Another Spanish Cinema: Films in Catalunya 1906-2006

The Film Society of Lincoln Center’s current series, “Another Spanish Cinema: Films in Catalunya 1906-2006,” screening at the Walter Reade Theater from January 27 through February 14, sheds light on a little known facet of Spanish cinema: films from the Catalan region of Spain, and its celebrated city of Barcelona. This section of Spain has contributed such great artists as Salvador Dali, Pablo Picasso, and Antonio Gaudi. However, its considerable contributions to world cinema as been little noted. This film series sets out to correct this situation.

Barcelona was the center of Spanish filmmaking during the silent era. However, this ended after the Spanish Civil War of the late 1930s, when the Franco regime suppressed all traces of Catalan language and culture to prevent it from breaking away from Spain. Some filmmakers, though, continued to make films that sought to resist Franco’s repressive rule through radical, transgressive art. One filmmaking collective that did so was known as the “Barcelona School,” a loose constellation of writers and directors that set themselves in opposition to the more commercial films being made in Madrid. One film that came out of this movement, which screens in this series, is Jacinto Esteva Grewe and Joaquin Jorda’s Dante Is Not Simply Harsh (1967). This film has definite affinities to the various “New Wave” movements occurring in Europe at the time, as well as surrealist elements reminiscent of Bunuel and Dali’s Un chien andalou, and its iconic image of a bisected eye. The surrealist impulse of the film is evident in its exquisite-corpse structure, casting its central couple (Serena Vergano and Enrique Irazaqui) in different environments and backgrounds, using loose associative connections to transition from scene to scene rather than a conventional plot. The film also calls attention to itself as a film, by opening with the film crew shooting the actors. While the film often strains patience by its infatuation with its own subversive cleverness, it remains an interesting time-capsule curio. Burning streets, fashion shows, absurdist dialogue, and jarring montages abound in this film. These images circle around rather gruesome shots of eye surgery, which recall that Bunuel and Dali’s earlier surrealist masterpiece.

After Franco’s death in 1975, Catalan cinema began to emerge from its previous suppression, and many fascinating films resulted. Ventura Pons is perhaps Catalan cinema’s most recognized and celebrated filmmaker, and two of his films screen in the series. Ocana, Intermittent Portrait (1979) is a fascinating and lively documentary portrait of the titular subject, who fled the repressive environment of Madrid to the more liberal Barcelona in order to pursue his passions for painting, acting, and cross-dressing. Ocana is interviewed in his colorful bedroom, in front of a large mirror next to his bed; the camera often pans from Ocana to his mirror image, reflecting the fact that his life revolves around his appearance, both to himself and to others. He talks about the ostracism he has experienced and his connection to other outcasts; his life is itself a form of protest against conformity and repression. “I love provoking people,” he says at one point. He also fiercely resists labels. Despite his penchant for cross-dressing, he insists he is not a transvestite; rather, he considers himself a “pure actor.” We see him parading down the street, flashing his genitals to the crowd during his impromptu street performances. He also sings and acts melodramatically in performance clips interspersed throughout the film. Ocana embodied the struggle to be respected on his own terms and to be free to live his life as he chose.

A more recent work by Pons, Anita Takes a Chance (2001), is a charming comedy about a middle-aged woman (Rosa Maria Sarda, in an energetic and funny performance) set adrift when she is unceremoniously dumped from her job as a ticket taker in an old movie house, which is being torn down to be replaced by a multiplex. Anita is considered to be too old to fit the image of this new venture. She reminisces about her dead husband and is anxious about her loneliness and her seeming lack of prospects for the future. She obsessively returns to the construction site for the multiplex, where she becomes drawn to a young bulldozer driver (Jose Coronado). She begins an affair with him, despite his being married. Through this affair, Anita is able to break out of her constricted and routine experience, finding new excitement in her life, even as she risks pain and disappointment. Humor and pathos are deftly intertwined in this film, and Anita’s movie-influenced fantasies effectively convey her fascinating character.

Another celebrated Catalan filmmaker is Cesc Gay, represented in the series by In the City (2003), which follows a group of characters in Barcelona, who are connected in ways that are ultimately only grasped by the viewer. Their romantic entanglements and the hidden parts of their lives intersect with the setting of Barcelona, which also becomes a character in the story.

These and many other films in the series show the richness and variety of a previously overlooked facet of Spanish cinema, one of the world’s strongest and most vibrant film industries.