Spanish Cinema: A Brief History

Max Horberry

Spanish cinema is not always given the credit it deserves. The country seems mostly famous for mainstream films like Pan’s Labyrinth and The Orphanage but in reality Spain has a lot more to offer a film lover. Its history and the wake that Franco’s dictatorship left in the hearts of many Spaniards can be seen in many of Spain’s contemporary films and has made Spanish film-making one of the most interesting in the world.

Spain played an important role in the prehistory of cinema. Fructoso Gelabert, from Barcelona, made his own filming camera and is attributed with making the first ever fiction film in Spain, the 20 minute “Argument in a Café”. The following year he filmed the documentary “Train arrival to the Norte station in Barcelona”. It is important to place him in time and to remember that the Lumiere brothers, inventors of the film camera, made their first presentation two years earlier and among the films presented was “Arrival of a train at La Ciotat”. An even bigger role was played by Segundo de Chomón. He became a rival of Georges Méliès in the innovation of the colouring of images, special effects and animation.

Guardian was privileged enough to be granted an interview with Lluís Bonet. Bonet has been a film critic for the Catalonian newspaper La Vanguardia for the past 30 years. He says that these two examples show “the pioneering role developed in Spain within the field of world cinema.”

Bonet criticizes the effect that Hollywood and American film-making has had on European cinema. “It is clear,” he says, “that the present day situation is very different to that of those pioneers due to the power Hollywood has in the industry.”

When asked about English-Language Spanish films – a new phenomena in which films are made in the English language but are produced and made by Spanish firms, The Machinist (dir. Brad Anderson) and The Others (dir. Alejandro Amenabar) are two examples – Bonet seems to consider it a negative sign. He feels it is an indication of Spain losing its identity in favor of trying to find success in abroad. He says that “except for Pedro Almodóvar,” possibly Spain’s most famous contemporary director, “filming in English seems quite necessary nowadays if the aim is to reach the international market.”

These English-Language Spanish films, however, can be seen as an indication that the world is turning to Spain for guidance. Steven Soderbergh, an American director, turned to Spanish firms for help when it came to making Che Parts 1 and 2. Even Woody Allen, in 2002, said he hoped that the Spanish “will continue to lead the way in film-making”.

Since the end of Franco’s dictatorship Spain has felt the need to push the boundaries of cinema and as a result it has become one of the most liberal film-making countries. During the dictatorship Franco banned a large number of films (Last Tango in Paris being an example) because he and his government felt they were unsuitable for the people of his Catholic country. There is the famous example of Mogambo in which the plot has Grace Kelly married to Donald Sinden. In the Spanish version the dialogue was changed in the dubbing to make the two characters not husband and wife but brother and sister. Why? Because Grace Kelly has romantic tensions with Clarke Gable. So it was more acceptable for a brother and sister to act almost incestuously towards each other than for a married woman to even be implied having adulterous thoughts. Spain will never fully recover from Franco.

Today the one director that seems most representative of Spain and Spanish cinema is Pedro Almodóvar. He has, as Lluís Bonet put it, “managed to surpass all borders and become the most representative of Spanish films. In his films he uses characteristics, protagonists and themes which are nearly always Spanish but are also universal because feelings, emotions and fiction about life do not know frontiers.” His success has reached all over the globe and with his films laden with references to Spanish identity it is impossible to deny or ignore where his films come from.


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