A Short History of Spanish Cinema
From the early successes of surrealist genius Luis Buñuel to the award-winning melodramas of Pedro Almodóvar, Spanish cinema has survived decades of indifference from the fascist Franco regime to emerge as the source of internationally successful, uniquely vibrant and challenging films.
For many years, Spanish cinema began and ended with director Luis Buñuel. Educated at the University of Madrid in the early part of the twentieth century, Buñuel was friends with the artists who would go on to become the internationally celebrated Surrealists; photographer Man Ray and painters such as Salvador Dali and Max Ernst. When he moved to Paris in 1925, Buñuel was working as an assistant director for hire before he rekindled his friendship with Dali and co-wrote and directed their first collaboration in 1929, the notorious surrealist short film Un Chien Andalou. The film, drawn as an extended dream, was a groundbreaking success. With sequences influenced by Freudian symbolism rather than the conscious imagination, the film offered no explanation or context for the sometimes shocking imagery, cut together in a rich montage. While planning their follow-up film, L’Age D’Or in 1930, Buñuel and Dali fell out, with the director insisting on adding a political context to their story while the painter wanted an even-more abstract, subconscious logic. Even more controversial than their debut film, L’Age D’Or would be withdrawn from circulation for almost 50 years.
Disappointed with Paris, Buñuel returned to Spain where he would make two short semi-fictional comic documentaries about peasant life before the rise of Franco’s fascist party prompted him to decamp to Hollywood. There he adapted Spanish-language versions of studio films before moving again, to Mexico, after the end of WWII. He would live in the country for most of the rest of his life, making films throughout the 50s and 60s, including 1959s Nazarin, which won the International prize at Cannes and 1962s The Exterminating Angel, which won the Palme d’Or. In the mid-1960s, Buñuel returned to France where he directed some of his best known films, including 1967s notorious Belle de Jour and 1972s surreal The Discrete Charm of the Bourgeoisie, which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film. After the release of That Obscure Object of Desire in 1977, Buñuel retired from film-making and died in Mexico in 1983.
Beyond Buñuel, Spanish film-makers struggled to make any international impact until the death of fascist leader Franco in 1975 liberated an entire generation of creative artists. In the early days, Spain had embraced the possibilities of cinema as much as any of its European counterparts, with silent directors such as Segundo de Chomón as well known in his day as France’s Georges Méliès or Britain’s Alfred Hitchcock. But there was no film industry infrastructure and Spanish films were rarely made. The transition to the sound era didn’t improve matters, as the political and economic landscape in the run up to the Spanish Civil War, and WWII, made any film production extremely difficult. It wasn’t until after WWII that Spanish filmmakers other than Buñuel found a foothold in international distribution. In 1947 Rafael Rivelles and Juan Calvo starred together as Don Quixote and Sancho Panza in Rafael Gil’s version of Cervantes’ classic novel. Three years later, Antonio Nieves Conde borrowed from the stripped-down style of Italian Neorealism to direct Surcos, the story of a family struggling to make ends meet in post-war Madrid. In the same year, Rivelees and Calvo were reunited for Marcelino Bread and Wine, which won a series of awards at Cannes and was Spain’s first international blockbuster. The film also marked the breakthrough of Fernando Rey who would emerge as Spain’s most significant writers and directors in the 50s and 60s. In 1961 Rey would collaborate with Buñuel on Viridiana, a daring satire on the Catholic Church which was promptly banned in Spain but would win the Palme d’Or at Cannes.
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. Anthony Mann made his epic El Cid in Spain in 1961 while attack on Aqaba in David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962) was filmed in a dried-up river outside Almeria. In 1964, Sergio Leone made his Spaghetti Western A Fistful of Dollars in the plains surrounding Madrid, the first of a trilogy of films that he shot in the country, standing in for the Texan/Mexican border. The tradition continues today, with international directors drawn to the ancient landscape as a backdrop for drama such as Jim Jarmusch, who set his 2009 hit-man drama The Limits of Control in the remote Almeria desert. The Spanish people’s deeply-felt connection to their natural surroundings has also been explored in documentaries; with Christophe Farnarier’s 2008 film El Somni the shining example. Farnarier’s quiet, contemplative film tells the story of Catalan shepherd Joan Pipa as he takes his flock for a last journey through the Pyrenees as he describes a rapidly-changing way of life.
In 1973, Spain produced its first internationally acclaimed masterpiece with Victor Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive, produced in the last year of Franco’s dictatorship and the dawn of what would be called the “New Age” of Spanish cinema. 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 Pedro Almodóvar, who made his debut with Pepi, Luci, Bom and Other Girls on the Heap in 1980 before coming to international attention with Matador in 1986, followed in quick succession by Law of Desire the following year and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown the year after that. In 1991, Bigas Lunas’ sex comedy Jamon Jamon made stars of Javier Bardem and Penélope Cruz while Fernando Trueba won the Best Foreign Film Oscar for Belle Époque, a film about the beginnings of the Civil War in 1930.
Since then, a new generation of cinema talent has emerged from Spain, making films from all genres; from dramas to comedies, horrors to documentary. Alejandro Amenábar had a huge hit with The Others in 2001, filmed at a remote mansion in Cantabria while Almodóvar continued to attract acclaim for his films, winning the Best Foreign Language film Oscar in 1999 for All About My Mother and the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for Talk To Her in 2002. Mexican-born writer and director Guillermo del Toro made his breakthrough with 2006s Pan's Labyrinth, which took its cue from The Spirit of the Beehive in telling the story of the Civil War from the point of view of an imaginative child. Also a producer, del Toro would be instrumental in supporting Spain’s new interest in horror and fantasy cinema, producing Juan Antonio Bayona’s haunted-house horror The Orphanage (2007) and Alejandro González Iñárritu’s fantastical melodrama Biutiful, among others. With a host of influences and references, Spanish horror films have gone on to enjoy considerable international success, the most notable being Luis Piedrahita’s claustrophobic 2007 horror Fermat’s Room and Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza’s handycam frightener [REC], which spawned a successful franchise and was remade by Hollywood as Quarantine in 2008.