10 Films That Tell You About Spain's Culture

Photo of Tamara Kiewiet
15 November 2016

Of all the ways to get to know a country’s cultural heritage, cinema is perhaps one of the most accessible (and enjoyable!). Generations of filmmakers from across the world have put their view on Spanish culture into works of cinematic art. These ten films provide valuable insight into the rich history of Spain and its many regional identities. Sit back, relax and explore Spanish culture from the comfort of your own home.

Ocho Apellidos Vascos – Emilio Martínez-Lázaro 2014

This comedy is also known as Spanish Affair, and that’s exactly what it is. Rafael, the Sevillian main character, tries to win the heart of Amaia, a Basque girl. Stereotypically, the people of these two regions are supposed to be each other’s direct opposites; hence, a culture-clash follows. The major part of this film takes place in the Basque country, one of the northern regions of Spain. Good to know: the funny and colorful film already has a follow-up with a similar story line, Ocho Apellidos Catalanes.

El Laberinto Del Fauno – Guillermo del Toro 2006

The film starts with a fairy tale about a princess from a different world. When the young Ofelia, the main character of the film, is lead into an ancient maze, she meets the faun Pan. He tells her she is the legendary princess of this tale and gives her three important tasks to complete. She needs to perform these tasks before the next full moon so she can gain immortality. This dark fantasy film takes place in 1944, during the early years of Franco’s dictatorship. The horrors of the real world and fantasy are perfectly mixed in this intriguing story, also known as Pan’s Labyrinth.

La Lengua De Las Mariposas – José Luis Cuerda 1999

The Spanish Civil War and the periods before and after it have had a great impact on modern-day Spanish culture. In this beautiful double act between a cute little kid and a wise older man, you will find what impact the looming Spanish Civil War had on their life. Moncho, the cute little main character, experiences an ordinary coming-of-age situation. But the thread of war interrupts his personal growth and daily life. Luckily, the bitter socio-historical story is softened by the view from a little child. It’s not too heavy, and it gives some understanding of this harsh period Spain lived through.

Juana La Loca – Vicente Aranda 2001

Queen Juana I de Castilla was known as Juana la Loca, the crazy queen. The poor woman was madly in love with her womanizing king. This film is based on a true story – although viewers should not take it for being true history. It does give a great sense of Spanish royalty culture in the Middle Ages. It’s a love story full of lies and deceit, jealousy, affection and passion, but it also displays a political background. You can also find it under the English name, Mad Love.

La Gran Familia Española – Daniel Sanchez Arevalo 2013

Two of Spain’s greatest passions are united in one film: football and family. This enjoyable Spanish comedy, also know as Family United, takes place at the time of the 2010 soccer World Cup final. Five brothers are reunited for a wedding at the family estate in a village in the mountains near Madrid. These engagingly complex characters contribute a large deal to the watch-worthiness of La Gran Familia Española. The Spanish director, Daniel Sanchez Arevalo, has managed to create a refreshing wedding comedy.

Goya’s Ghosts – Miloš Forman 2006

This Spanish-American film was written and produced in English even though it’s a Spanish production. The film focuses on the horrific period of the Inquisition and Napoleon’s conquest. The renowned painter Francisco Goya was the Official Court Painter. He created portraits of the Spanish king and queen. The Spanish Inquisition thinks some of Goya’s works are evil. When his brother tries to defend him, he is put in charge of intensifying the Inquisition. Even though the story is fictional, the historical setting for this movie, at the end of the 18th century, is authentic.

El Valle De Las Espadas – Javier Setó 1963

This Spanish-made adventure-drama tells the legendary tale of Fernán González of Castile, the first independent Count of Castile. The tale basically follows like any other heroic tale from this period; the warrior unites the country against their enemies and wins the heart of the princess. The Count of Castile was an important figure in the Spanish Reconquista, during the beginning of the 10th century. He was banished by the despotic Spanish king, Don Sancho. But with help from the kings daughter, Fernán González of Castile assembles an army to fight against the intruding Moors. The movie is available in Spanish, or you could watch the dubbed version called The Castilian.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona – Woody Allen 2008

Spain’s charm, in particular Barcelona and Oviedo, captured famous director Woody Allen. There was no doubt about it he would use it as a setting for one of his treasured movies. Two girls, Vicky and Cristina, travel to Barcelona. Vicky comes here with a reason and clearly knows what she wants. She is going to work on her masters in Catalan culture. Her friend is a totally different, much more of a dreamy type. Besides the brilliant visual tour through the monuments and landscapes, viewers get a taste of Spanish culture interpreted by the great Woody Allen.

Salvador – Manuel Huerga 2006

Salvador tells the story of Salvador Puig Antich, the last man to be executed by garrote, a weapon used under the Franco dictatorship in 1974. Salvador, a Spanish activist, fights against oppression during this period. It’s a tough heartbreaking and dramatic subject. Even though the movie has gotten some heavy criticism, the Catalan director has made an effort to shine a light on the difficult topic. Critics say the film offers no explanation of Salvador’s actual battle, nor the reasons why he fought or his beliefs. For a broader knowledge on this history, you could read the book on which this movie is based – Francesc Escribano’s book, Compte Enrere: La Història De Salvador Puig Antich.

Land and Freedom – Ken Loach 1995

David Carr, the main character, is unemployed and a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain. Carr decides to travel to Spain in 1936 and fight in the Spanish Civil War, going to Spain with the intention of joining the anti-fascist international brigades. Instead, he ends up with the POUM, a Marxist splinter group. The story unfolds in a flashback after Carr’s death at an old age, when his granddaughter discovers old documents from the period of his life during the Spanish Civil War. Spanish, Catalan and English are the languages spoken throughout this movie. Explore the Spanish Civil War period through the eyes of filmmaker Ken Loach.

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