicante respectively but in La teta y la luna the setting is the coast of Catalunya. Like the other two films, La teta y la luna is also concerned with ideas about masculinity and identity presented through comedy and a celebration of eroticism in cinema. The narrative is presented through the eyes and voiceover of Tete (Biel Durán), a nine-year old boy who feels threatened on two fronts – first by his father’s insistence in instilling him with the fearlessness of machismo and secondly with his possible displacement from his close relationship with his mother prompted by the imminent arrival of a younger brother. Tete’s ‘test’ set by his father is to be the boy (enxaneta) who has to climb to the top of the human tower (castell) formed by the local men in an annual local celebration. His fear of doing this becomes displaced into an obsession with his mother’s breasts. If he loses these to his baby brother, he feels he must find another pair of equally fine breasts to take their place.

Tete sees Estrellita rehearsing . . .

Tete’s quest takes him to a local carnival show by the sea where he discovers Estrellita (Mathilda May) a beautiful Portuguese dancer who performs with her French husband Maurice (Gérard Darmon) in a variety act. She dances and he farts while astride his motorbike. His farts are very controlled and he uses them to perform stunts. (I’m reminded of that other French entertainer, Le Pétomane (1857-1945) whose family were actually from Catalunya.) Tete discovers where Estrellita and Maurice have their caravan and he spies on them. But he soon realises he has a rival, a young Andalusian flamenco singer named Miguel (Miguel Poveda). I won’t go into more detail on the plot but as we might expect, Tete is exposed to a number of breasts of different shapes and sizes and he will eventually conquer his fear of heights in climbing the human tower.

. . . stealing her bra is Tete’s first attempt to rival Miguel and get closer to Estrellita

Before I engage with the introduction and Q&A, I’d like to just share a couple of my own thoughts. I remember watching Jamón, jamón, mostly for the early film appearances of Penélope Cruz (her first) and Javier Bardem. I don’t remember Huevos de oro but I may well have seen it and similarly I can’t be sure about an earlier watch for La teta y la luna. But I can be sure that I enjoyed both Jamón, jamón and La teta y la luna. All three films were photographed by José Luis Alcaine, the last two in ‘Scope. The cast members are all accomplished in these kinds of roles and freely enter the playfulness of Luna’s comic eroticism. Mathilda May trained as a ballerina – I’m not sure if Gérard Darmon ever trained as a flatulist. All the films received an 18 certificate in the UK and YouTube has attempted to certificate the clips that have been uploaded. It seems sad to me that a film with naked breasts could be seen as ‘offensive’ or harmful to younger viewers. Bigas Luna pokes fun at this I think with a surrealist sequence in which Estrellita spectacularly lactates into Tete’s mouth much as wine might be poured from on high from a large flask. There are many other similar visual jokes. Tete’s voyeurism also leads him to believe that women need to be ‘filled’ by their partners before they can produce more milk. Maurice is now impotent so Estrellita needs to be ‘filled’ by Miguel.

Estrellita (Mathilda May)

The great strength of the film is that everything happens at pace and the rudimentary plot is played out in 90 minutes or less. There is just about enough time to think about identity issues. The title refers to Tete’s appeal to the moon to help him find new breasts. He imagines a moon scene with the flags of Spain and the European Community as it was then. Estrellita’s Portuguese identity is not really highlighted but much is made of Miguel’s Andalusian background and Maurice’s ‘Frenchness’ and Catalunya is represented ahead of Spanish identity as such.

Dr Abigail Loxham introduces the film

Listening back to the Intro, Abigail Loxham crammed a great deal into her short time allocation. She described the film as a ‘Freudian family melodrama’ and emphasised that Bigas Luna’s main point seemed to be to equate masculinity and nationalism and to see both as inflexible and needing to be treated in effect by feminisation and pluralism. She also noted that although he set this third film in Catalunya, it was not in the urban sophistication of Barcelona but in the pluralist and carnivalesque seaside camp site. She made the point that narrating the film through the child enable Luna to make his points about sexuality and inflexible masculinity without prejudicing the representation of the female characters. I’ve paraphrased what she said and I hope I’ve understood the points. She also commented on how the film, though nearly a quarter of a century old now seems timely as we consider where nationalism is taking the UK (England?) as well as other parts of Europe in respect of Brexit. I’m not sure about the feminine aspect though since we seem to be saddled with the most inflexible female leader (oddly also a ‘May’)!

In the Q&A there was a more detailed discussion of ideas about national identity and Prof. Hernández made several interesting comments about the trilogy of films which made me wish I’d been able to view the other two films this week. He discussed ‘passion’ in the film, relating it back to Loxham’s reference to a similar trilogy of plays by Lorca. It occurred to me then just how much red is used in the film (see the stills above). He also said that he was writing about Bigas Luna at the moment (and he praised Abigail Loxham’s work on Luna). After the screening I looked up the three Spanish film studies texts in my library and was surprised to find that Bigas Luna was completely ignored in one, briefly referenced in another and discussed mainly in respect to Javier Bardem’s involvement in the trilogy. I was surprised that Luna was not recognised in the way he (much like Almodóvar) took his early ideas from soft porn into mainstream films, developing the humour and making possible a deeper understanding of aspects of sexuality. I enjoyed the film and I’ll look out for opportunities to see the other parts of the trilogy.