10 Spanish Films Cinephiles Should See

Las mujeres de Almodóvar | screenshot Sergio Catá TVE
Las mujeres de Almodóvar | screenshot Sergio Catá TVE
Photo of Julia Solervicens
18 December 2016

Spain’s rich film industry has been constantly informed by its tumultuous political past. Under Franco’s dictatorship, the country suffered censorship. On his death in 1975, the countercultural movement La Movida ignited an explosion of liberated cinema after decades of oppression. The following films inspect the peninsula’s complex history.

Viridiana (1961)

Luis Buñuel’s Viridiana was banned until 1977 due to the tremendous stir it caused among conservative Spaniards and the catholic world. The film revolves around a self-punishingly religious nun named after Saint Viridiana and the ultimate downfall of good intentions. It speaks volumes about the nature of benevolence and depicts a loss of Christian faith, mirroring that of Buñuel’s and his skepticism about a society that is incapable of understanding its own needs.

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988)

With generous helpings of gazpacho and a mambo-music-filled taxi, this frenetic comedy embodies Pedro Almodóvar’s anti-conformist spirit. Filmed when Spain was on the path to a more open and balanced mindset, the film reflects the important societal changes and progresses made for women at the time. The emotions of the female characters, verging on hysteria, are paralleled by the explosions of color in the clothes and the extravagant settings. Almodóvar suggests that although women can be completely independent in their lives, their Achilles heel is that men can still affect them emotionally.

The Sea Inside (2004)

Based on a true story, Alejandro Amenábar’s film takes a serious look at the troublesome grey areas of Spanish law regarding euthanasia, with some humorous turns along the way. Ramón Sampedro (Javier Bardem) broke his neck in a freak driving accident as a young man and remained paralyzed from the neck down for 27 years. Although all Ramón desires is a dignified death, those close to him find it difficult to accept his wish. A heart-wrenching story, beautifully told.

Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)

The fantastical world imagined by a young girl attempting to cope with the horrors of the Spanish Civil War comes to life on screen. The heinous villains in Pan’s Labyrinth, such as the Monstrous Toad and the Pale Man, are as terrifying as those in Franco’s Spain. Whereas many children’s fairy tales omit gruesome details, director Guillermo del Toro resists any sugarcoating, instead portraying a world where darkness often overshadows light.

Belle Epoque (1992)

A film that takes a comical look at sex and friendship, Belle Epoque takes place in the summery rural Spain of 1931. A prisoner suddenly finds himself at liberty and stumbles upon a house where Manolo, a delightful old artist and self-declared anarchist, lives with his four beautiful young daughters. Reminiscent of Billy Wilder’s Some Like it Hot, the film evokes a similar feel-good fervor. Manolo’s happy-go-lucky spirit warms this brief but beautiful time before the impending Civil War.

Mondays in the Sun (2002)

An account of a group of shipbuilders who have been laid off and often drink too much to deal with the disheartening limbo that is unemployment. Aranoa’s characters have nowhere to go and live day to day talking in the sun virtually about nothing. The film offers complex answers to a wretched situation, and its emptiness is discernible in both their routines and their relationships. The film’s value lies not in representing a handful of characters but manifesting the reality of thousands of others across Spain in similar situations.

Talk to Her (2002)

Obsession, lust, and love depicted in a way rarely seen on screen. Another gem from the multi-talented director, Talk to Her depicts the rape of a young woman in a coma. It takes a look at our deepest fears and the violation of innocence in the most literal of terms. Paralleling the lives of two men whose partners are unconscious, the shocking tale emphasizes the importance of two sides to every story.

Talk to Her | Screenshot trailer

Raise Ravens (1976)

Taken from the Spanish proverb “Raise ravens and they will peck your eyes out,” this psychological drama interlaces reality and fiction through the eyes of a young girl called Ana, who is trying to deal with the death of both her mother and father. The film takes place in a tenebrous house in Madrid, also inhabited by Ana’s female relatives and depicts childhood as a terrifying period of indecision utterly vulnerable to the sway of others’ convictions. Released when Franco was on his deathbed in 1975, Ana’s private suffering is allegorical to the country’s own trauma and examines the legacy of violence passed on from generation to generation.

The South (1973)

At the center of this narrative is a family living in the north of Spain, where its ties to an enchanted south slowly become unearthed by the protagonist, young Estrella. Her only connection to this distant part of Spain is through postcards, and the significant power of images is an important one throughout the film. After a war that divided Spain, Estrella discovers the existence of an old lover of her father’s, and the division between her own family also becomes apparent. An artful composition, where an isolated ambiance permeates the film and the creation of identity is construed through its characters and their enigmatic past.

Open Your Eyes (1997)

A gripping psychological thriller with elements of horror and romance make this an unpredictable flurry of a watch. Set in Madrid, César is a devilishly handsome and wealthy man until he is horribly disfigured in an accident by a scorned ex-lover. As the story unfolds, the blurry intersection between reality and lucid nightmares becomes evident, as fragments of his past return in a dreamlike form until both César and the viewer are left doubting what is truly real. Delving into existential questions of the human spirit with a healthy dose of sci-fi on the side, Open Your Eyes makes for a haunting experience that stays with you long after the film has finished.

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