Film in Catalunya, 1906-2006

Despite its illustrious history, its Gaudi architecture, and its equally imposing geography, Barcelona will always be second to Madrid, and second in line for the attention of the Spanish. For centuries the city has been the center of the semi-independent region of Catalonia, or Catalunya. Film in Catalunya 1906-2006, a series running from January 27 to February 14 at the Walter Reade Theatre, showcases over two dozen features and shorts from the area.

While the Spanish film industry is centered in Madrid, for over a century Barcelona has staked its own claim to cinema. Starting with the trick films of Segundo de Chomón in 1902, the city produced several of Spain’s most significant silents. The series includes some early shorts and 1922’s Don Juan Tenorio, an opulent but dramatically stiff version of José Zorilla’s drama.

But is there a Catalan style of filmmaking? The Secret Life of Words, which is receiving its New York premiere on opening night, stars Sarah Polley, Tim Robbins, Sverre Anker Ousdal, and Julie Christie. Directed by Isabel Coixet, who made My Life Without Me with Polley, and set on a North Sea oil rig, the film’s only connection to Catalunya is that Coixet lives in Barcelona.

Other films make a better case for a Catalan school. The defining moment for the culture in the twentieth century was the Spanish Civil War. After the Republic fell to Franco’s forces, the Catalan language was outlawed, although by 1947 a Catalan cinema had re-emerged. The series includes five short documentaries filmed in Barcelona during the fighting, all from anti-Franco factions doomed to defeat.

Subsequent Catalan films share an understandable preoccupation with the war and its aftermath, and even today unsettling reverberations emerge in unexpected moments. The years of repression during Franco’s regime have their effect as well. Many of the films tend to focus on defiant outsiders who resist the seductions of mainstream Spain. In these movies, Catalans forego Madrid to rough it in harsh mountains and rugged valleys, or to fight among themselves in the ancient streets of Barcelona.

Bizarre can’t begin to describe Life in the Shadows (Vida en sombras, 1948), a sort of combined history of Barcelona and cinema as told by Ed Wood. Directed by Lorenzo Llobet Gracia, it follows the preternaturally thin Carlos Duran, whose childhood obsession with photography leads him to become a newsreel photographer, film critic, and director of short and eventually feature films. Duran is a bona fide geek who would rather discuss microphones and Agfacolor with his friend Luis (soon to be his lead actor) than date or even eat. Taken on the film’s terms, Duran’s inevitable success, and Gracia’s sunnily optimistic view of how movies are financed, written and shot, have a certain naive charm. But seen against the backdrop of Popular Front skirmishes that claim Duran’s wife, this Neverland version of cinema can seem absurdly disconnected. Watching Duran adjust the position of corpses while photographing street fighting raises questions director Gracia had no intention of answering. Actor Fernando Fernán Gómez’s slight resemblance to Laurence Olivier becomes a major plot factor when Duran finds himself creatively blocked in an apartment across the street from a theater showing Rebecca. It’s just the spur he needs to decide to make a feature of his own life, conveniently with the same sets Gracia used earlier in the film.

The series includes one film from the 1950s, Post Box 1001 (Apartado de Correos 1001), but it wasn’t until the 1960s that Barcelona filmmakers gained serious momentum. Included here are pivotal works like Fata Morgana (1965-67) and Dante Is Not Simply Harsh (Dante no es únicamente severo, 1967), self-indulgent experimental pieces that borrow the stylistic tics but little of the intellectual depth of the French New Wave.

Franco’s death in 1975 set Catalan filmmakers free. Director Ventura Pons explored this new liberty in his documentary Ocaña, an Intermittent Portrait (Ocaña, retrat intermitent, 1978). He is also represented by Anita Takes a Chance (Anita no perd el tren, 2001), a bland romantic comedy that proves, perhaps inadvertently, that filmgoers in Catalunya have the same appetite for escapism that everyone else does. In fact, it’s gratifying to realize that Catalan cinema has its full share of horror films, comedies, and romances, minus only Hollywood’s obsession with special effects.

Take, for example, Tapas (2005), one of Spain’s big hits last summer. Using a large cast and a rambling script made up of three interlocking stories, co-directors José Corbacho and Juan Cruz tackle older-woman/younger-man sex, the assisted suicide of an elderly rascal with lung cancer, and racial discrimination against a Chinese chef and amateur martial artist. The film’s stridently buoyant style is redeemed somewhat by dedicated acting, but nothing can rescue the script’s lazy moralizing.

Narrated by a young child, The Cherry Tree (L’arbre de les cireres, 1998) takes a quiet, deliberate look at an isolated farming valley. Apart from striking landscapes, lovingly captured in stately pans that punctuate the scenes, life here is much like life anywhere else. Marti, the local doctor, is leaving his long-time lover Roser; Andreu, his young replacement, is running away from an unspecified problem in the city. While they adjust to their new lives, a farmer pursues Roser, a teen falls for a carny at the local fair, and an ailing grandmother waits for her daughter to return from the circus. Death brings the characters together to ruminate over the valley’s pull on them. What distinguishes director Marc Recha’s vision is his ability to portray genuine characters without judging them. On the other hand, The Cherry Tree too often has nothing to say, but instead lingers lovingly over spring showers, fog-encased mountain peaks, brightly colored cottages leaning over crooked alleys, and half-forgotten songs crooned in dark taverns.

Los Tarantos (1963) may be the echt Barcelona film, a contemporary Romeo and Juliet with a half-dozen flamenco interludes. A proud, defiant Carmen Amaya stars as the widowed mother of Rafael Tarantos, whose star-crossed love for Juana Zaronga will lead to tragedy. Shot in the streets of Barcelona and in the hilltop shanties overlooking the town, the film has echoes of everything from West Side Story to La Strada. What it doesn’t have is much of a plot, apart from the requisite clinches and swordfights (done here with switchblades). The dances, choreographed by Amaya, unfold with a striking energy and immediacy, even though they’re often shot in close-up so we can’t see the dancers’ feet. The hard-edged Amaya is a force of nature, her hands in constant motion, her staccato taps silencing onlookers. This was her last film, and it’s important not just for the chance to see her perform, but also as a record of how she approached flamenco. She choreographs her dancers so that they are all undulating hips, their hands held aloft and quivering like insect antennae. The dances are battles, even when they are meant to seduce, and the dancers perform for themselves, indifferent to the audience around them.

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