Monday, June 30, 2008

Spanish Cinema Beyond Almodovar

The Guardian publishes a piece about an ongoing festival of Spanish films in London bemoaning the lack of distribution and general awareness of Spanish films other than those directed by Almodovar. Some enthusiastic subeditor chose to title it as "The Curse of Almodovar" which prompts a response by Almodovar himself.

The story of Spanish cinema (and culture in general) in twentieth century is a sad one, perhaps best exemplified in the career of Luis Bunuel, one of the greatest film directors of all time.

Last year museum of modern art had a retrospective of Spanish films made under the Franco dictatorship. This list should be a pretty handy guide to start. Victor Erice's The Spirit of the Beehive and Carlos Saura's Cria Cuervos are both amazing films, extremely rich in social and political subtext. They actually even complement each other. Viridiana is of course a classic - less a film and more a frontal assault on the official Spanish culture of the time. The Hunt another film by Saura is also a thinly veiled allegory of Spanish history in twentieth century, specially the civil war. Death of a Cyclist was recently released on DVD by criterion which I haven not seen.

Among recent Spanish films. La Communidad (The Community) was a hilarious black-comedy/satire about an apartment community and the mayhem that starts after an old man dies leaving a few millions in cash in his apartment. Crimen Ferpecto by the same director was considerably less funny but still a pretty effective send-up of the stereotype of Spanish machismo. Solas (Alone) won many Goya awards in Spain but I found it somewhat sentimental and button-pushing, though definitely well-made and well-acted. Open Your Eyes by Alejandro Amenabar has deservedly achieved the status of a cult-classic too. Wikipedia has more links.

4 comments:

puccinio said...

Spanish cinema has problems in that there being issue of finance and also because there's a strong regional identity in Spain and inside Spain(Like Catalonia and Basque Country). The thing about European cinema is that while masters like de Oliveira, Godard, Resnais or what-have-you will find it relatively easy to find finance, especially de Oliveira(who'll turn 100 this december) other directors with a stronger regional identity have to really struggle.

And Spanish cinema faces that issue as do the Eastern Europeans and Russians. Almodovar has managed to become international so he has fewer hurdles.

Some directors break out but others remain obscure. Even Bunuel the most famous Spanish-language director of all time is more famous for his later french films than his great work in Mexico which has long been sidelined as a dark phase of exile into commercial cinema. Of course, Mexico isn't Spain but it's a symptom.

Bunuel himself was pretty critical of that establishment. He often talked about how little French knew about the Spanish even if they border each other and compared that with France's awareness of Italy or Germany. His last film, ''Cet Obscur Objet du Desir'' is a mocking take on cross-border relations between the French and Spanish.

Kubla Khan said...

Hi Alok

i was in Edinburgh recently for the International film festival and watched a few new and unscreened movies, with sessions with the directors, actors etc.
The alternative film industry also acts very much like the commercial enterprise with unknown and really great movies not finding an audience etc when people get known, through film critics etc, they get catapulted to fame while the unknown but equally good movies remaining unknown.
i w'd like to mention a few i saw there, one called Mancora, a peruvian movie and amongst others there is a movie called In the city of Sylvia which had clear traces of the Marienbad movie. South American movies were really good but the issues of finance, publicity and acceptance are still there. There was also a very good indian movie that was screened.

Alok said...

puccinio: a strong liguistic and regional identity might be a problem though ideally it should actually be an incentive to explore such kind of national cinema because they may then be seen as a window or entry point into understanding of the culture and history of that particular nation.

With Spain I was thinking more of the Franco's dictatorship and general conservatism of the official culture of Spain. Bunuel's career is a very good illustration of how writers and artists had to suffer because of this. Also i am surprised how underrepresented Bunuel's mexican work remains on DVD. they are available in shoddy editions or not at all. I have seen some like the frighteningly brutal and unsentimental Los Olvidados and also Nazarin, Simon of the Desert and The Exterminating Angel... these are all classics. I hope someone takes the initiative to release them on good critical edition DVDs.

Almodovar is a great director and it is really heartening that he has found such a global audience but I doubt if many of his audiences really think about deeper questions he raises about sexuality and the idea of gender identity as performance... just to give one example. Lots of colours, lots of laughs and melodrama all this from a pedigree of arthouse Euro filmmaker -- that's what, sadly, may be his main attraction for a lot of his audience.

kubla: In the City of Sylvia received a lot of critical acclaim when it was shown at the new york film festival. I haven't seen it yet... i hope I can lay my hands on the DVD some time. From the description it does sound like Last Year in Marienbad...

puccinio said...

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Also i am surprised how underrepresented Bunuel's mexican work remains on DVD. they are available in shoddy editions or not at all. I have seen some like the frighteningly brutal and unsentimental Los Olvidados and also Nazarin, Simon of the Desert and The Exterminating Angel... these are all classics.
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No arguments from me. Then there's also films like ''Cela s'appelle d'aurore'', ''Illusion Travels by Streetcar'', ''El'', his English-language films shot in Mexico - ''Robinson Crusoe'' and ''The Young One''. And also his take on ''Wuthering Heights''...odd doesn't begin to describe it. And then there is my all-time favourite Bunuel film, a major French New Wave influence(the first bunch to seriously look at his Mexican films) - ''Ensayo de un crimen'' better known as(and a better title, I must say)...''The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz''.

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With Spain I was thinking more of the Franco's dictatorship and general conservatism of the official culture of Spain. Bunuel's career is a very good illustration of how writers and artists had to suffer because of this.
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Franco certainly ruined Spain and set Spain back. Bunuel certainly didn't like being an emigre or an exile and many people who knew him often said how Spanish he was even in France and the like. In fact, critics generally consider the characters played by Fernando Rey to be Luis' stand-ins. Especially ''Tristana'', one of his most mature and serious films.

But hey the Spaniards had Gaudi, they had Lorca, they had Bunuel and many other great artists so it's not like Spanish culture sat out of the 20th Century. Besides there seems to be an ongoing interest in searching out non-Bunuel film artists in Spain. One guy called Pere Portabella, who produced ''Viridiana''(and certainly helped Bunuel sneak that in under Franco's nose) seems very interesting.

And in Latin America you had directors like Glauber Rocha, Nelson Perreira dos Santos and Arturo Ripstein(one of Bunuel's AD) who are major film-makers of their era.