On the surface, Spanish Cinema tells a familiar story along the lines of most of Global Cinema. A promising start is interrupted by war which leads to an eventual social revolution, a democracy, and then new found growth and success in cinema.
As I continue to travel the world through film in 2020 though, I am finding that while the template is familiar, every Country applies this narrative to different points of their cinematic history with a slightly different weight and nuance to particular, culturally located realities. The development of film is intimately tied to a Country’s ethos, and mirrors the socio-political reality. And thus the rise and fall of a film industry, and when it rises and falls, says something significant about the Country and its people.
For Spain, the emphasis is put on the contrast that exists between its modest and quiet start and a now thriving modern industry. Most of the interest of its cinematic development is weighted on the attention the Country has garnered by critics and viewers in the last 30 or so years, with the long shadows of Italy and France, and even Mexico, the three primary international film industries that partnered with Spain along the way, finally giving way to something that is now distinctly Spanish culture. This recent emergence has led to greater awareness of Spanish films, Spanish film companies, and Spanish culture, elevating both art and viewer in the eyes of critics and viewers across the world.
An Emerging Industry and the Demise of Spanish Colonies
One interesting aspect of Spain’s film industry is that the eventual emergence of films around 1896 coincided with the demise of Spanish colonization. In a sense, the early years of of the silent era wasn’t able to gain much momentum, either on a cultural or political front, leading to a modest start and a very gradual subsequent development following the arrival of the Lumiere Brothers and this new, mysterious technology. However, as film developed, so did a dictatorship, rising from the ranks of the monarchy (and the monarchies fall) to try and rally Spain around a new vision for its people. What sets the stage for this to happen is what history describes as The Spanish Civil War.
The Civil War, National Identity, and a Coopted Film Industry
To try and tap into a socio-political narrative and voice, a necessary facet of film’s development, presence and success, early silent films of this time tended to try and reach back into the pages of their history to locate a semblance of a time of unity and national identity. You see this same thing happening in Countries in the East at times of fracture, as locating a narrative from the past can help give them a sense of purpose and identity, a place to locate themselves within the less than ideal circumstances. Filmed mostly in and around Barcelona and then Madrid, Spain struggled to find a unified story in the divided peoples, eventually shifting into the sound era without much of an established industry, even despite the development of the the Spanish Industrial Film Company Inc. (1930), which tired to supply some direction and vision.
The Civil War started in 1936, seeing a push back against the monarchy happening alongside the rise of Franco, a fascist dictator who wanted to see the monarchy remain. This period saw the loss and destruction of all but “10 percent” of their silent films. Film became censored propaganda, with the industry being pulled into both sides of the war by way of competing studios and interests (with those on the side of Franco setting up the “National Department of Cinematography” to aid his purposes). This pushed Spanish culture and Spanish artists further into the shadows in the immediate onset, ensuring that a local industry had even less of a presence. What did happen in the midst of this though was the continued growth of international film industries coming into Spain, something that would pose even further of a challenge to finding a true Spanish Identity in film.
“Even if the indifference of Franco’s fascist regime to cinema meant the indigenous film industry progressed only in fits and spurts, the country took advantage of its unique landscape and low production costs to become an important location for international producers in the 1960s.”
– Spanish Film History
By the time the Civil War ended, the Spanish film industry would become known for three central international relationships- Spanish-Italian films, Spanish-French films, and Spanish-Mexican films. The only real presence in terms of Spanish culture at the time of The Civil and Second World War (which ironically Spain stayed out of, at least in part because they relied on American imports, including their filmmakers, coming in to shoot films) was a filmmaker by the name of Buñuel.
The Legacy of Luis Bunuel
Luis Bunuel might be one of the most important figures in Spanish cinematic history, and not just because of his films, but because of what he represented. A boxer from the upper class, Bunuel’s life was built on a desire to erase the lines that divided social classes in Spain at the time. He rebelled against state religion and the upper class rules, instead creating connections with the people and the stories they wanted and needed to tell. He is known for helping to inspire The Surrealist movement by way of his presence and time with the people. His own films bear the mark of someone who held a complicated relationship with himself and his past, bearing numerous emotions and flavors, including the surrealist film, undercut with a serious horror and expressionist vibe, Un Chien Andalou.
Since Bunuel traveled between Spain and France and Italy and Mexico, this well tread road also helped to instill the international presence in Spain as well, including the development of one of Spain’s more well known genres, the Spaghetti Western. When Franco died in 1975 (after 36 years in power), the monarchy would once again be established before leading the way, under King Juan Carlos 1 into democracy, and this would be where these Spaghetti Westerns would play a key role, with international collaborations, in helping to build something of a foundation for the Spanish Film Industry that was just now starting to find a sense of purpose and vision.
Eventually, José María García Escudero became the new Director of Spanish Cinema in 1962, and “Escudero helped spur on Spanish cinema” through the development of the “Official Spanish School of Cinema.” This became a key part of the rising voice of a people gradually beginning to push back against Franco, trading realism for metaphor, and eventually paving the way for what is known as The New Spanish Cinema, a movement and style which was just ready to break free. This school was ready to tap into emerging young filmmakers being cut on neo-realism of Italy and France. Even without the necessary “infrastructure”, these young voices were becoming the face of the future. This led, on the eve of the end of Franco’s reign, these young voices and this new school to helping lead the way towards Spain’s “first internationally acclaimed masterpiece with Victor Erice’s, The Spirit of the Beehive”:
“The story, in which a young village girl became obsessed with Frankenstein, was seen as a sly criticism of Franco’s regime. The dictator’s death two years later led to the liberation of creative ideas and a rush of activity from writers, directors, artists and playwrights. At the vanguard of the new Spanish cinema was a small town filmmakers named Pedro Almodóvar.”
An Industry and Culture Ready to Emerge
The rest of course is recent history, with a film industry in waiting now moving to take the world by storm. One could make a good argument that of all the film industries around the Globe, Spain seems to be the one with the most visible and obvious positive growth. One of the most under considered movements in fact is the Countries lengthy investment in English language films alongside Spanish language films, something that allows it to translate across cultures. One thing’s for sure, with so many years lost to the shadows of regimes, wars and international pressures, it’s about time they had their day in the sun. Their talent it just too great to keep a secret, and their culture too rich to stay hidden. And it just proves that it’s never too late to begin to find and discover your own story and carve your identity. In many cases this comes from the struggle. For others it comes from new found freedom.
Here is my working list of films that I have watched along my film travels, ranked, rated and reviewed:
“The Cinema Industry in the Spanish Civil War
Jordan, Barry. “Spain’s ‘new cinema’ of the 1990s
A History of Spanish Film Cinema and Society 1910-2010 by Sally Faulkner