Until Franco’s death in 1975, Spanish cinema didn’t manage to properly break into the international film scene, owing to heavy censorship and a strictly controlled regime which had a tight grasp on its creative industries. Spanish movies are therefore inextricably tied to its history: the films released before Franco’s death relied on heavy use of allegory and metaphor but nearly all related to the Civil War and the subsequent regime. However, with the end of the regime, there was a creative explosion and space for films to be as radical and controversial as they liked. The result of strict censorship followed by an outburst of creative freedom? A thriving cinematic scene which rivals and supersedes most of its contemporaries.
Un Chien Andalou (An Andalusian Dog)
This 1929 surrealist cult classic may be shot in the French language, but due to the fact that it was made by two of the most important Spanish artists/directors at the turn of the 20th century, Salvador Dali and Luis Buñuel, it deserves an honorary mention. Un Chien Andalou is likely to be familiar to film and art aficionados alike, as it was Buñuel’s first film and it cemented his place as a respected member of the Avant Garde movement. Using dream logic and heavy Freudian imagery, the film was made not to please audiences, but to shock them. Its subversive value has diluted over time but it’s still not a pick for the squeamish. Un Chien Andalou is rewarding as a piece of pure art and its fabulous lack of structure and frankly, bizarre shots. It may not be one for everyone which is evidenced in Buñuel’s anticipation of the audience reaction at the time: rumor has it that he carried stones to the first screening ‘to throw at the audience in case of disaster’. Luckily there was no disaster. Watch this divisive classic in full below:
Pan’s Labyrinth (El laberinto del fauno)
Directed by Mexican director Guillermo del Toro, Pan’s Labyrinth is a genre-bending classic, set in the midst of the Spanish Civil War. Told through the eyes of an 11-year-old girl, Ofelia, the film manages to bind together the seemingly disparate genres of fantasy, fairy-tale and horror, with uncomfortable roots in realism. Ofelia retreats into a secret and fantasy world with metamorphic creatures and a faun who sets her upon terrifying tasks which manage to detract her attention from the nightmarish reality outside. It takes a true master to reconcile a fairy tale with the horror of real-life war but such is the craft of del Toro, and the film is a beautiful visceral dream. After its release in 2006, it won three Academy Awards, was nominated for another three and its trophy cabinet is laden with many, many more. Get lost in the trailer below:
Alejandro Amenábar’s 1996 directorial debut, Tesis tells the story of a young university student who is writing her thesis on violent cinema. When her advisor dies of a heart attack after watching a snuff film, she then embarks on a (questioningly) sadistic mission to find out who made the movies. What unravels is a gripping horror movie which casts a light on a society that increasingly fetishises real-life violence on screen: a phenomenon which has only grown with the rise of the internet. In terms of props, age has perhaps not been kind to this film as the land of VHS seem light-years away to today’s viewers, however, the story could easily apply to the world of the deep web today. This low-budget, meta-mystery horror film demonstrates the young Amenábar’s startling abilities both as a filmmaker and storyteller.
Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios)
No list of notable Spanish films would be complete without at least one entry by Pedro Almodóvar. The unstoppable author’s 1988 black comedy Women On the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown tackles an objectively dark subject but with such endearing characters, charm and wit that we can’t do anything but enjoy the ride. The main character of Pepa is having a rough time and decides to end it all in a uniquely Spanish way: with a laced gazpacho. However, she doesn’t do it with much gusto and consequently forgets. What follows is a screwball situational black comedy with scenes of inflated pomp and camaraderie. It’s stylish, full of fabulous female characters and sure to invoke emotion even from a stone. Watch the trailer below:
The Spirit of the Beehive (El espíritu de la colmena)
Perhaps the first thing to note about Víctor Erice‘s 1973 film is simply just that: it was released in 1973 in a time when film censorship was still rife in Spain, and films were forced to rely on veiled metaphors and allegories to pass through the censors. Subsequently, earlier cuts of The Spirit of the Beehive were more overtly political. On the surface, the final cut shares some palpable similarities with Pan’s Labyrinth, as both are led by young female protagonists, who get lost in their own fantasy worlds, in parallel with the ongoing war.
Instead of openly referring to conflict, Erice chooses to focus on the domestic sphere, and we get a snapshot into the silent peculiarities of every character. Like many arthouse films, it has a slow pace, the shots are lingering, the cinematography is lush and dialogue can be sparse. Characters are often shot alone and isolated in scenes perhaps reflecting their own feelings of isolation. Get a taste of the beautiful bleakness below:
The Hunt (La Caza)
Carlos Saura’s 1966 classic, The Hunt follows three veterans from the Civil War who embark on a hunting trip, together with a younger compatriot. Although their initial intention was to hunt rabbits, their quest increasingly grows more and more intense as the three Falangists’ conversation switches to the past. The film is tough and existential, and carefully examines the effects of the war on Spanish society. Notably, the trip takes place at a location which previously bore witness to the atrocities of the civil war, but the demons of the war have never truly left. The Hunt has received lots of endowment, winning the Silver Bear for Best Director at the 16th Berlin Film Festival, and you can find its (Spanish-language) trailer below:
Luis Buñuel returned to Spain to make Viridiana after Franco told the country’s minister of culture at the time to invite him back to make anything he wished. This sentiment, however, was short-lived, as the film was quickly banned after its release, and not seen in Spain until after Franco’s death in 1975. Despite this, it managed to reach international acclaim, winning the Palm D’Or at Cannes in the year of its release, 1961. Viridiana tells the story of a would-be nun who visits her lonely widowed uncle who makes incestuous passes at her, because she resembles his late wife. What follows is a bleak but humorous drama where altruism and good intentions continually amount to little. Finally, it culminates into a sexually charged and ambiguous conclusion. Given that the protagonist is supposed to be a virtuous nun, the scandal that Viridiana courted should come as no surprise. Watch the trailer below and enjoy the forceful tagline of: ‘A Powerful New Drama BURSTS upon the screen with The Force and Clarity of LIGHTNING’.
The Skin I Live In (La piel que habito)
Pedro Almodóvar is something of an unstoppable cinematic force and his great range is further confirmed in his 2011 horror-melodrama, The Skin I Live In. A departure from his earlier work, The Skin I Live In is based on Mygale, a 1984 thriller-crime novel by Thierry Jonquet and it tells the story of a plastic surgeon and his submissive walking-experiment of a partner, who is held as a questionably willing hostage, at his home. It bears many similarities to Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face but it is characteristically more bizarre and psychologically nuanced. At times, it makes for uneasy watching due to its claustrophobic nature and the clinical, and distinctly male-gaze of its main character, Ledgard. However, the cinematography is impeccable and every plot-line is perfectly crafted – that is if you take the task of following them.