Three Spanish films that define a nation

ALMODOVAR. A simple, universal word, one that has been defining Spanish cinema for over forty years. Pedro Almodovar’s films have captured the culture and the identity of Spain through a medium which is predominantly dominated by English speakers. For a country which has been declining (and still is) since the end of their Empire in the 1800s, this is quite the accomplishment; but how much do we really know about Spain’s long history of film? If you’re answer is, “I know! I’ve seen all of Almodovar’s films!” I would kindly ask you to leave your address in the comment section below so that I can find you and slap you in the face with my giant leg of jamon. Dripped in sangria. And paella.

Some people might say that Spanish cinema would not have been recognisable or popular if it wasn’t for Pedro Almodovar. I strongly disagree. I believe that Spanish cinema was as influential, as crucial, and as entertaining as most films in any Top Ten Best Movie lists care to offer. Here are a few Spanish films to prove why:

El espíritu de la colmena (1973)

The Spanish Civil War is regarded as the embodiment of Spanish history, the one thing Spain as a country will most notably be remembered for. Not merely for the thousands who lost their lives during a violent three years between 1933 and 1936, but how the country changed after the civil war. El espíritu de la colmena, or The Spirit of the Beehive, is considered as the voice of a million people. After the civil war, a new form of government was put in charge of the country through the leadership of General Franco (history lesson time!). His ideal Spain would be run through the notion of one language, one religion, one country, which ultimately isolated the entire peninsula to a strict, controlled, and censored state. This was hugely problematic to the few filmmakers who couldn’t put their work out due to propaganda and censorship.

The Spirit of the Beehive was one of those films that successfully got through censorship, managing to get its anti-civil war message across to the public through careful editing and intelligent storytelling. What the film ended up being was a beautifully dark picture of Spain during the 70s; painted in metaphors, lit with rich pigments of yellow, and characters which melted off the screen with awkward conversation and uncomfortable silences.

The film tells the story of a family living in a rural Spanish village just after the civil war. The film is told through the eyes of a child, Ana, the youngest in the family. After watching the 1931 classic, Frankenstein, Ana is curious about the symbolisms of the film. A few days later she finds a wounded Republican soldier hiding in an abandoned house; and instead of learning from the consequences found in Frankenstein (when the monster accidentally kills the little girl) she instead tends to the soldier’s wounds. After the Republican soldier is found by the local authorities and murdered, Ana turns her back on her family, and refuses to speak or eat with them.

The film is drizzling with metaphors and images that imply the aggressive and unpopular opinion many Spaniards had during Franco’s reign. There is no real story. The characters hardly ever talk, the silences are sometimes too awkward, the music is slow and sudden; it’s a beautifully depressing film. There’s an especially perfect scene where Ana is watching Frankenstein for the first time and the camera zooms into her face showing every emotion at once; awe, excitement, love, fear, wonder, that only a child could show. The shot was perfect because it was the first time the actress playing little Ana was watching Frankenstein herself, so you get a palpable sense of realism.

It’s worth checking out for the cinematography, and the use of silence in films. It also serves for some interesting Spanish history. Through context, the film is one of the greatest.

La vaquilla (1985)

Another film about the civil war. Those who powered through The Spirit of the Beehive and are still reading, I apologise for the history lesson. I promise I won’t rant again.

The Heifer is another film about the Spanish civil war (stay with me now) which takes a significantly different turn. The film is a comedy directed by Luis Garcia Berlanga who takes a very dark period of Spanish history and shows it in a very light, and comical way. After learning that the enemy have a young bull on their side to be used for national celebrations, a group of Republican soldiers decide to sneak behind enemy lines and steal the heifer back to their camp. It results in a series of comical adventures where they meet strange characters along the way.

Spanish humour can only be described as aural. Where as Britain is more associated with slapstick, witty and intellectual humour (Mr Bean, Two Ronnies, Father Ted, Blackadder), the United States are more physical, with more punchlines and one liners (Saturday Night Live, Whose Line Is It Anyway?, Laurel and Hardy), Spanish humour is very much based on verbal reactions, with a lot of shouting and vulgar cursing. Not to say it’s not intelligent or physical, but The Heifer is where Spanish comedy is at its purest. A lot of laughs come from the group’s antics and interplay with each other. It serves for some great comedic timing which can be enjoyed in any language.

Where the film becomes a classic for me personally is the way the film satirises the two opposing armies. Using comedy as a theme to a film with a subject matter as heavy as the civil war was not easy, but the film is successful in being able to poke fun at both sides while at the same time showing great human reactions to two groups of people who are, despite some vague political differences, the same.

For example, both armies have whatever the other needs. One side have all the cigarettes, the other, all the lighters. Another example is when the group decide to take a swim in a river together, they take off their uniforms and jump in, only to be met with another group of men doing the same thing. They laugh, the start playing games, only to find out that the other group of men were from the opposing side. After a few hilarious reactions both groups decide to slowly walk away from a seriously awkward situation.

All in all, it’s an enjoyable film highlighting a very cultural, distinctly Spanish sense of humour that persists even through a very bleak period of history.

I won’t spoil the ending, but it’s unexpected. Hilariously unexpected.

El mar adentro (2004)

Unfortunately for Spain, many of its cinemas are occupied by the latest Hollywood blockbusters, leaving little to no room for its own film industry to break through. However, one thing Spain does have to offer to the world is its sublime acting talent. Antonio Banderas, Penelope Cruz …. and … others, but recently one has been shifting his way through Hollywood’s A-listers; Javier Bardem. His excellent performances in No Country for Old Men, Biutiful, and Skyfall have helped him gain popularity and recognition as a versatile actor.

There is no better film to show off his talents than The Sea Inside. Considered to be one of the few films to make it out of Spain successfully, The Sea Inside tells the remarkable true story of Ramon Sampedro, played by Bardem, a quadriplegic campaigning to win the right to die. After a 28 year battle only able to move his head, the film explores Sampedro’s life as he promotes euthanasia across Spain.

The film is beautiful, not for its touching soundtrack, not for its wonderful pace, but for Bardem’s performance and the dramatic weight the film was able to pull off. This is largely due to the characters’ story, the heart-warming relation between two women who both fall in love with him for different reasons. These dynamics cleverly exchange between the idea that life is worth living, to free will and the ability to control your life as far as to end it. Not much to say about the story; it’s touching to the very end, but it’s the dialogue and conviction that really sets it apart from other films.

It’s a touching film full of drama and tears, but it’s more fondly remembered for the acting talents of a country which has evolved. It’s a serious, realistic, touching story, moving away from the crass and the vulgarity that Almodovar loved, and focused more on the performances of some of Spain’s greatest actors. It looked like a Hollywood film, but it felt as if Spanish cinema was finally looking polished.

These are only three in a long long line of Spanish masterpieces that have been overlooked over the years. I’m not denying that Almodovar is one of the greatest directors that Spain has ever produced – I believe he is, and he will continue to entertain for more years to come. However, with one director taking centre stage, it forces everyone else to fall back, especially in a country where film is unfortunately losing popularity. Spain has given birth to amazing actors, brilliant directors, sensational stories, great artists, but what made them great was the identity and the history of an incredibly cultural country.

Why did Almodovar start directing? Where did he get his ideas from? How did he start out? These questions are traced back to the civil war, censorship, Franco. The best explanation for this came from my Spanish professor at university:

“Spain was a fizzy bottle of soda which has been shaken for many years. It just took the death of a dictator to open the lid and explode it into the scene.”

In true Almodovar fashion, take that last metaphor as sexually as you will.

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