Post-war Spanish Realist Cinema

Whilst fascist dictatorship in Italy came to an abrupt end near the close of the Second World War, a fascist regime continued to rule in Spain up till the death of General Franco, in 1975. After that, a gradual process of democratisation began, which eventually led to the election of a socialist government in 1982. Between 1939, when Franco’s alliance of the political right, military and Roman Catholic Church defeated the Popular Front Government of socialists, republicans and anti-clericalists, and the beginning of the post-Franco period in 1976, the Spanish cinema was closely regulated by the state, just as the Italian cinema had been under Mussolini. In Spain, the film industry was controlled by a government department, which censored film scripts prior to filming, and ensured that Spanish cinema reproduced and legitimated the ideologies, policies and image of the ruling regime. The result was a film output as divorced from critical interpretation of existing social realities as that of fascist Italy had been.

As with the fascist regime of Mussolini, Francoist fascism also looked to the heroic past as a source of ideological verification, although, whereas Mussolini’s regime had appropriated the image of ancient Rome to this end, Spanish fascism turned instead to the ‘golden age’ of Spanish colonial expansion during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Thus, Alba de América (Dawn of America, Juan de Orduña, 1951) presents Columbus’ colonisation of America both as a religious mission, and as an attempt to disseminate civilised Spanish values amongst the pagan cultures of the new world.44 However, in addition to such arrogation of the imperialist lineage, the ruling regime also drew on another prominent source of ideological authentication: that of the Spanish Civil War of 1936–39. The Civil War was an event of lasting importance for Spanish filmmakers, an importance reaffirmed by Carlos Saura as late as 1976, when he claimed that ‘the Spanish Civil War has been and is still weighing down on us’.45 A number of cine cruzada, or films with Civil War themes, were produced during the Franco period, and most served to legitimate the ruling regime, and justify its historical genealogy. Thus, a film such as Sin novedad en el alcázar (The Siege of Alcazar, Augusto Genina, 1940) celebrates the ‘bravery, honour and righteousness of the Nationalist cause’.46

In addition to films on the Civil War, the Spanish cinema of the Franco period also embraced other cinematic genres as part of a strategy to bolster the standing of the regime. These included the long-standing genre of classical literary adaption. So, for example, a 1947 film version of Cervantes’ Don Quixote de la Manche compared an idealistic Don Quixote with Franco.47 In addition to such overtly pro-Francoist films, the Spanish cinema of the period also included the sacredotes (religious films), as well as a series of folkloric musicals and ‘bullfight’ films. These, and other popular generic vehicles, served the function of suggesting that Spanish fascism enshrined the values of a traditional and conservative Spanish national identity.48

Films and genres such as those mentioned above largely avoided critical engagement with contemporary issues, and it was this degree of disengagement which eventually led to a reaction amongst more socially committed film-makers, who looked to Italian neorealism to provide the model for a reinvigorated Spanish film culture. In 1947 a national film school, the IIEC (Instituto de Investigaciones y Experiencias Cinematográficas), was established in Madrid. Here, student film-makers were able to view foreign films otherwise banned throughout the rest of Spain. In 1951 the ILEC held an Italian Film Week event, during which neorealist films such as Ladri di biciclette, Paisà, Roma città aperta and Miracolo a Milano (Miracle in Milan, De Sica, 1950) were screened. This eventually led to the founding of the left-wing journal Objectivo, in 1953. Between 1953, and its suppression in 1955, Objectivo adhered to the pro- Zhdanovist line adopted by Guido Aristarco and Cinema Nuovo in Italy, and endorsed the work of Cinema Nuovo ‘approved’ filmmakers and theorists such as Visconti and Zavattini (the first edition of Objectivo contained eighteen pages on Zavattini alone), whilst criticising less overtly Marxist neorealist film-makers, such as Fellini and Rossellini.49

The formation of a Spanish neorealist cinema was further consolidated in 1955 when Objectivo published an edition in which some recent Italian films, including Fellini’s Il Bidone and Antonioni’s Le Amiche were discussed in depth. The journal also helped to organise a First National Film Congress, which was held in Salamanca, in May of the same year, and at which Italian neorealism was extensively debated. The Congress attracted a wide range of participants, ranging from members of the Communist Party, to members of the Fascist Party, all of whom were united in condemnation of the commercial Francoist cinema as ‘politically ineffective, socially false, intellectually worthless, aesthetically nonexistent, and industrially crippled’.50 However, the ruling regime quickly came to the realisation that these developments within Spanish film culture constituted a challenge to established orthodoxies, and, as a consequence, Objectivo was closed down.

During the 1950s Italian neorealism provided an aesthetic model for Spanish film-makers opposed to the normative superficiality and aesthetic redundancy of the Francoist cinema, and, in some, but by no means all cases, to the regime itself. What united these filmmakers around neorealism was a desire that the Spanish cinema should cease to be a cinema of ‘painted dolls’, and that it should focus, instead, ‘on the problems that arise from everyday life’.51 It was, therefore, the social realist imperative within neorealism which was the prime motivating force behind the emergence of Spanish neorealism. However, the existence of political censorship meant that the more leftist neorealist inspired cinema which developed in Spain during the 1950s was forced to adopt a clandestine, often sardonic, posture, and to draw away from a more directly political agenda. For example, a film such as Luis Garcia Berlanga’s Calabuch (1956) exhibits an ironic treatment of subjects otherwise considered beyond criticism by the authorities, whilst Berlanga and Juan Antonio Bardem’s Bienvenido Mr Marshall! (1951), satirised stereotypical notions of Spanishness to an extent which would have been unacceptable in a more ‘serious’ film.52

Despite these constraints, the influence of Italian neorealism did, nevertheless, lead to the emergence of a number of more committed realist Spanish films during the 1950s. For example, José Antonio Nieves Conde’s Surcos (Furrows, 1951) showed images of rural poverty and destitution which distinguished it sharply from other films of the period, and eventually led to its condemnation as ‘seriously dangerous’ by the National Board of Classification.53 Although Surcos was a Falangist film, which drew on neorealism in order to establish a Spanish national cinema based around the ideals of the fascist Falange, its exposé of rural Spanish poverty nevertheless proved unacceptable to the ruling regime. In contrast to Nieves Conde, the left-wing Juan Antonio Bardem set out to undermine traditional provincial Spanish values in his Calle mayor (Main Street, 1956). Although heavily censored by the regime, Calle mayor retained sufficient critical and aesthetic impact to be awarded the International Critics Prize at the 1956 Vencice Mostra, whilst Bardem’s earlier Muerte de un ciclista (Death of a Cyclist, 1955), which deployed neorealist techniques in order to undermine the conventions of the standard Hollywood and Francoist melodrama, was awarded the International Critics Prize at the 1955 Cannes Festival.54

As the examples given above suggest, during this period Italian neorealism was regarded, by both right and left, as a fitting model upon which a reinvigorated national cinema could be built. For example, a conservative such as García Escudero, who was the government’s General Director of Cinema, before being sacked for describing Surcos as ‘the first glance of reality in a cinema of papiermâché’, linked the affirmative, humanist orientation which Italian neorealism inherited from the verist tradition to his own brand of conservative, social catholicism. On the other hand, film-makers such as Bardem and Basilio Martín Patino believed that neorealism could also provide the basis for a Marxist, and anti-fascist cinema.55

In addition to its perceived value to Falangists such as Escuderos, Italian neorealism also furnished a model for a Francoist Government, which, during the 1950s, attempted to portray Spain as an enlightened, though traditionally conservative European nation, and Francoist officials hoped that support for a Spanish national cinema based on an internationally renowned and prestigious film movement, would advance such ambitions. The fact that neorealism had emerged from another latin country, and one with a fascist past, also led Government officials to believe that Spanish neorealism could be relied upon to play its part within a more general exercise of officially authorised national projection. It was the realisation that such an appropriation of the neorealist tradition was occurring in Spain which led the exiled Louis Buñuel to make Los Olvidados (The Young and Lost, 1950), a film which deliberately undermined the inherent affirmative humanism of neorealism. However, Los Olvidados was immediately banned, and remained largely unknown to Spanish film-makers during the early 1950s. In 1961 the filmmaker Carlos Saura encouraged Buñuel to return to Spain in order to make Viridiana (1961). However, Viridiana was quickly condemned as blasphemous by the Catholic Church, and, like Los Olvidados, also banned. Nevertheless, and despite such bans, it is ironic that, at the same time that a democratic Italian State was actively attempting to suppress neorealism, the Spanish dictatorship was encouraging its growth and development.

The period between 1962 and 1969 was marked by a degree of liberalisation within Spanish society and film culture, and by the emergence of the ‘new Spanish cinema’. As with the new German cinema of the 1970s, new Spanish cinema was promoted by the state as evidence that modern Spain was a European nation with a vibrant cultural life. However, such promotion required an easing of the regulatory constraints which had led to the banning of Los Olvidados and Viridiana, and this strategy was not risk free for the government. For example, García Berlanga’s El verdugo (The Executioner, 1963) mounted an exposé of the misuse of capital punishment which led to complaints that Berlanga’s film was ‘one of the greatest libels ever perpetrated against Spain’.56

The period of liberalisation which accompanied the appearance of the new Spanish cinema came to an end in 1969, in the aftermath of a political scandal involving government ministers, and student revolts inspired by the events of May 1968. Between 1969 and 1973 rigorous censorship was again restored, and government aid to filmmakers severely cut.57 The ‘third phase’ of the new Spanish cinema lasts from 1973 to 1982, and covers the period from the assassination of Franco’s anointed successor, Carrero Blanco, to the election of a democratically elected socialist government in 1982. This period of ‘soft dictatorship’, or dictablanda, saw the appearance of such seminal films as El espíritu de la colmena (The Spirit of the Beehive, Victor Erice, 1972), La Prima Angélica (Cousin Angélica, Carlos Saura, 1973) and Cría cuervos (Raise Ravens, Saura, 1975). After Franco’s death in 1975 more overtly oppositional films also began to appear, including Jaime Chávarri’s El Desencanto (Disenchantment, 1976).

After the socialist election victory in 1982 censorship was further reduced, and more ground-breaking films emerged. Carlos Saura’s ‘flamenco trilogy’ of the 1980s: Bodas de sangre (Blood Wedding, 1981), Carmen (1983) and El amor brujo (Love, The Magician, 1986) moved away from both his neorealist films of the 1960s, and his more expressive, social realist films of the 1970s, to adopt a performative mode of film-making based on musical and dance forms. In its use of performance to explore issues of social and cultural identity, Saura’s dance trilogy can be related to the performative, political modernist cinema which emerged in Germany during the 1970s, in the films of Straub and Syberberg, as well as to a longer tradition within European cinema, dating from G. W. Pabst’s Dreigroschenoper (Threepenny Opera, 1930) and Slatan Dudow’s Kuhle Wampe (1931).

Feature films dealing more critically with contemporary Spanish history began to appear shortly after the death of Franco in 1975. Bardem’s Siete días de enero (Seven Days in January, 1978) is an account of the political events leading up to the assassination of four labour leaders in 1977, and combines documentary reconstruction with a dramatic narrative structure derived from the genre of the political thriller. Bardem’s influential Lorca, muerte de un poeta (Lorca, Death of a Poet, 1987) also draws on personal biography as a means of illuminating wider social, political and historical contexts. Films such as Dragon Rapide (Jaime Camino, 1986), El lute I: camino o revienta (El lute I: Run or Die, Vicente Aranda, 1987), El lute II: Mañana seré libre (1988) and Lorca, muerte de un poeta combine period drama, the political thriller, personal biography and social realism to create a form of film-making which is frequently analytical and critical, but which also occasionally descends into hagiography. By as early as 1980, films such as Gillo Pontecorvo’s Operación Ogro (Operation Ogro) also reveal the evolution of this genre of filmmaking into a more formulaic vehicle, based around the conspiracy/ action film model.58

Just as the Heimatfilme of the 1950s located the source of authentic German national identity in the rural, so, in Francoist Spain, films which depicted rural life also established the Catholic, conservative countryside as the font of a national character which was also epitomised by the ruling regime.59 During the 1970s, leftist filmmakers in Germany, France and Italy began to reassess the rural, and to consider it as a valuable sphere of experience, and alternative to bourgeois society. This was the case, for example, in the films of Francesco Rosi, Ermanno Olmi, René Allio and Edgar Reitz. However, a leftist appropriation of the rural proved to be more problematic within a Spanish cinema which, until as recently as the mid 1970s, had commonly relied on representations of provincial, agrarian life in order to legitimate fascist ideology. Consequently, when the post-Franco oppositional cinema did turn to the depiction of ruralist subject matter it did so from a mainly negative perspective, emphasising the extent to which rural culture had influenced and nurtured fascism.

One of the most important works within this body of films which focused on the darker facets of rural experience was José Luis Borau’s Furtivos (1975). Furtivos depicts a rural world in which acts of incest, murder and brutality occur, if not routinely, then with a degree of inevitability. The term furtivos means both ‘poachers’, and ‘those who lead their lives in a secretive way’, and, in his film, Borau wished to show that ‘under Franco, Spain was living a secretive life’.60 Realist in style, Furtivos is also a symbolic allegory of the way that officially sanctioned power was used as an instrument of oppression within fascist Spain, and uses cinematography which attempts to reproduce the chiaroscuro effects found in the paintings of El Greco and Ribera, in order to express an atmosphere and context of personal and public recidivism.60 Through its portrayal of psychological obsession and betrayal, Furtivos is a work which seeks to counter Franco’s view of Spain as ‘un bosque en paz’ (‘a peaceful wood’), with an image of the country as ‘a secret hellish prison teeming with creatures bent on mutual destruction’.62

MV5BNzRjMjdmYTYtYWNjMS00OGIzLTk1YTctOGM5MWZjNTBhZDAyXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMjAwMzU2MDY@._V1_QL50_Like Furtivos, Ricardo Franco’s Pascual Duarte (1975) paints a similarly pessimistic picture of a Francoist rural arcadia. Pascuel Durante is a peasant caught up in events during the Spanish Civil War. However, he has also been psychologically damaged by an overbearing family, an impoverished social environment and a class hierarchy in which he is positioned near the bottom. This leads him to lash out, kill, and, eventually, be killed himself. Pascual Duarte sets it depictions of violence, murder and matricide against images of a harsh, impoverished rural landscape, and is an allegorical account of an oppressive culture in which violence ‘becomes the only viable language for a class that was stripped of any identity’.63

Both Furtivos and Pascual Duarte can be associated with the tremendista tradition of ‘black’ Spanish pictorial and literary realism, and Furtivos is directly influenced both by Goya’s ‘black’ painting, Saturn Devouring his Son, and by Buñuel’s Tristana.64 The tremendista tradition of black realism can be traced back to the Spanish Inquisition, and to images of the atrocities committed against the ethnic populations of the new world during the Spanish Conquest. However, it has also been used in both literature and film to depict the fratricidal atrocities which occurred during the Spanish Civil War, and both Furtivos and Pascual Duarte draw on this tradition to depict a Francoist culture within which violence, oppression and cruelty are endemic.

Other films within the historical naturalist tradition of Spanish film-making which emerged during the 1970s include those which focused on the figure of the maquis: republican guerrilla fighters who remained active after the fall of the Republic. Films within this category include El corazón del bosque (Bygone Days, Mario Camus, 1977), El corazón del bosque (The Heart of the Forest, Manuel Gutiérrez Aragón, 1978), La luna de los lobos (The Moon of the Wolves, Julio Sánches Valdéz, 1987), La guerra de los locos (The War of the Mad, Manolo Matji, 1987), Pim, pam, pum fuego (Ready, Aim, Fire, Pedro Olea, 1975), Si te dicen que caí (If They Tell You I Fell, Vicente Aranda, 1989) and El espíritu de la colmena (Spirit of the Beehive). The two most important of these are Los días del pasado and El espíritu de la colmena. Los días del pasado frames its narrative of the maquis, and their struggle against the Civil Guard, against a mise-en-scène which represents the surrounding culture and environment in evocative detail. This form of treatment, which aims to place individual characters within a specific, overarching cultural and natural environment, is reminiscent of the films of Olmi and Rosi. However, Camus’s evocation of the people and landscape of Asturias embodies a darker vision than that found within Cristo si è fermato a Eboli or L’Albero dei zoccoli, and ‘recreates the tragedy [of the Civil War] by means of symbols: the landscape, the house, the school, the children … .the cold, the forest’.65

The most important maquis film, El espíritu de la colmena, is also one of the most critically successful Spanish films ever made, and has been described as marking the ‘high point of Spanish cinema’.66 Set in rural Castile, immediately after the end of the Spanish Civil War, Erice’s film depicts the encounter between a young child and a wounded republican maquis. El espíritu de la colmena is presented from the perspective of the child (Ana), and one consequence of this is that it contains relatively little dialogue, and concentrates, instead, on evoking both the visual qualities of the rural Castilian landscape, and the subjective, aphoristic consciousness of childhood. Although El espíritu de la colmena employs some modernist devices, including subjective imagery and non-naturalistic jump-cuts, the overall approach adopted in the film is based on rendering objects, houses and vistas with a degree of resonance which extends beyond their narrative significance within the film. El espíritu de la colmena is also set within a specific historical context. However, rather than depict that context in a Lukácsian vein, the film suggests the moral climate of the period through the use of images of isolation and bleak landscapes, and, through these means, displays a ‘powerful ability to describe the oppressive, sickly and perennially painful atmosphere of the post-war period’.67


Both Los días del pasado and El espíritu de la colmena can be associated with Kracauerian notions of cinematic realism, and Erice’s later film, El sol de membrillo (The Quince Tree Sun, 1992) conforms even more closely to Kracauer’s ideas on realist cinema. In its account of a painter’s attempts to capture the ellusive qualities of a sunlit quince tree, El sol de membrillo can be related to the concept of Naturschöne which Kracauer draws on in Theory of Film. However, as with Los días del pasado, the ‘blacker’ realism of El espíritu de la colmena takes Erice’s earlier film closer to Kracauer’s conception of the cinematic sublime in From Caligari to Hitler, than to the theory of cinematic realism set out in Theory of Film.

The Spanish cinema’s post-war involvement with realism can be traced back to the influence of neorealism in the 1950s. However, that influence was soon mediated by that of the French nouvelle vague. The consequence of this was that film-makers such as Carlos Saura began to distance themselves from neorealism, and to adopt the more modernist, reflexive techniques associated with the nouvelle vague. Saura and others also appropriated the emphasis on authorship within the nouvelle vague, although the prototype of the Spanish auteurist film-maker par excellence already existed, in the shape of Louis Buñuel. From 1960 onwards, Saura consciously modelled his own film-making style on Buñuel’s surrealistic brand of realism, in an attempt to establish himself as the most important Spanish filmmaker. The synthesis of ironic melodrama, realism and surreal fantasy in films such as El ángel exterminador (The Exterminating Angel, 1962), Belle de jour (1967) and Cet obscur objet du désir (That Obscure Object of Desire, 1977) also came to increasingly define the new Spanish cinema, and can be found in films such as Julio Medem’s Vacas (Cowherds, 1992) and La ardilla roja (1993).

Vacas employs a degree of surrealistic reflexivity which distinguishes Medem’s film from the more realistic Furtivos, Los días del pasado, El espíritu de la colmena and El Sol de membrillo. The synthesis of surreal, melodramatic excess and reflexive fantasy found in Vacas can also be seen in the films of the most important filmmaker to emerge in the 1980s, and one who decisively inherited Buñuel’s mantle of Spanish cinematic auteurism: Pedro Almodóvar. However, films such as the spectacularly successful Mujeres al borde de un attaque de nervios (Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, 1988), move substantially away from the central realist tradition, and the same is true of José Juan Bigas Luna’s Jamón jamón (1992), Huevos de oro (1993) and La teta y la luna (1995), Alex de la Iglesia’s Acción mutante (1992) and El día de la bestia (1995), and the films of Urbizu, Bajo, Ulloa and Calparsoro. These films fall outside the remit of this chapter, and must be related to the emergence of a European postmodern cinema during the 1980s and 1990s.

44. Jordan, Barry, and Morgan-Tamosunas, Rikki, Contemporary Spanish Cinema (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1998), p. 17.
45. Deveney, op cit., p. 3.
46. Jordan and Morgan-Tamosunas, op cit., p. 18.
47. Bordwell and Thompson, op cit., p. 430.48. Borau, Luis José, ‘Prologue: The Long March of the Spanish Cinema Towards Itself’, in Evans, Peter William (ed.), Spanish Cinema: The Auteurist Tradition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. xix.
49. Kinder, Marsha, Blood Cinema: The Reconstruction of National Identity in Spain (Berkeley, CA and London: University of California Press, 1993), p. 26.
50. Ibid., p. 27.
51. Ibid., p. 28.
52. Rolph, Wendy, ‘Bienvenido Mr Marshall! (Berlanga, 1952)’, in Evans, op cit., p. 10.
53. Kinder, op cit., p. 29.
54. Roberts, Stephen, ‘In Search of a New Spanish Realism: Bardem’s Calle Mayor (1956)’, in Evans, op cit., p. 19.
55. Kinder, op cit., p. 31.
56. Deveney, op cit., p. 8.
57. Kinder, op cit., p. 5.
58. Jordan and Morgan-Tamosunas, op cit., p. 23.
59. Ibid., p. 46.
60. Deveney, op cit., p. 211.
61. Evans, Peter William, ‘Furtivos (Borau, 1975): My Mother My Lover’, in Evans, op cit., p. 116.
62. Ibid., p. 117.
63. Deveney, op cit., pp. 14–15.
64. Kinder, op cit., p. 234.
65. Deveney, op cit., p. 100.
66. Smith, Julian, Paul, ‘Between Metaphysics and Scientism: Rehistoricizing Victor Erice’s El espíritu de la colmena (1973), in Evans, op cit., p. 93.
67. Deveney, op cit., p. 124.

Source: Aitken, Ian. European Film Theory And Cinema A Critical Introduction. Edinburgh University Press, 2001. Print.

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