Academic journal article Bulletin of Hispanic Studies

Repressed Memories and Desires: The Monstrous Other in Agustí Villaronga's Pa Negre

Academic journal article Bulletin of Hispanic Studies

Repressed Memories and Desires: The Monstrous Other in Agustí Villaronga's Pa Negre

Article excerpt

Set in a rural community during the bleak years that followed the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) and seen through the eyes of an eleven-year-old boy, Agustí Villaronga's Pa negre (2010) narrates a story about betrayal and loss. The film draws on the narrative fiction of the Catalan writer Emili Teixidor (1933-2012), cleverly bringing together many tales and characters from a range of his texts, including the collection of short stories Sic transit Gloria Swanson (1979) and two novels: Retrat d'un assassíd'ocells (1987) and Pa negre (2003).1 The winner of over 20 awards and the first film in Catalan to be submitted as Spain's official entry for the foreign language category at the 84th Academy Awards in 2012, to date Pa negre remains one of the most commercially successful and talked about films ever to have been produced in Catalan, featuring prominently in the Catalan and Spanish media for many months following its release date.2 In general, the cultural and film critics writing for the Catalan and national press coincided in celebrating the film's engagement with Catalonia's historical past, as well as Villaronga's treatment of its source texts. However, the more shadowy aspects of the film, namely, the director's deployment of ghostly and monstrous imagery and its association with sexuality and Otherness, were often eschewed. More recently, Dean Allbritton's scholarly article on children and the enactment of illness and psychosis in the film 'only obliquely tie[s]' (2014: 622) Villaronga's cinematic production to a cultural tradition in Spain described by Jo Labanyi as 'one big ghost story' (2002: 3) and suggests a focus on 'the living markers of repression, loss, war, trauma' (Allbritton 2014: 622). Indeed, Pa negre is a film that explores the relationship between the disembodied and the physical, for sooner or later, the ghost always takes the shape of a material - albeit monstrous - body. In line with Allbritton's understanding of the traces of violence and oppression as the 'living scars' (2014: 622) of a brutal civil war and dictatorship, and attentive to notions of corporeality, performativity and embodiment, this article seeks to unveil the function of the ghost narrative in this film and its connection with carnal desire, ritualism and the staging of sexuality.

Since the publication of Jacques Derrida's influential essay, Spectres of Marx (1994), the trope of the phantom has proved a fertile critical tool to practitioners in the field of Cultural Studies. In 2001, Labanyi drew on the work of the French philosopher to discuss the recuperation of historical memory in Spanish cultural production and, to date, the reading of the phantom in relation to Spain's traumatic past remains widespread among scholars.3 The ghost begins to haunt Spanish cinema in the early 1970s, with films such as Víctor Erice's El espíritu de la colmena (1973) and La prima Angélica (1974) by Carlos Saura, and reappears in the course of the noughties in the hands of the Mexican film director Guillermo del Toro (El espinazo del diablo, 2001), internationally renowned Pedro Almodóvar (Volver, 2006), and J. A. Bayona (El Orfanato, 2007). Caught in a temporal limbo, the ghost is seen to indicate a collapse in the boundaries between past and present, bringing to the forefront the urgency in dealing with unresolved past conflicts. Historical fissures, absence and loss are also articulated through the phantom; thus its appearances are suggestive of the need to restore the histories of those who have been deliberately omitted from official narratives. More recently, Ann Davies (2014) has questioned whether the recurrence of ghostly and monstrous imagery in Spanish film and literature should be considered exclusively in terms of the war and Francoism. She has established links between horror and fantasy film and the Gothic genre, and argued that 'the Gothic speaks to other traumas too: the loss of innocence, the repression of sexuality, the stranglehold of patriarchy, domestic violence' (2014; unpaginated). …

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