One of the pleasures of ¡Viva! over the years has been the inclusion of archive prints which give UK festival audiences the chance to see significant Spanish titles and learn something of the history of Spanish cinema. This year’s offering was two films by Luis García Berlanga (1921-2010) whose career as a writer and director began in the late 1940s and ended with a short film in 2002. Berlanga was known for a series of comedies, at first together with Juan Antonio Bardem and later with the writer Rafael Azcona. Two of his films, Esa pareja feliz (The Happy Couple, 1953) and El verdugo (The Executioner, 1963) are discussed on this blog. The comedies take various approaches from satire through to comedy dramas. Patrimonio nacional is the second film in a trilogy of farces that Berlanga directed, starting with La escopeta nacional in 1978 and finishing with a sequel to Patrimonio nacional, titled Nacional III in 1982. Franco died in 1975 and Berlanga was one of the first directors to to create a commentary on the post-Franco period. Previously, his films had been constructed to appear as comedies about ‘ordinary people’ that might evade Francoist censorship. Now he focused on the aristocracy and how they might fare in newly democratic Spain.
The three films focus on the family of the ‘Marqués de Leguineche’ (Luis Escobar). The marqués has spent the Franco years in exile from the court on his farm 50 miles outside Madrid. Now he wishes to return with the re-establishment of the monarchy in the form of Juan Carlos during the ‘Period of Transition’. The marqués is faced with several problems. His wife Eugenia (Mary Santpere) has remained in the Madrid mansion throughout the Franco period with her faithful manservant Goyo (José Ruiz Lifante). She has allowed most of the great house to deteriorate and is not happy to see her returning husband. He is saddled with a useless son Segundo and his warring wife Chus. The fate of the Spanish aristocracy in the late 1970s was not dissimilar to that of the British aristos ten or twenty years earlier – there is no money to refurbish the house and no interest, or sympathy, from the general population which is attracted by the possibilities of capitalist expansion and consumerism as Spain opens up to the world.
Besides the money needed to restore the great house, it transpires that neither the marqués or his wife have paid any taxes since 1931, when the Republic was first declared – obviously they wouldn’t pay to support the republic and they attempt excuses for the Francoists as well. The marqués is an old rogue and a wily operator who sets out to ‘incapacitate’ his wife – i.e. to have her declared insane. With her out of the way he can perhaps restore the house, while placating the Inland Revenue. He wants to be re-instated at court, but perhaps isn’t quite as obsessed with his status as his son. In everything he tries, however, the marqués is dragged back by his useless son who is a sex pest, mainly interested in trying to acquire his own aristocratic title which might improve his chances with young women. This is something of a scatter-gun approach to satire so we also get a comic priest and a succession of lawyers all with the same family name. Servants are also a target, typified by Goyo. The marqués also has a nephew, a rather glamorous playboy with a beautiful young wife. This nephew appears to be helpful but is also conniving to get the best outcome for himself from whatever the marqués salvages from the potential sale of the house and its treasures. Finally there are the bankers and politicians, who the marqués is informed have replaced the aristocracy in democratic Spain.
Berlanga stages the antics of the marqués and his entourage in long takes on a series of sets with multiple characters. The great house is actually Palacio de Linares in Madrid (according to IMDb). The cinematography by Carlos Suárez who was a regular collaborator with Berlanga at this time is impressive, as is the art design by Roman Arango and Pin Miralos.
I confess that for me this style of comedy has not aged well, especially in comparison with the work of Luis Buñuel, admittedly from the 1970s and mainly before Franco’s death. But it also looks laboured and lacking an edge compared to the early work of Pedro Almodóvar during 1980-1983. Perhaps the comedy just doesn’t travel or is it simply that I can’t identify with aristocratic families in any way? The film seems to have been popular in Spain. The second Berlanga film in the festival was La vaquilla (The heifer, Spain 1985), another comedy, this time set during the Civil War (a first) and focusing on hungry Republican troops who decide to steal a prize heifer from a village under Nationalist control during an annual religious festival. This also seems to have been a very popular film at the time, but I decided to give it a miss and focus on a contemporary film for my last screening. I didn’t really enjoy Patrimonio nacional but I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to see it and to broaden my knowledge of Spanish cinema. The two archive prints were screened with thanks to the Instituto Cervantes.
An unusual and fascinating documentary, Neuve Sevillas offers an avalanche of ideas, memories, observations, opinions and facts that is quite difficult to digest for non-Spanish speakers simply because of the rapid speech and subtitles with often two sets on screen at the same time. However, the gist of the argument is clear and much of what we want to learn is conveyed by songs and dances and newsreel footage. The idea behind the documentary is derived from what I now understand to be a ‘social performance’ approach as a means of ‘decolonising’ a field of knowledge. This is a film about finding the ‘identity’ of interconnected groups of people in Sevilla. But instead of presenting a formal history based on traditional academic writings, the search is conducted by the ‘folks on the ground’ – in this case singers, musicians, dancers, bullfighters, promoters and the fans who enjoy watching, listening and joining in.
Sevilla is Spain’s fourth largest city and the capital of the ‘autonomous community Andalusia’. It has a proud status as a cultural centre for the three components of flamenco – singing, guitar-playing and dancing. Sevilla is also a centre for other forms of music as well, including modern rock music. However, the identity discussed in the film focuses on the gitano communities of the region. Gitano refers to Roma people of the region, but it is slightly more complicated than that since as one ‘witness’ tells us: “Flamenco and gitano are the same, gitano and Roma are the same but Roma and flamenco are two different things”. I think this means that there are other forms of Roma music as well as flamenco. Sevilla is a music melting pot. Music in the city is influenced by the Jewish and Moorish histories of the region as well as other African migrants and South Americans who have returned to Andalusia and with them ‘American’ influences – one of the dancers featured is from Chile. Italian influences are also cited and the music also has connections across Eastern Europe.
To present these ‘discourses’ or ‘conversations’, director Gonzalo García Pelayo (who is listed as a co-director with Pedro G. Romero) makes one of the ‘journeys’ through the city himself as well as popping up in the linking segments. The structure is to present nine separate individuals with their Sevilla stories and in between to offer a range of music and dance performances representing the city more broadly. I’m not going to list all nine but I’m sure you get the picture. I’ll just take the first three. The film starts with archive material presented in Academy ratio and leads into Yinka’s story. She originates in Africa and promotes the African connections in the city’s culture whereas the second story features ‘Bobote’ who comes from Triana, an old district that is the home of traditional gitano culture. Gonzalo García Pelayo includes footage of his own film set in the city, Vivir en Sevilla (1978) and then claims that the film needs more sex and passion, so we get an extract from Buñuel’s last film That Discreet Object of Desire (1977) in which a woman dances naked before Fernando Rey in a restaurant. Two women discuss bullfighting in another journey and what it means to leave the barrio and another explains how she has lived in what she terms “a shack” waiting for a promised house for many years after her arrival from Galicia.
Each of the nine characters takes us on the next part of the journey through the city, through the history and the culture. The narrative structure plays out over twenty-four hours, starting after siesta one afternoon. The nine stories are not ‘separate’ and the characters sometimes turn up in each others stories. What remains central is the tension between the gitano/Roma community and culture and the mainstream Spanish culture. This is partly a tension created by a desire to maintain tradition within the community while at the same time wanting to be recognised within the contemporary society on an equal footing. This is represented in the use of language so that there is a struggle over ‘gitano‘ as a description that means something within the community but is considered as potentially offensive when used by others. In one segment we are told that the gitano/Roma community is a ‘political category’ and that for Spain if they didn’t exist they would need to be invented. This sounds like a familiar argument expressed by strong communities in many parts of the world, keeping their identity alive through cultural activities. Not all have the history and achievements of flamenco culture.
This is a long film (160 minutes) and there is a danger that audiences who don’t already know something about Sevilla and its people will be overwhelmed. Would it be more effective as two or three separate films? I don’t think so because that would lose the 24 hour journey. Perhaps it just needs a little tightening in the edit. However, I think most audiences will sit back and let the film roll over them (the festival brochure calls it ‘immersive’). The music and dancing are very impressive and enjoyable and anyone who watches it is likely get an urge to walk through Sevilla’s streets on a summer’s evening. I’m pleased to see the political and cultural analysis that the film offers. Here is a culture that remains vibrant in an increasingly commercialised world.
The full ¡Viva! film festival experience returns to HOME, Manchester at its usual time of the year after the interruptions of the last two years. The 2022 festival begins this coming Friday 18th March with Explota explota, a film featuring the songs of the 1970s superstar Raffaella Carrà, and continues through to Thursday April 7th. A familiar programme structure sees two features each weekday and an extended programme at the weekends. A festival calendar is available here. This year’s programme features 19 new features from Spain and Latin America plus two classic archive films from Luis García Berlanga. These are later works by Berlanga, La Vaquilla (The Heifer, 1985) and Patrimonio nacional (National Heritage, 1981), both comedies.
A highlight of the programme will be the visit of Icíar Bollaín, who will be present for a Q&A following the screening of her 2021 film Maixabel. This film explores the potential for ‘repentance and reconciliation’ when a woman agrees to meet one of the ETA group members who killed her husband, a Basque politician eleven years earlier. ‘Live’ Q&As were not possible for the last festivals and it’s great to see them returning. The twenty one festival films are available across fifty screenings with all films being screened at least twice. Some features will be accompanied by short films. There are also other ‘added value’ elements such as film introductions and guest appearances plus the annual Café Cervantes opportunity to chat about films in Spanish and a ‘Language Lab’ session for adult students.
This year’s films come from Spain, Argentina, Chile, Peru, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Costa Rica and Mexico. Eleven of the films are from début directors and there is a group of six ‘coming-of-age’ stories so there is a ‘youthful’ feel to the festival overall.
It can’t have been easy trying to develop a festival programme as the COVID regulations in different territories have chopped and changed over the last two years but ¡Viva! is in the safe hands of Rachel Hayward, Head of Film, Jessie Gibbs, ¡Viva! Festival Coordinator, and Andy Willis, Professor of Film Studies at the University of Salford and HOME’s Senior Visiting Curator: Film. We hope to feature at least one report from the festival this year as we make our cautious re-entry into cinemas. But if you are in Manchester or can visit easily, we recommend diving in. All the details of screenings and events are on the HOME website.
If there is one filmmaker likely to persuade me back into the cinema it is Pedro Almodóvar, although admittedly I did only watch The Human Voice on a streamer – it was too soon to go back to the cinema then. This time I chose a large cinema for an 11.00 am screening when I hoped for plenty of empty seats. That all worked. The only problem was that wearing a mask meant my glasses steamed up for the first few minutes and at the end of the film I experienced weeping while wearing a mask and that was something new – but I generally weep in melodramas so I should have expected it.
The sensation of hearing Alberto Iglesias’ score accompanying the usual beautifully designed titles for an Almodóvar film – this time in red and black on a light background – was wonderfully encouraging and I knew I would enjoy the next two hours. I had heard some comments that this was not vintage Almodóvar and some viewers seem to have been underwhelmed. I can see why they might feel that way but everything worked for me. I think that this is in one sense a relatively simple narrative, almost streamlined in its presentation, but that it has the the political ‘kick’ that I was hoping for and that seems to be much more pronounced than in his earlier films. For much of its running time this is almost a chamber piece with perhaps five main characters, only opening out into the presentation of a community in the last section. At the centre of the film is Penélope Cruz who I find it very difficult to view objectively as an actor and not as some form of celluloid/digital goddess.
Last night I watched again the opening to Carne trémula (Live Flesh, Spain 1997). In a prologue set in January 1970 during a state of emergency under the Franco dictatorship, Penélope Cruz plays a young woman giving birth on a Madrid corporation bus late at night. The rest of the film’s narrative is set in the present when the boy born on the bus has become a man. I mention this prologue not just because it confirms the status of Ms Cruz as a long-time Almodóvar collaborator, but also signals a key element of the status of motherhood under Franco, shown by Almodóvar in black and white newsreel style footage of the birth being celebrated by the Mayor of Madrid and the head of the public bus service. It has been rare to see direct representation of Spanish society under Franco in Almodóvar’s films. In his early ‘underground’ career as part of the la movida in Madrid, he preferred to ignore the immediate past and the politics of the present but since then the history of the Francoist past has sometimes been palpable but not central in the narratives. In this new film the Penélope Cruz character (Janis) again gives birth and the birth itself will be both functional and symbolic in recognising the horror and trauma faced by families in 1936 at the start of the Civil War.
Janis is a fashion and celebrity photographer in Madrid who finds herself on a commission to photograph Arturo (Israel Elejalde), a forensic archaeologist. He’s an attractive man and they meet after the shoot. He is also the right person to ask about exhumation. Janis has family back in her village – as is common in many of Almodóvar’s films since he himself came to the city from La Mancha. The villagers want to exhume a small mass grave where their menfolk were buried after execution by Falangists on the first day of the war. This has been possible since the 2007 Law of Historical Memory passed by the socialist government of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero but succeeding governments have not subsidised or encouraged exhumations. But Janis has photographs taken by her great-grandfather and there are still survivors who were children in 1936. Arturo believes exhumation is possible and that the deaths are of historical importance because of the date. The narrative will cover the next two or three years during which Janis will have a baby and Arturo will pursue the case for exhumation.
Janis finds herself in a hospital room with Ana (Milena Smit), a teenager whose mother is Teresa (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón), a divorced actress from a conservative family in Granada. Janis is a single mother as well and very independent. Her main friend and support is Elena (Almodóvar regular, Rossy de Palma), head of the agency that finds her photography commissions and from the same village. Alongside Arturo, these are the five main characters. I’m sure I don’t have to spell out the situation. Janis and Ana are the ‘parallel mothers’ who both have their babies to care for and who want to maintain a friendship after leaving the maternity ward. Janis is older and more experienced and Ana has had a difficult family life – but not one lacking in material resources. The crucial scene is that between Janis and Ana when Ana declares to Janis’ dismay that she should put the past behind her and just think about the future. Where will Ana be when the exhumation takes place outside the village?
Sight & Sound ran a major piece on Almodóvar in the March 2022 issue. Maria Delgado a regular writer on Spanish cinema for the magazine has talked to Pedro Almodóvar and provided a detailed overview of the film narrative, including the background to the the history of ‘the disappeared’ in the Civil War. She reminds us that Amnesty International has listed Spain as the country with the second largest number of ‘forcibly disappeared persons’ (after Cambodia) and 114,000 civilians killed by Franco during the Civil War and its immediate aftermath. Delgado refers to limpieza social (‘social cleansing’) by Francoists to eradicate opposition in the state. I don’t remember seeing this phrase before and I had thought that the use of ‘cleansing’ in this way was an invention of analysts of the conflicts associated with the break-up of Yugoslavia. ‘Cleansing’ is a hideous term that fully conveys the inhumanity of all forms of fascism. As Delgado suggests, one of the worst horrors of the Spanish Civil War was the way in which families were silenced by fear and the numbing pain caused by their loved ones who have ‘disappeared’. If you are able to read Maria Delgado’s piece it really helps to understand the film.
I’ve suggested that the narrative structure of the film is relatively ‘simple’ (barring some time leaps) but as Maria Delgado pints out, its meanings are complex and there are many layers of meaning. The story is essentially about the women, both the four characters and the the women who are remembered and the histories of those who tried to keep families together over the long period of ‘silence’. It is also about babies and the world into which they are born and which still harbours within it the evils of the past – Almodóvar has been attacked in the media by the right in Spain. The film is also about images and photography – the photographs of the men who were executed that are used in the film are the work of Virxilio Viéitez (1930-2008). In a sense the film is a political melodrama in which the Spanish women of 2021 have the opportunity to build different lives as women free from the terrors of Francoism and its residual evils. Janis (named after Janis Joplin) and Ana might disagree about remembering the past but can they come together to make the future?
Billy is an unusual short (71 minutes) documentary feature, first screened at the Seville European Film Festival in 2020 and scheduled to be released in Spain in September 2021. It is another of the UK premières that have been offered by HOME at this year’s ¡Viva!. The film opens with a sequence that appears to come from a European Western (actually El hombre que mató a Billy el Niño, Spain-Italy 1967). A young blonde cowboy on horseback is being chased across across a dry scrub landscape into a small town by a group of ‘Federales’. A voiceover tells us that this isn’t a Western, although there are guns, chases and sheriffs and good guys and bad guys – but it’s too early to reveal them. All this while a woman dashes out of an adobe house to bring in her child in an almost direct hommage to the opening of Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars. The voiceover tells us that in fact this is a film about events only a relatively short time ago in a location that is also not too distant. This is immediately followed by a montage of talking heads all giving descriptions of ‘Billy the Kid’. A close-up of a pistol being fired at the camera turns into an animated credit sequence, also re-calling Leone, announcing ‘Billy’. This is certainly an arresting opening and soon the voiceover returns to tell us that Antonio González Pacheco, a police inspector in the Social Political Brigade of the Francoist regime in Spain during the late 1960s, died without having been tried for his crimes of torture and murder despite the demands of his victims and their families. The coronavirus delayed the post-production of the film and it also took Pacheco and one of the witnesses to his crimes. When shooting began Pacheco was alive, now he is dead but the need to expose his crimes remains.
As the witnesses began to identify themselves as members of various anti-fascist political parties that they joined as university students and young activists, I remembered the Spanish political thriller that featured in ¡Viva! 23, Seven Days in January (7 dias de enero, Spain-France 1979) that offered a compelling fictionalised account of the police and fascist ‘guerrilla action’ against communist lawyers and activists which threatened to derail the transition towards democracy in Spain following Franco’s death in 1975. What I certainly wasn’t aware of was the extent to which young anti-fascists were active in Madrid during 1968 when student protest spread from Paris, Berlin, London, California and Mexico across the world. It seems to me now that those Spanish students faced a much more serious threat to their very survival, certainly compared to most student revolutionaries in the UK (though not those overseas students being tracked in the UK by intelligence services). Here in Billy we meet several of those Spanish student activists and other young activists, now in their late 60s or early 70s but with vivid memories of the late 1960s. As one of them puts it:
You could see how the police acted, how they tortured, how they repressed, how they shot for real – they didn’t shoot rubber bullets.
The witnesses constitute a diverse group of men and women who belonged to a variety of communist and anti-fascist political parties which didn’t necessarily agree on tactics. Some were determined to rely on words and the democratic process, others believed in direct action, including armed struggle. Writer-director Max Lemcke and his crew have access to a diverse range of material, including footage of demonstrations and street battles, newsreels and personal archives. Much of it is accessible for any audience but some probably means much more to Spanish audiences. A witness reminds us that it was difficult to find ‘important books’, to hear songs (such as the Victor Jara one used here) and watch movies in this period.
But who was ‘Billy’ and how did he acquire the name? Antonio González Pacheco arrived at university in Madrid in 1968 and in 1969 became a Junior Inspector in the ‘Social Investigation Brigade’. He quickly became a leading player in the ‘Dirty War’ waged by the police and fascist gangs against any left organisations. I think the term ‘Dirty War’ is used to deliberately link to the similar activities in Argentina, Chile, Brazil and other Latin American countries. The ‘Transition’ to democracy was was slow and although democratic elections produced a conservative government it did not have a majority. There was a major issue about the refusal to legitimise the Spanish Communist Party and a concerted effort by the new government to declare various Amnesties and not to investigate the activities of Francoist crimes against the people at that point. These are some of the issues discussed in Billy. Some historians mark the end of Transition with the failed coup d’état of 1981 and the election of the majority government of the PSOE or Spanish Socialist Party (a centrist party by the standards of most of the witnesses in Billy). The crucial point is that the torture and murder of leftist political activists as practised by Pacheco/’Billy the Kid’ did not stop in 1975 but continued into the 1980s.
‘Billy’ is portrayed in Seven Days in January and we get to see clips from that film and to hear the witness statement of the actor who played him. He got his name because he was a show-off who liked to parade his weapon and he was something of a dandy. Different witnesses explain how the torture terror worked and how the murders happened. The vivid descriptions are shocking and so is the observation that the fascists in the police force, just as the fascists in the élite, made the transition to democracy without being investigated or imprisoned and keeping their positions in many cases. The 1970s also saw an ‘International’ organisation of fascist police groups with meetings arranged with similar groups in Italy and West Germany.
I found the testimonies riveting, although the plethora of different political parties and revolutionary groups was a little confusing. The documentary is not publicly-funded or made by a media corporation. It was completely crowd-funded and all the contributors are listed in the long credits. It can therefore be a partial account (Francoists were invited but declined to be interviewed), though some of the witnesses have different views about direct action. The filmmakers have, however, decided that too many talking heads in long sequences would make the film unwatchable for any but the most diehard supporters. They have therefore used the Billy the Kid film as well as a Lucky Luke animated version of the Billy the Kid story and even an old black and white TV advert for Nesquik similar to the ‘Milky Bar Kid’ UK ad from 1961. The witnesses describe Billy in different ways – as a clown, as someone almost ‘deified’, as a sinister man, loathed and feared etc. The name stuck from his earliest university appearances but not everyone thought it was a good idea to repeat the nickname. I see the problem for a filmmaker wanting different material but I think there is probably too much of the feature film material shown – which does suggest Billy as the ‘hero’.
Fifty years is a long time to wait for witnesses to be heard. I’m glad I was able to see this film which has a repeat showing at HOME, Manchester on Saturday 21st August at 12.45. As fascism begins to rise again across the globe it’s important to introduce younger audience to this history and these victims of torture.
After two ‘smaller’ independent films, my third ¡Viva! title is a more mainstream comedy drama. I’ve again chosen to go with the direct translation of the Spanish title into English, since the ‘given’ English title doesn’t make much sense. This is a familiar narrative, probably most recognisable as referencing films such as The Odd Couple (Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, 1968), but really any narrative in which seemingly disparate characters are thrown together and must find a modus operandi of some kind. The setting is Sevilla and an oldish apartment block in a now desirable part of the city. Sara (Juana Acosta) is senior manager in an insurance company, an attractive but rather serious and stressed woman on the brink of 40. She is being shown around an apartment by Óscar (Carlos Areces) a seemingly not very competent estate agent. The apartment is going at half the usual price and eventually the reason for this unusual sale becomes clear. There is an ‘inconvenience’ – the current owner must be allowed to stay on until she dies. Lola (Kiti Mánver) is in her mid 70s with a history of heart problems and she smokes, drinks and eats too many sweet and fatty foods. Óscar gaily announces that she won’t last long and refers to her as an ‘inconvenience’. The fact that Sara rebukes him suggests that perhaps she isn’t quite as cold as she first appears.
This is a quite glossy and beautifully-presented ‘Scope comedy that offers a familiar story in an attractive city. It is certainly funny and and sometimes quite moving. It’s not giving too much away to note that the two women are both lonely and for not dissimilar reasons. They will initially be at loggerheads but will also each grudgingly admire the other at times. Óscar provides a kind of running joke by popping up at regular intervals in various service jobs, none of which he can hold down for long. His incompetence is something the two women can agree about. In terms of timing and performance it is perhaps worth noting that Carlos Areces and Kiti Mánver are both alumni of Almodóvar productions. Juana Acosta is well cast as the business woman with her own problems beneath a polished veneer. Director Bernabé Rico is making his feature film début after several shorts and a decade of producer credits. Cinematographer Rita Noriega is also a features debutant. The script is by the director and Juan Carlos Rubio (based on his own theatre play) and the music is by Julio Awad.
I did find the film entertaining and I enjoyed the performances and the presentation, but I think that the relationship between the two central characters could be explored further, including their back stories. The basic premise (about a half-price apartment that Sara sees as a sound investment) refers to a real social issue in Spain – the rising cost of housing. This and Sara’s lack of a work-life balance, which means that she hasn’t yet decided whether she wants to have a child, point the way towards a richer social comedy that might have more resonance while remaining a mainstream entertainment. The dramatic element might be a little more developed too. El inconveniente is showing again at ¡Viva! on Saturday August 14th at 18.00 and Friday 20th August at 20.40. It would make a good weekend ‘fun film’. This trailer (no English subs) gives a sense of the rapid-fire dialogue: