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Archive for the ‘Spanish film’ Category

Two Post-Franco Political Thrillers From Spain

Posted by keith1942 on December 5, 2017

These films were part of a programme of ‘States of danger and deceit’ produced by the Manchester HOME together with the British Film Institute. Much of the programme was screened at the recent Leeds International Film Festival. Most of the titles were on digital but these two were shown in their original film formats. Both films were interesting because they were produced in the period between the death of General Franco in 1975 and the attempted military coup by fascist elements in the army in 1981. In this period there was a gradual move towards a western capitalist style democratic government, [‘La Transición’]. Because of the competing social movements the progress was slow. It was only in 1977 that the Communist Party of Spain [Partido Comunista de España] was legalized and Trade Union laws liberalised.

El diputado / The Deputy  (1978),  was written and directed by Eloy de la Iglesia  from a story by Gonzalo Goicoechea. The main character, Roberto Orbea (José Sacristán), is an elected Congressman in the Spanish Cortes. He is a member of the opposition party, though in the film this is unclear if it is meant to be the Socialist Party of Spain [Partido Socialista Obrero Español] or the Communist Party of Spain: the dialogue frequently references ‘communist’ but the organisation looks closer to socialist,.

Roberto is either homosexual or bi-sexual. He is married but becomes involved with a ‘rent boy’ and then with an underage gigolo, Juanito (José Luis Alonso). Same-sex relationships were only legalised in 1979 with the age of consent set at sixteen. The film  presents a series of flashbacks, most of which are ‘remembered’ by Roberto as he is driven to the Party Congress where he is expected to be elected Secretary. The earliest occurs during the Franco regime when Roberto, involved in underground activities, is caught and interrogated by the secret police. His interrogation leads to him being hospitalised where he meets Nes (Ángel Pardo). After his release he commences homosexual acts with him: and then is introduced to Juanito. Over this period ‘La Transición’ commences so Roberto’s affair, which is passionate and obsessive on his part, offers the opportunity for blackmail by a shadowy right-wing group.

The film struck me as more interested in the homoerotic aspects of the story than in the political. In fact, the director, is a ‘gay socialist’. The film spends much of its time on the homosexual relationships with a number of explicit sequences. It would appear to have taken advantage of the liberalisation of the period.

Roberto’s character is well played but I found his actions somewhat unconvincing. He seems incredibly naïve for a man who had worked in an underground organisation and is set to become a national political leader. My colleague Roy Stafford suggested that

” I think we have to accept that Roberto genuinely loves Juanito and can’t let him go…”.

He also included a reference to the British film Victim (1961) which offers an interesting comparison.

I remain sceptical. Apart from Roberto’s naivety the dialogue relating to politics, and especially to Marxism, are fairly simplistic. I think this is part of the film’s predominant interest in sexuality rather than political.

Another limitation of the film is Roberto’s wife Carmen, who is aware of his homosexual activities and goes along with them. Carmen (María Luisa San José) is a seriously underdeveloped character. The film does not really explore her situation or motivation. Later in the film and the relationships Juanito becomes a regular participant of the family, i.e. Roberto and Carmen. He is treated almost like an adopted son and we are told is introduced to friends as a relative.

Junaito’s feelings for Roberto are ambiguous but there does seem to be a growing affection on his part. Together with Roberto and Carmen he indulges into their more affluent life style and, interestingly, attends rallies and demonstration by the Party. He does co-operate with the group attempting to black mail Roberto. But late in the film he turns and refuses co-operation which leads to the climactic sequence.

As the film progresses the motivation for the flashbacks becomes ambiguous. At least one involving the ‘family’ appears to come from Carmen. And one involving the blackmailers would seem to come from Juanito. There are other flashback to the blackmailers which Roberto would not seem to know about, but it is likely these are conjectures by him. As far as the sexual activity goes there is one sequence where we start to see a ménage á trois between Carmen, Juanito and Roberto. The scene is cut just as it becomes risqué, indicative of the film’s primary focus on the homoerotic.

There is an interesting class dimension to the film. Roberto and Carmen are probably best described as petty-bourgeois. Juanito is from a working class background whilst Nez would seem to be part of the lumpen-proletariat. And the blackmailers are from the bourgeoisie proper. Juanito is inducted into the higher social class. This crosses over with Victim where the protagonist, Melville Farr  (Dirk Bogarde) is also a lawyer and of a similar class to Roberto whilst his homosexual lover, Barrett (Peter McEnery) seems to be working class. However, in the British film the two class worlds are kept strictly separate. Moreover, Barrett is an adult. The Spanish film comes later in the period but it is also the case that the British film wants present homosexuality in a supportive light, an under-age lover would have militated against this. In fact in the film one of the gay character specifically rules out affairs with the ‘normal’ and by implication with the under-aged. In The Deputy the issue of age assists the blackmail.

The 35mm print was a little odd: the projectionist had problems with the aspect ratio from reel to reel. IMDB lists the film as 1.85:1 and shot on Kodak Eastmancolor. Films on the continent were still frequently shot on 1.66:1. It seemed that the ratio was not consistent across the reels, I thought it might have been a composite print and the sources were not uniform? The definition and colour palette were pretty good though stylistically the film is very conventional.

Seven Days in January / 7 días de enero (1979) was co-written, produced and directed by Juan Antonio Bardem, a long standing director/writer in the Industry whose career runs from 1948. The film dramatises an actual event from 1977, ‘the Massacre of Atocha’. This occurred in ‘La Transición’. A secret group of fascists murdered a group of left-wing lawyers at offices in Atocha Street in Madrid. The public response, including large demonstrations for the funerals. added to the pressures to legalise the Communist Party. Some of the assassins were caught, tried and imprisoned but the suspicion remained that shadowy figures high up escaped justice.

Bardem films follows the record fairly closely though there are some odd differences. The main one that I noticed was during the actual murder, committed in the film with automatic handguns. The Wikipedia record gives sub-machine guns/ And in the film the individual shots were not really convincing given the number killed [five] and wounded [four].

The film does include the main aspects of the infamous killings. This included a strike organised by the Sindicato Vertical, a trade union for transport workers; the lawyers relationship with the Communist Party; meetings and preparations by the assassins and their secret ‘masters’, this presumably deduction rather than the record. And, accentuating the conflict and the sense of crisis, incidents organised by a militant left-wing group, GRAPO (Grupos de Resistencia Antifascista Primero de Octubre).

The events are presented in a flashback structure so that whilst we see events following the murders, notably the massive demonstration that accompanied the funeral, we only see the actual killings in full close to the end of the film. The flashbacks show us the workers involved in the strike whom the lawyers are supporting; the activities of the lawyers and their offices; and meetings between the assassins and between them and their secret backers.

I found that this structure enabled the viewer to note and relate the different characters and their activities in the narrative. However, it did seem to diminish the drama of the story and did not fully clarify different aspects which seemed less central than others. IMDB gives the film a running time of 124 minutes but some other listings give 180 minutes. I wondered if the English language release was shorter than the original film. This would have affected the flashback structure which could work better in a longer version: it might also affect issues like the strike which in this print needs developing.

The print was screened in 1.185:1 and was shot in colour. There was a flaw on the audience left-hand side of the frame which the projectionist had to make adjustments for. The definition and colour were both reasonable: but the film does use noir lighting and I wondered if the tones of this were accurate.

Both these films suffered from weaknesses in their scripting and delivery. I found in both that the political dimension was not fully developed. They were certainly interesting in terms of the conflicted values of ‘La Transición’. Both use artefacts from the period, film, stills, publications and illustrative art. Some of this comments on the characters and actions but its function seems mainly to help a sense of authenticity. There were a series of films addressing both the political conflicts and the sexual contradictions of the period. It would be interesting to view these and compare other dramas with these two thrillers.

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Akelarre / Sabbath

Posted by keith1942 on September 18, 2013

Inquisitor questioning a supected 'witch'!

Inquisitor questioning a supected ‘witch’!

Spanish / Basque 1983. In colour.

The film was screened at the Hyde Park Cinema, with the print provided courtesy of an Academic Conference on European Issues at Leeds University. We also enjoyed an introduction on the background to the film.

The film’s production was interesting. In 1979, after the demise of Franco, the Basque region achieved a level of autonomy. One of the ways it sought to promote Basque culture was through cinema. Pedro Olea, then working in Spanish television, in advertising and on film features was one of the directors who benefited. The films were mainly shot in the Castilian Spanish language as many of the cast and the technicians were non-Basque speaking. However, the Basque government received a copy of the finished film, which was then dubbed into Basque and circulated, including a print with English sub-titles. The print we enjoyed was about 20 years old, but in good condition. And the titles translated a soundtrack of both Spanish and Basque dialogue.

The film uses a Basque tradition of a Mari or a Mother Earth figure associated with celebratory rituals. There were also associations with a he-goat figure and accusations of Satan-worship. Practitioners were often targeted as witches and the film uses the activities of the Spanish Inquisition in the C17th Navarre as the main plot, [though with considerable licence]. The Basque title of the film refers to the sabbat of witches. Essentially the film charts a conflict between the large landowners in league with the Church against ordinary Basque villagers. Don Fermín (Walter Vidarte) and his son Iñigo (Iñaki Miramón) represent the land-owning class. The Church is represented by the servile local priest Don Angel and the more liberal Prior of the local monastery.  Then there is the Inquisitor (José Luis López Vázquez) sent to investigate by the Tribunal of the Inquisition. Among the villagers there are ordinary folk caught up in the conflict like Antxón (Sergio Mendizábal), the local innkeeper and an elderly couple of poor tenants. The key villagers are centred around a mother figure, Amunia (Mary Carillo). She presides over traditional gatherings in caves, with fortune telling and traditional or magical potions. The other key female figure is Garazi (Sylvia Munt), daughter of a migrant from France, where an ancestor had been burnt as a witch. Garazi is in love with Unai (Patxi Bisquert), a farmer, but she is the object of sexual desire for Iñigo. One can surmise how the conflict will develop.

The Inquisitor is a particularly impressive figure. And the torture scenes are fairly explicit, with a degree of voyeurism. I was fairly sure that the film was influenced by Michael Reeves’ UK film Witchfinder General (1968). This seemed to apply to parts of the plot, to the torture scenes, and notably to the final freeze frame of the film.

But this is a Basque film rather than an English foray. It is easy to read parallels between the repression by the C17th Century Inquisition of local traditions and the conflict between the Basque region and the central Spanish government. The Basque films of the 1980s and 1990s frequently used historical settings to draw parallels with their contemporary situation.

I found the early parts of the film rather laboured: the often obvious dubbing does not help. But it picked up when the Inquisitor arrived. It is not exactly a horror film, though it relates to that genre in a similar fashion to Witchfinder General. There is a Spanish tradition of such films, ‘black legend’. And continental films, as in Italy, have tended to be more explicit than those from Britain. It is definitely an intriguing 109 minutes, and a rare example available from the Basque cinema.

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