Authority and Excess in Cielo Negro (1951): Challenges of Religious Melodrama in the Spain of the 1950s

By Jorza, Diana Roxana | Bulletin of Hispanic Studies, April 1, 2013 | Go to article overview

Authority and Excess in Cielo Negro (1951): Challenges of Religious Melodrama in the Spain of the 1950s


Jorza, Diana Roxana, Bulletin of Hispanic Studies


Abstract

Significantly popular when first screened in 1951, the Spanish melodrama Cielo negro tended to be underestimated by film critics and historians, who condemned the 'Baroque' emotional excess of a cinematic form traditionally disparaged as 'reactionary' and 'escapist' in opposition to the acclaimed Spanish (Neo)realism. The article argues that a careful analysis of Cielo negro and of its contradictory interpretations can reposition this almost forgotten melodrama within the long-standing critical debate about the relationships between melodrama and (Neo)realism. The essay also tries to show how the melodramatic excess and ambivalence of the filmic discourse, both disciplinary and emancipating, undermines an easy ascription of the movie to the category of 'Catholic cinema'. Last but not least, by setting Cielo negro and the contemporaneous Spanish religious melodrama against the sociopolitical background of Spain in the 1950s, this article seeks to highlight the larger problems of reception faced by a Spanish 'Catholic cinema'.

Resumen

Muy popular en su estreno en 1951, el melodrama español Cielo negro ha sido infravalorado por los críticos y los historiadores de cine, los cuales han condenado el exceso emocional 'barroco' de una forma fílmica tradicionalmente menospreciada como 'reaccionaria' y 'escapista' frente al ensalzado (neo)realismo español. Este artículo sostiene que un análisis atento de Cielo negro y de sus interpretaciones contradictorias puede reposicionar este melodrama casi olvidado en el enraizado debate crítico sobre las relaciones entre melodrama y (neo)realismo. Este ensayo también quiere demostrar cómo el exceso y la ambivalencia melodramáticos del discurso analizado, a la vez disciplinario y emancipatorio, logran minar una fácil adscripción de la película a la categoría de 'cine católico'. Al analizar Cielo negro y el melodrama español religioso coetáneo dentro del contexto sociopolítico de la España de los 1950, este artículo intenta enfocarse también en los problemas de recepción más generales del 'cine católico' español.

Cielo negro, Manuel Mur Oti's almost forgotten melodrama of 1951, which enjoyed a considerable popularity at the time of its screening, tended to be underestimated by film critics of both sides of the political spectrum. While the Francoist politically compliant circles distrusted the emotional excess and the underlying existential discontent of melodrama,1 the 'progressive' leftist intelligentsia of the period also condemned the lush display of emotions in a cinematic form condemned for its 'reactionary' and 'escapist' tendencies.2 Most anthologies of Spanish film history and criticism (e.g., Enciclopedia ilustrada del cine, Diccionario del cine español), on their part, classified Cielo negro within the indicted melodramatic strain of the Francoist 'Catholic cinema' and against the acclaimed achievements of Spanish Neorealism.3 I argue that a careful examination of Mur Oti's film and of the conflicting interpretations it generated can actually reposition Cielo negro in the forefront of the entrenched battle of legitimation between melodrama and (Neo)realism.

Avoiding a dichotomous reading of the movie, this essay attempts to show how the melodramatic ambivalence of Cielo negro can trigger a qualified empathetic response from the audience and undermine the credibility of a Catholic interpretation of the film. Based upon a dynamic film genre interpretation, which considers the historicity of the genres as cultural forms and their interplay with other genres and social institutions, this article reads Mur Oti's film and the Spanish religious melodrama of the period against the socio-political background of Spain at the beginning of the 1950s. In so doing, it also seeks to highlight how the slippery discourse of Cielo negro, both disciplinary and emancipating, is illuminating for the larger reception challenges faced by the Spanish 'Catholic cinema' in a period that promoted a religious and socio-political discourse of both containment and excess. …

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