Recent Spanish Cinema in National and Global Contexts

Article excerpt

Once considered a backwater of European film culture, in recent years Spanish cinema has achieved a new prominence both at home and abroad symbolized by the awarding of Best Foreign Film Oscars to Spanish motion pictures twice in the last decade (Fernando Trueba's Belle Epoque, 1992, and Pedro Almodovar's All About My Mother/Todo sobre mi madre, 1999). These Oscars come a decade after Jose Luis Garci's To Begin Again/Volver a empezar won the first Best Foreign Film Oscar for Spain in 1983. But a decade in film history can be an eternity. Certainly, when viewed in the historical context of Garci's tearjerker about remembrances of the Civil War, these 90s films show just how much Spanish cinema has evolved in a relatively short time. Garci's formulaic melodrama was seen both at home and abroad as a crassly designed film intended to play on certain international stereotypes about Spain, with very little artistic merit of its own. Rather than presenting "Spanish Cinema For the World," as Spain's Ministry of Cultu re promotions boasted, To Begin Again seemed even to Spaniards at the time to revel in many of the cliches that had long ghettoized Spanish film in international markets.

By contrast, Belle Epoque and All About My Mother offered fresh, unconventional images of Spain and Spaniards. What is perhaps most significant about the Oscar recognition of these two films so close together in time is that together they give audiences outside of Spain a more accurate sense of the robustness of Spanish film culture of recent years. That new energy is to be seen in the array of other prominent awards won recently by Spanish films at prestigious international festivals and increasingly wider distribution for Spanish films overseas. These acknowledgements of a maturing national cinema have, in turn, been accompanied by the cross-over achievements of Spanish stars such as Carmen Maura, Victoria Abril, Aitana Sanchez-Gijon, superstar Antonio Banderas, and the very recent celebrity of Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz.

Thus, from a certain perspective, Trueba and Almodovar's films may serve as a shorthand for the diverse thematic, stylistic and cultural range of recent Spanish cinema. Not only were these films that received strong box-office response in their domestic runs, but they mirror in microcosm Spanish cinema's move away from the ghetto of the narrowly-defined cultural stereotypes and narrative cliches that many thought were the only stock-in-trade of Spanish filmmakers.

Belle Epoque is an historical comedy set in the 1930s scripted by Rafael Azcona, Spain's most widely acclaimed scriptwriter whose career spans four decades. Not the least of the film's virtues is that it brings to the attention of international audiences one of Spain's most gifted film auteurs of recent decades. Fernando Trueba has managed to bridge the gap between art house cinema and popular audience tastes, as well as the gap between Spanish generations of audiences. Some of that bridging of generations is to be seen in the attractive cast that includes veteran actors familiar to Spanish audiences, Fernando Fernan Gomez and Jorge Sanz, as well as Penelope Cruz and Maribel Verdu, two of the most popular of young Spanish actresses of the nineties. Belle Epoque introduces to international audiences one of the most historically popular formulas of Spanish film, the sweeping ensemble comedy, brought to its pinnacle nearly a half-century ago by Luis Garcia Berlanga, and still one of the staples of Spanish cinema .

One of the most disarming features of Belle Epoque is the way it plays against its international audiences' expectations of Spanish history. As Marsha Kinder notes: "This film figures Spanish history not as a noble object of tragic pity for complacent global spectators but as an enviable source of unrestrained pleasure for a world plagued by AIDS and by waves of neo-conservative backlash. Thus the so-called new liberated mentality of Socialist Spain is shown to have historic roots in the Pre-Civil War era, a period recuperated as a utopian fantasy for the same global audience that made Almodovar a star (5). …