Thursday, May 13, 2010

Antonio Banderas Presents Spanish Cinema Cycle at Instituto Cervantes - By Claudio Iván Remeseira

Spain's troubled history, in black and white.

Before Pedro Almodóvar and Alejandro Amenábar, there was Carlos Saura, Luis García Berlanga, Juan Antonio Bardem, and – reigning supreme above all – Luis Buñuel. Before Penélope Cruz, Javier Bardem, or Antonio Banderas, there was Lucía Bosé, Paco Rabal, Fernando Rey, and Fernando Fernán Gómez, among many others. As every great art form, Spanish cinema is rooted in the rich soil of a long and powerful tradition.

With the notable exception of a handful of names and pictures, that tradition is almost unknown in the United States. Even in New York, by far the most receptive town to foreign movies in the whole country, local cinematheque buffs would find it hard to discuss Spanish cinema with the same familiarity with which they can refer to Italian, French, or Swedish cinema, to stay just within the European neighborhood. The film series “Realism in the Spanish Cinema (1951-1963)”, which runs through May 19 at the Instituto Cervantes, is a refreshing challenge to the status quo.

The series is the brainchild of Antonio Banderas, who opened it last Monday before a packed auditorium – another hundred people who couldn’t find a seat remained outside – at the beautiful Amster Yard premises of the Instituto Cervantes. “Since the first time I came to the U.S., twenty-five years ago,” said Mr. Banderas in his presentation, “I wanted to introduce which is today my second country to a selection of Spanish films that mostly for political reasons had very few chances of being screened here before.” 

The occasion presented itself when Eduardo Lago, director of the New York branch of the Instituto Cervantes, invited Mr. Banderas to become a member of that organization’s board. “He said he would only accept on the condition that he would be allowed to work,” Mr. Lago joked. “This series is just the first of his many proposals to come to fruition.”

Looking back in awe.
Mr. Banderas’s passion for his country’s cinema is contagious. There is indeed something unnatural in the disconnection between American audiences and that cinema. From Washington Irving to Ernest Hemingway and beyond, the United States, and New York City in particular, have had a long-time fascination for all things Spanish. But unlike their contemporary Italian, Japanese or even Soviet counterparts, those Spanish films were produced under Francisco Franco’s dictatorship (1939 – 1975), a regime internationally regarded as a second act of the Axis powers defeated in WWII. More than half a century later, as Mr. Banderas rightly assumes, the chance is long overdue to revisit the legacy of a generation of filmmakers who managed to smuggle their artistic creativity and their political concerns through the thick mantle of Franco’s censorship.

In addition to the regular participation of Spanish directors and movies in major local festivals, there are a number of festivals and film series – most notably Spanish Cinema Now, also organized by the Instituto Cervantes, in cooperation with the Film Society of Lincoln Center – specifically targeted on that country’s production. What differentiates this modest but muscular series from its more high-profile peers is its historical and thematic focus: ten movies spanning the end of the somber decade that followed Franco’s triumph in the Spanish Civil war (1936-1939) and the beginning of Spain’s economic recovery in the early 1960s, underscored by the notion of realism, a quintessential element in Spanish art and literature.

The young Spaniards who wrote and directed these films shared many of the aesthetic and philosophical preoccupations of other European filmmakers and screenwriters of that time. But their films are also imbued with an undeniably national character, a character that endowed the influence of Italian Neorealism or of the 'cluttery', modernistic, mid-fifties editing style with a clearly discernible Spanish tinge.

The series opened on May 10, with the little known Surcos (Furrows, 1951), a cinematic jewel directed by José Antonio Nieves Conde that set the tone for the rest of the screenings. The story follows a family of two peasants and their three young children as they move from their small town to the country’s huge capital, Madrid, in search of better opportunities. Underlying the traditional theme of the idyllic rural life versus the corruptive evils of the city looms the historic drama of the migration of millions of Spaniards and other Europeans who fled the countryside for a new life on both sides of the Atlantic.

 

The detailed depiction of places and people in the street and interior scenes; the overwhelming presence of poverty; the ambivalent, at times sacrilegious interplay of popular religiousness and impiety – the source of an all-Spanish black humor – and the oppressive force of machismo and violence (including domestic violence), evoke not only the novels of Benito Pérez Galdós, Ramón del Valle-Inclán, and a literary tradition that harkens back to Cervantes and the picaresque, but also a pictorial tradition of the crude realities of life and the monstrous that stretches from Ribera and Velázquez to Goya, Picasso and more recent artists. “These are images that jump out from the bottom of our collective imagery,” says Lago in the in essay contained in the sleek catalogue to the series.

The program continued on Tuesday with Bienvenido Mr Marshall (Luis García Berlanga, 1953), a corrosive satire about the uneasiness felt by Spaniards at being left out of the American-funded post-war aid plan distribution, and with the award-winning Muerte de un ciclista (Age of Infidelity; Juan Antonio Bardem, 1955) the next day. Better perhaps than any other, these two films and their respective directors, who often collaborated on each other’s projects, marked Spain’s reemergence onto the international scene – albeit, not to the return of democracy at home – after the bleakest years of the dictatorship. 

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The rest of the screenings include classics such as Calle Mayor (Juan Antonio Bardem, 1956), El pisito (Marco Ferreri and Isidoro M.Ferry, 1958), La Vida por delante (Fernando Fernán Gómez, 1958), Los golfos (Carlos Saura, 1959), El cochecito (Marco Ferreri, 1960), Viridiana (Luis Buñuel, 1961; watch above the sacrilegious Last Supper sequence), and El Verdugo (Luis García Berlanga, 1963). “On watching all these films consecutively, they came across as an artistic product that is greater than the sum of its parts … like a frieze initially conceived as a unitary cinematographic production,” writes Lago. A great opportunity to reflect upon the tragic history of Spain in the 20th century, and to shake up our consciousness and our senses with the beauty and the power of cinema. 

"Realism in Spanish Cinema (1951-1963)" Cycle based on Antonio Bandera’s original idea and presented by Instituto Cervantes, with the support of Festival de Málaga and the Municipality of Málaga, runs May 10-19 at the Instituto Cervantes Auditorium, 211 East 49th Street. For more information, email cult3ny@cervantes.org, or call 212-308-7720.

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