Spanish cinema makes waves on American shores

by Kate Carolan | 11/16/04 6:00am

With the ever-growing population of Spanish speakers in the United States, the last 10 years in particular have seen an increase in Hispanic, and predominantly Latin, culture, from the Macarena to Ricky Martin.

During this time, Spanish-language film has also seemed to grow in popularity, and to many Americans, is mistakenly viewed as a new phenomenon.

Much to the contrary, Spanish film has a long, rich tradition rooted in amazing cinematography, surrealist approaches and unparalleled character development that has propelled it to the forefront of the film industry for decades.

Luis Bunuel, commonly regarded as the father of surrealist film, was a contemporary of Salvador Dali and Federico Garcia Lorca and truly revolutionized cinematography. He set a precedent to be followed by successors like Pedro Almodovar, likely one of the most famous directors of this era.

Almodovar has directed, written, and produced a number of landmark films over the years, including "All About My Mother" (1999), "Talk to Her" (2002), and most recently, "Bad Education," which will be released in the United States this Friday.

Almodovar won an Oscar for Best Screenplay for "Talk to Her" and was also nominated for Best Director. All three of his most recent films showcase his unique style and brilliant cinematography.

Claiming that all his works are loosely autobiographical, Almodovar's films are set around characters who are real and fallible and present moral conundrums that engage the audience like few films do.

In "Talk to Her," Almodovar evokes sympathy for the main character, Benito, in spite of his having committed rape. In "Bad Education," Almodovar takes a predatory priest and turns him into a victim later in the film.

Almodovar presses his audience to look at people and situations from varying angles, much like his distinctive and creative cinematography.

In addition to drawing the audience's attention to the dark reality of human nature, Almodovar also makes subtle political statements through his work. Spanish professor Francine A'Ness talked about the role Almodovar has played in restoring Spain's fervor after a long and culturally draining dictatorship.

"After Franco's death and during the transition to democracy, Spanish film was an incredibly important vehicle for critiquing the Franco years and exploring who and what Spain and Spaniards had become. In the '80s and '90s it was either overtly political and anti-franquista or, like Almodavar's films, an emblem of the 'destape,' the explosion of pent-up energy, ideas and expressions that had been censored for so long under Franco," said A'Ness.

Natalie Koch '07, who took a seminar on Spanish film last year, notes that in addition to Almodovar's crucial role in restoring art to Spain after the Civil War, the director has also transformed the representation of sexuality in film.

"Pedro Almodovar has revolutionized Spanish film. His first movie, 'Pepi, Luci, y Bon' was released promptly after the end of the Franco regime and it addressed practically all the social and primarily sexual taboos that had been suppressed by Francoist censorship. Most of his subsequent films, including 'Tacones Lejanos' and 'All About My Mother,' also address sexual taboos and heighten awareness about prominent issues in the GLTB community," said Koch.

Another prominent Spanish writer and director is Alejandro Amenabar, who has received vast international acclaim in the past few years. One of his first box-office hits was "Abre Los Ojos" in 1997, which was later remade in America as "Vanilla Sky" (2001) with Tom Cruise. Amenabar's film was a spin-off of Alfred Hitchcock's 1958 film "Vertigo."

"The Others" (2001) was Amenabar's first English-language film. Worthy of note is the fact that, in addition to directing, Amenabar also writes and composes all the music for his films. He also composed the score for "La Lengua de las Mariposas," a film about the Spanish Civil War that came out in 1998.

Amenabar typically deviates from politics in his films and chooses instead to focus on more fantastical themes and surrealist constructions.

Because of their shared Spanish-language component, Mexican film artists are also often lumped into the broad category of "Spanish film." This is likely also due to the fact that, like Spanish films, Mexican films are distinguished by their stunning cinematography, blunt portrayal of sexuality and readiness to present a refreshing break from the stale Hollywood mold.

Visiting film studies professor and celebrated producer Cirri Nottage '83 commented on foreign films filling a void of person-based film in today's movie industry.

"As American films become more commercial and generic ... we're seeing more foreign films inhabit the space left vacant -- i.e., more personal, humanized character-driven stories that tell the tales of their particular culture and/or society particularly -- as we all seem to be riddled with the anxieties of a new age," said Nottage.

Alfonso Cuaron, from Mexico City, is not necessarily a household name, but his films no doubt are. His 2001 film "Y Tu Mama Tambien" was one of the works truly responsible for putting the genre of "Spanish film" on the American radar screen. Cuaron also directed English-language films "A Little Princess" in 1995 and "Great Expectations" in 1998.

He most recently directed the third movie in the Harry Potter series, "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban." He was asked to do this without having read any of the Harry Potter books.

Fellow Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu has established himself as one of cinema's great plot-weavers. His two most notable films, "Amores Perros" (2000) and "21 Grams" (2003), are both suspenseful movies that involve a series of carefully constructed and fast-paced subplots.

The next works due out from this pool of directors will come from Cuaron. He is scheduled to release a sci-fi thriller in 2005 and "Mexico '68," a film about the student uprising in Mexico, in 2006. Until then, aficionados of Spanish film can satiate their cinematic thirst with "Motorcycle Diaries," directed by up-and-coming Brazilian film artist Walter Salles, and, of course, with the much-anticipated nationwide release of "Bad Education" this weekend.