Top 10 Films In Spanish Cinema
In terms of modern cinema, Spain’s history has both helped and been detrimental to Spanish film in Europe. The heavy censorship of Franco’s government, which took until the 1970s to unwind, meant that the freedom to speak openly and the funding which other European and American production studios took for granted was something Spain didn’t enjoy. However, Spanish audience attendance numbers have always been high, and Spanish directors have found ways around these problems, leading to the creation and development of a uniquely Spanish cinema tradition.
Spanish cinema now is rocketing in popularity, with both cornerstones of direction, like Pedro Almodovar and relative newcomers like Alex de La Iglesia, pushing the boundaries and directing on an equal level with their European counterparts.
Here is a list of films to whet your appetite for the excellence which Spanish cinema has to offer. Sticking to films which have Spain as their country of production, and also Spanish as their language…
Director: Álex de la Iglesia
Navigating the boundaries of a graphic film without ever crossing them, The Last Circus is a beautiful film which explores the dark abyss of melancholy and extreme highs of love and passion.
Representing both sides of this coin are sad clown Javier and happy clown Sergio, who are destined to fall for the same beautiful trapeze artist, Natalia (played by Carolina Bang). Starting off working as a double act routine, Javier sees himself being able to rescue Natalia from Sergio, who is prone to violent drunken outbursts, and the daily raucous of the circus unravels into a jealous battle for her affection, leading to self-mutilation, violent assault and a battle of life and death.
Despite this description of the more macabre aspects of the Last Circus, there is a lot of beauty as well. The camera angles invoke drama and surprise and draw parallels with directors like Christopher Nolan and Tim Burton – the impressive special effects illustrate a budget put to good use, rather than squandered as they are in some Hollywood films. The surrealist and graphic themes draw the viewer in, offering a true cinematic experience – and taking them on a crazy journey of horror and comedy in equal measure.
Despite the parallels with English language graphic films, this film retains its Spanish identity, and director Alex de la Iglesia succeeds in demonstrating that Spain can produce an instant classic in this genre. Not for the faint-hearted, but thrilling and original – proof of the heights Spanish cinema can reach.
Director: Guillermo del Toro
When Ofelia’s mother remarries a Spanish general in 1940s war torn Spain, she is forced to move to a farmhouse in the countryside with no other children for company. Isolated from human warmth and plunged into this Francoist household, she begins to explore the grounds. Ofelia comes across a strange fantasy world in which a fawn tells her she must complete three tasks in order to become a princess and see her father, who is the King. The horrors of war torn Spain soon reflect themselves in the magical and bizarre, and fantasy turns to horror as Ofelia tries to complete the difficult and terrifying tasks.
Pan’s Labyrinth encompasses so much to enjoy into one film. The visual effects used in Ofelia’s three tasks are spectacular, and mesh perfectly with the scenes which are filmed without any effects whatsoever. The story of Ofelia losing her father and then being tempted into tasks where she is offered a way to see him again is tragic, but there is also something beautifully touching about how she retreats into this fantasy world as a coping mechanism, and the viewer is allowed to see this from the eyes of a young girl.
Director Guillermo del Toro leaves it open to the viewer to decide if they believe the fantasy or reality story, while also directly showing the nasty side of civil war. The film manages to look at the choices women, and Spanish people in general, had to make if they wanted to even be able to eat, and the struggle faced by those who rejected the regime. This differs to other films which focus on Spain’s civil war – without censorship, del Toro is able to show brutality head on.
Recommended as a film to enlighten about the troubles of Spain in the 1930s and ‘40s, but also for the skilful mix of a story about war, a girl’s loss of her father, and fantasy bordering on the horrific.
Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Labyrinth Of Passion deals with love and mistaken identity with a heavy dose of theatrical art. Sexilia, or Sexi, is a therapist’s daughter and reacts to this normality with her many sexual relationships, often sleeping with more than one man at a time, regaling the tales to her therapist and performing in an all female group. Meanwhile, Riza Niro meanders around on the gay scene, picking up random men for a few hours or days of passion. He is invited to sing with a pop band, where Sexi sees him sing and feels an instant connection. They are drawn to each other inexplicably and, as viewers, we learn why when the reason for a group of Iranian terrorists needing to track Riza down is revealed.
Labyrinth Of Passion is featured on the list simply due to its unapologetically bubblegum pop-ness and camp hilarity. At times, it feels like a life-like Wacky Races, as the cast clamber their way towards the finale; although, at other times, it’s more like a representation of 1980s teenage moodiness, complete with pop art, new romantic and punk fashion to drool over or laugh at, depending on your tastes.
Quick witted and original lines pepper the dialogue throughout, and director Perdro Almodovar, true to form, refuses to conform to traditionalism, with sexual promiscuity, nymphomaniacs and fetishism aplenty. Filmed early on in Almodovar’s career, Labyrinth Of Passion is one to watch with tongue firmly in cheek.
Director: Pedro Almodóvar
When Ignacio Rodriguez (or Angel) turns up at the door of childhood friend Enrique looking for acting work, with a script in his hand based on their childhood spent together, Enrique isn’t impressed. He casually offers to read the script, but sends Angel away. However, as he reads, we see the story being told through a combination of flashbacks and the creation of a film based on the script. It is a tale of implied sexual abuse by a priest (Fr. Manolo) and young love, as the two boys realise their feelings for each other. As adults, the sexual attraction begins to re-ignite, as Enrique and Ignacio become involved again, even though Ignacio hasn’t told Enrique the truth about the tale of blackmail on which the film script is based. A shocking twist leads to Enrique having to uncover the truth behind a murder.
For a Pedro Almodovar film, the campness and sexual escapades are less of a focus than usual, instead replaced by mystery and intrigue, albeit involving crimes of passion (it is Almodovar, after all)! Viewers unravel the mystery at the same pace as the protagonist, Enrique, keeping the truth hidden until the finale. The film implies childhood abuse, and although it does not show consequences of this in the sense of punishment, the devastation left after such abuse is highlighted instead, as we see the deterioration of the lives of those characters that were involved.
Bad Education makes you question what you presume to be true, and to question initial impressions. It focuses on the darker side of romantic love and aspects of drug addiction, without lecturing or with drawn out prose on either subject. Action, in this case, does speak louder than words, and Almodovar succeeds in his rare detour from out and out comedy while still managing to entertain.
Director: Julio Medem
Lucia lives with her writer boyfriend, Lorenzo, and seems stressed by the deterioration of their once happy relationship, until one day she returns home to the horrible news that Lorenzo has been in an accident. Fleeing their flat, she finds herself drawn to an island Lorenzo once spoke of, and based one of his books on, where she knows he had a sexual experience years ago with a stranger. While there, she thinks about her past with Lorenzo, and we are introduced to the multiple layers to each of the characters we have met, as well as witnessing their sexual desires and experiences. Flitting between the past and current day, the blanks are filled in, and it soon becomes clear that Lucia’s new friends are connected to her in ways she didn’t realise, both emotionally and sexually.
The main draws of this film, at the time, were the sexually explicit scenes that the media in the UK publicised. We are, indeed, given an insight into Lorenzo and Lucia experimenting sexually as they fall in love – Belen masturbates over scenes of her porn star mother on film, and Carlos helping Elena to mourn with his unusually large appendage – however, nothing is filmed without an arguable purpose to the plot, nor shown gratuitously.
In fact, the film’s tragic events are all direct or indirect consequences of sexual desire put into action. Sex And Lucia is not just about the obvious and hidden links of sex and our lives, however, but also about grief and how we react to the loss of a loved one.
The method of interconnecting many scenes and jumping between past and present is by now a well recognised tool adopted by filmmakers; however, this plot still manages to have unpredictable twists and turns, and is convincingly act and felt, with lots of little touches from director Julio Medem to add humour or shock where least expected.
Perhaps not recommended as a break-up film, but definitely another interesting insight into what has become a very Spanish theme in modern cinema, pushing the boundaries of sexual interest shown in an artistic manner.
Director: Pedro Almodóvar
After losing her son in a sudden car accident, Manuela decides to find his father – who is a transvestite – so she can tell him what happened, despite never having introduced him to her son. This leads to a personal journey of grief and recollection of the past, as she ends up working for the actress who unknowingly and indirectly caused the death of her son, an old friend who is also a transvestite, and finds new and old friends which help her to mourn the loss of her son. She ends up taking responsibility for the son of one of her new friends, realizing that he is an illegitimate child of her ex-husband and has to deal with her own father’s descent into Alzheimer’s.
Pedro Almodovar sets out to make this a film about women and mothers, dedicating it to his own mum. It could almost be described as a post feminist film, in that it deals with the issues a woman may have to deal with in her own life – motherhood, the relationship with her father, sexual relationships – but also looks at them in a less than conventional storyline. Through looking at the differences to normal life as well as the themes which affect us all, Almodovar helps push the ideal that we are all equal in needing to rely on other relationships to deal with trauma, and that sometimes we have to face up to the fact that although things may not be what we had hoped for or what we originally wanted to happen, they may still be the right for us, or bring unforeseen benefits. It also differs from Almodovar’s other films in stepping away from the solely camp sides of transexuality and transvestites, revealing that rates of sexual diseases, such as HIV, are often higher, and what effect this disease can have on friends and family.
Worth watching for one of Almodovar’s more serious works, which considers difficult life events, but still manages to tell an interesting story.
Director: Víctor Erice
Set in a sleepy post civil war village, Ana and Isobel are two young sisters who are both mesmerised and scared when they watch a cinema screening of Frankenstein’s Monster in the village hall. Isobel, being the eldest, takes advantage of Ana’s inquisitive nature and convinces her that Frankenstein is a real spirit who can speak to you if you are his friend. This plan backfires, as Ana becomes more withdrawn and sets out on solo adventures through the countryside to find the monster. She soon comes across a soldier on the run from the Guardia Civil, leading to the parents focusing their attention on their daughters’ lives and interrupting Ana’s childlike fantasy.
The plot, like the portrayal of the innocence of the two little girls, is delicately filmed. Director Victor Erice captures the spirit of childhood and its insatiable curiosity, and collates the film in an artistic but gentle way. The sequence of events are played out in a linear order yet often come across as fractured and dreamlike – and the setting is convincingly portrayed as 1940s Spain.
As the film was produced in the 1970s, Erice was able to be more open about this period of time, with direct references to what was happening in the country, but this is more of a film about childhood and the contrast with adulthood than a historical portrayal. While the girls are shown playing alone in the fields, daring each other to jump over a bonfire, for example, we are also shown their father concerned with the film’s title motif, how humanity has the “spirit of the beehive,” and how adults aren’t concerned with play but working methodically. The children’s mother has correspondence with someone the viewers do not hear much about, again showing how distant children’s and adults’ lives can be.
References to Frankenstein and Ana going missing from her family remind the viewer of how childhood innocence can be interrupted suddenly, adding a tragic and, at times, morbid air; however, the overall effect of the Spirit Of The Beehive is one of a dream like experience, which makes this an enjoyable film to watch for escapism and a reminder of lost youth.
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Again using the civil war in Spain as inspiration for the film’s backdrop, The Devil’s Backbone introduces us to an orphanage where a young boy called Carlos is dropped off by friends of his father, after his father was killed fighting on the front line. Carlos has to fight for acceptance among his peers and learns of the mysterious disappearance of a young boy called Santi. Strange ghostly apparitions start to appear at night and Carlos tries to investigate why. Meanwhile, the adults are concerned with how to keep the children fed and the war away from the orphanage. They fear they have been reported as traitors and so plan to escape with as many children as they can; however, one of the men, Jacinto, reveals his own selfish motives and interferes in their escape, leading to tragedy and a battle where the children must learn to protect themselves.
The Devil’s Backbone primarily focuses on human emotion. There are several mini stories which run alongside each other at once: the struggle of Carlos to find his place in the orphanage, the unfulfilled love Dr Casares feels for Carmen (the school’s head teacher), the casual sexual relationship between Jacinto and Carmen, Dr. Casares becoming a father figure for all the young boys, and the mystery of Santi’s disappearance.
Director Guillermo del Toro doesn’t show us the view of events through any one character’s eyes, but instead skips between the different adults and children, so we get to know each of their motives. The ghost story is included subtly and not overdone, so it doesn’t feel like a low budget horror, but, instead, adds to the tragedy of the boys who are reliant on the adults to prevent them coming to harm. The love story of Carmen and Dr. Casares also reveals a lot about pride, and the risk of leaving things unsaid, or not acting on one’s feelings. It has the effect of creating a moving film about love, loss and childhood – and the passions of life.
Director: Álex de la Iglesia
Carlos has asked his mother many times to tell him about his father, yet she refuses as he was killed working as a stuntman in western films after an accident filming. Carlos finds out from his grandmother that his grandfather, who was also a stunt man, still lives in Almeria where the set of many western films were recorded in a village sized set. Desperate to know more about his father’s life, Carlos takes the opportunity of a school skiing trip to run away and find his grandfather in the village where a small cast of rebels, alcoholics and failed actors still live and work, putting on shows for the occasional tourist. Carlos soon becomes involved in their struggle to maintain their lives there, and prevent his mother from using her business conglomerate to bulldoze the village and create a theme park in its place.
Alex de la Iglesia has a talent for comedy with tragic undertones. The story of Carlos’ grandfather trying to hold onto his life, reminiscing about his work as Clint Eastwood’s stunt double and performing in the daily shows, provides much comedy but also an underlying sadness, as he mourns his son and the lack of tourists willing to pay the ten euro entrance fee. The plot soon becomes a real life western struggle, complete with gun fights, a fight to protect the village and macho adventures, while still offering a touching portrait of the bonding between a grandfather and the grandchild he never met.
The film does take a while to get going, but once it does, there is no end to the humour generated by the well acted quirky characters and slapstick comedy. You find yourself willing them to succeed in their mission. An all round feel good film, which parallels a modern day western and reminds the viewer of the appeal of this often overlooked genre.
Director: Pedro Almodóvar
In Law Of Desire, writer and film producer Pablo has created a successful career which has been followed closely by a young Antonio Benitez (played by Antonio Banderas). Antonio tries to beg strangers for tickets to his performances, following Pablo to nightclubs and watching him from afar. Antonio lusts after Pablo, unaware than Pablo is, in turn, in love with Juan, a handsome young man who seems reluctant to return Pablo’s affections. Unable to return Pablo’s love, Juan decides to move nearer the coast for a while. A distraught and, therefore, more vulnerable Pablo then takes Antonio home, thinking it a one night stand that will lead to nothing more. However, Antonio becomes obsessed; stalking Pablo, going through his things and fuming with jealousy over Juan. As Pablo focuses on the missing Juan and writing a play which he hopes will feature his transsexual sister (who dreams of being a successful actress), he is distracted enough to miss the warning signs. Antonio plays out the jealous lover, and, in following Juan to the coast, tragedy soon ensues.
In 1987, when Law Of Desire was released, the themes of homosexuality and transexuality were not as well discussed or openly accepted as they are now. Antonio Banderas plays his character with the youthful lust of a young Marlon Brando and, in doing so, would have opened the eyes of some to the masculine side of homosexual love, silencing those who thought homosexuality was limited to the camp and effeminate.
Despite being one of Almodovar’s earlier films, his skills as a director are still obvious, as he runs tragedy alongside humour, and inserts a good dose of his now famous witty dialogue and comedy timing.
Law of Desire highlights the dangers of unrequited love and suggests that the ‘law of desire’ is that desire which increases just as quickly as the object of your affection rejects you. Few would be able to argue with this theory, yet in watching the characters blindly unaware of the effect their rejection is having on the other party, it still makes for entertaining viewing.
Comic, tragic and definitely an excellent showcase of a young Antonio Banderas’ acting skills.
Similar Special Features
Spanish auteur Pedro Almodóvar is known and loved for his kitsch, colourful
melodramas, and for playing a huge part in the regeneration of Spanish cinema…
We may be over halfway through the year but there are still plenty of great
films yet to see, whether in the cinema or on DVD – and we’ve grouped…
Chinese director Zhang Yimou’s Hero (2002) proved to be a huge global hit
and helped pave the way for a number of epic Chinese blockbusters that…