Life in the Shadows. Spanish Cinema in a Labyrinth (1939–1953)

April 28 - May 27, 2016 - 7:00 p.m.
Carlos Arévalo. Rojo y negro [Red and Black]. Film, 1942
Carlos Arévalo. Rojo y negro [Red and Black]. Film, 1942
José Luis Castro de Paz

This film series, organised in conjunction with the exhibition Campo Cerrado. Spanish Art 1939–1953, focuses on post-war Spanish cinema, moving beyond the clichés that have buried it for a number of decades to present a dark yet fascinating filmic and historical labyrinth displaying conflicts, searches and objectives from the main narratives in a melancholic period, wounded and confrontational period.

The dictatorial regime organised film production in a diametrical opposite to the Republican period as it developed a system of economic autarchy and staunch ideological censorship. Nevertheless, contrary to widespread assertions, it also searched for continuity in the cultural traditions that had been put in place during the Second Republic. The new State failed, however, in its aim to construct “fascist” cinema on account of the disparity of conflicting views, thus demonstrated in the differences between long-standing conservatism in Raza (Race), by José Luis Sáenz de Heredia (1942), and the Falangist and Eisensteinian modernity of Rojo y negro (Red and Black), by Carlos Arévalo (1942). It would also err in its attempts to remove the folkloric and popular substrata which, despite fierce opposition by those who saw such elements as an abominable Popular Front-esque inheritance, managed to remain and was depicted in the work of director Edgar Neville - a pragmatic and measured cultural opposition with authentic and subversive titles like Verbena (Madrid Carnival, 1941), La torre de los siete jorobados (The Tower of the Seven Hunchbacks, 1944) and the Solanesque Domingo de carnaval (Carnival Sunday, 1945).

Despite the darkness of the period, comedy would become the most common genre. Drawing influences from the modern and absurd humour found in the magazine La Codorniz (founded in 1941 by Miguel Mihura), this decade’s filmography was predominated by a decidedly reflexive and meta-cinematic volition, expounding the difficulty facing fiction when it came to addressing the dark reality that had begun after the Civil War.

Dissidents in their own way, the films by the so-called “reformists” (Jose Antonio Nieves Conde, director of the transcendental Surcos (Furrows) in 1951; Arturo Ruiz-Castillo and Manuel Mur Oti) and the “tellurics” (Carlos Serrano de Osma, Lorenzo Llobet-Gràcia y Enrique Gómez), demonstrated a pronounced social concern and a striking “aesthetic commitment” – with European and avant-garde roots yet also strongly influenced by Hollywood – in addition to profound psychoanalytical concerns, conveying harrowing discourses about the life and times and the destructive consequences.

The irreparable loss of the loved object, often portrayed by a murdered, forbidden or missing woman, the ensuing melancholy and even madness and the narrative junctions that were customarily employed at the time can be read as metaphors of a devastated country, inhabited by sombre memories which carried an uncontrollable guilt complex. Thus, sadness, destruction and historical solitude became lucid “wounds of desire”.


Actividad pasada April 28, 2016
Rafael Gil. El hombre que se quiso matar (The Man Who Wanted to Kill Himself)

1942, original version, b/w, 93´

With a presentation by María Dolores Jiménez-Blanco, the curator of Campo Cerrado. Spanish Art 1939–1953 and professor of Art History at the Complutense University of Madrid.


In this film bitterness and critique seeps through the social fabric of comedy without hesitation, establishing an initial symbiosis of realism, costumbrismo and fantasy that would characterise a large part of post-war film texts.

Freed from social conventions after publicly deciding to commit suicide, Federico Solá, a young and brilliant architect without a future, becomes a danger and a source of irritation to the social fabric, comprising a journalist, an entrepreneur, a shopkeeper and an bourgeois loafer, who all come together as they anxiously await the consummation of the final promise. The afflictions of an isolated country in moral and economic collapse is, time and again, laid bare and exploited with the construction of this uncontrollable character which nothing can deny, and through dialogues – halfway between a one-act farce and the grotesque - that help to understand the masterly consideration of Wenceslao Fernández Flórez, the author of the novel which inspired the film, by the comedians of La Codorniz.


Actividad pasada April 29, 2016
Carlos Arévalo

Ya viene el cortejo… (Here Comes the Parade…) 1939, original version, b/w, 11´

Rojo y negro (Red and Black), 1942, original version, b/w, 80´

The joint screening of both films affords a glimpse into the difficulties facing the new Regime in mobilising propaganda cinema, due to both the different ideological trends behind the military uprising and the syncretic and contradictory sources of Spanish fascism.


Ya viene el cortejo… shows the 1939 Victory March as it searches for its roots in the historical and iconographical motifs that seek to become immemorial. The film sets out to explain how the perfect and triumphant military formations in the march – seen in high-angle avant-garde shots – reach their fullest sense with fades back to an eternal past of medieval castles, cathedrals, religious symbols, and stereotypes of women wearing regional Spanish garments.

Rojo y negro, on the other hand, maintains Carlos Arévalo’s extreme experimental volition. Lost for over forty years and turned into an example of formal radicalism by historiography, the film bears witness to the extraordinary density of a genuinely Falangist work, whose visual findings and extreme formal avant-gardism see it become a kind of cinema substantiated by certain revolutionary sectors inside the Falange, before its ultimate domestication by the Regime. Written and directed by Arévalo, the film deploys dialectic and visual mechanisms of Eisenstein’s intellectual montage, even incorporating images from Battleship Potemkin (1925) to give filmic shape to the “need” for revolt.

Actividad pasada May 5, 2016
Edgar Neville

Verbena (Madrid Carnival), 1941, original version, b/w, 30´

La torre de los siete jorobados (The Tower of the Seven Hunchbacks), 1944, original version, b/w, 99´

With a presentation by José Luis Castro de Paz, curator of the series and professor of Audiovisual Communication at the University of Santiago de Compostela.


The work of Edgar Neville, perhaps the most important film-maker from this decade, adopted a process which appropriated elements of popular culture in Spain, reformulating them into a new mode of expression. The joint screening of Verbena (1941) and La torre de los siete jorobados (1944) notes how minor popular forms, the serialised novel, the police novel, purist costumbrismo, and the one-act farce, with direct allusions to avant-garde movements, co-exist in these films.

Verbena, produced within a series of small cinematic dramatizations inspired by popular songs, describes a dark and touching microcosm comprising the anomalous alliance between the working classes and eccentric artists from circus. The other screening, La torre de los siete jorobados, synthesises a purist criminal tale with traits that are directly rooted in German Expressionism. The film combines two opposite worlds: on one side, the nocturnal, fantastical and bizarre, embodied in this inverted underground tower inhabited by deranged sages, dwarfs and hunchbacks exiled from the light. And on the other, the costumbrista and comic sketch from Madrid, much-loved by the film-maker; this time set in the last third of the 19th century.


Actividad pasada May 6, 2016
Ignacio F. Iquino. Los ladrones somos gente honrada (We Thieves Are Honourable)

1943, original version, b/w, 102´

This film constitutes a paradigmatic example of the paradoxical and reflexive trend cultivated in the first post-war period and emerging from the complex melange between film and comical and visual resources stemming from absurd and avant-garde humour.

With filmic precedents already in the Republican period, the model reached its definitive formulation at a time that coincided with the appearance of the renowned humorous magazine La Codorniz.

Deliberately artful and farcical, Los ladrones somos gente honrada is a parody of the plausibility of classical cinema as it breaches each of its norms. Everything operates in double meanings, paradox, antithesis and two faces that are entangled to fever pitch - “this house is a film”, one of the characters even utters. In a meandering and scattered way, the film pulls us out as viewers and drops us into the scene, or, similarly, dismantles the transparency of orthodox narrative to benefit our strengthened role as participants in an artificial and distant event.

Actividad pasada May 12, 2016
Arturo Ruiz-Castillo. Las inquietudes de Shanti Andía (The Restlessness of Shanti Andía)

1946, original version, b/w, 121´

A collaborator of Federico García Lorca in La Barraca, art director of the publishing house Biblioteca Nueva and cultural spokesperson during the Republic, Arturo Ruiz-Castillo already had vast experience as a documentary-maker before debuting as a feature-film director with the adaptation of Las inquietudes de Shanti Andía (1946).

The film displays eye-catching discursive and formal strategies (narratological rigour, the deployment of the storyline in independent sequences that match the character’s psychological development, ornamental and compositional symbolism, inter-textual traits…) which bear witness to the artistic ambition of a director encompassed in the generation of “reformist” film-makers who, with vivid and bold aesthetic preoccupations, made their debut in the second half of the first decade under the France regime. Audaciously using Pío Baroja’s novel to discuss the present, the film turns oedipal conflicts and anxieties of desire into effective narrative copies of an unlivable time.

Actividad pasada May 13, 2016
Carlos Serrano de Osma. Embrujo (The Spell)

1947, original version, b/w, 80´

Carlos Serrano de Osma is the visible leading figure in the self-styled “telluric” cinema, an informal circle of friends brought together around the magazine Cine experimental (1944–1946).

A film-maker of enunciation and point of view, his films from this period incorporate the European legacy of Eisenstein and Pabst, and the American legacy of Welles, Siodmak and, above all, Hitchcock in a dense corpus of literary references and iconographic, autochthonous references, creating a poetic narrative style strongly imprinted with psychoanalysis. 

Embrujo manages to – in the film-maker’s declared intention – “reach the shadows of the unconscious through the brilliant routes of folklore.” The film, a musical drama that is explicitly surreal, heart-rending and a moving reflection on desire and delirious passion, pieces together a highly risky operation in the film industry: combining the popular and the avant-garde, using the former as a cushion for the second.

Actividad pasada May 19, 2016
Lorenzo Llobet-Gràcia. Vida en sombras (Life in the Shadows)

1948, original version, b/w, 90´

Punished to the point of ostracism by the censorship that would classify it as “inconceivable, unacceptable, inadmissible and disgraceful”, Vida en sombras is perforated by the trauma of the Civil War, which fights to make itself present.

The beginnings of the conflict are narrated from the Republican side: news fragments from the time and a speech in Catalan by the president Companys are heard on the radio. In this milieu, the loss of the object of desire, embodied by the character Ana, who dies in the first skirmishes on the Barcelona streets, is bound up with unique force; thus tracing the stark identification between the harsh post-war period and the loss and scarring of the subject.

War, death, the incurable wound of desire: upon these three pillars, inextricably linked by the mise en scène, the film articulate its strategies of meaning. And further still, in a new, all-engulfing circle, cinema appears as a place where the subject’s desire (film-maker, protagonist, viewer) is radically affected.

Actividad pasada May 20, 2016
Rafael Gil. La calle sin sol (The Sunless Street)

1948, original version, b/w, 95´

In an audacious mix of film noir, veristic will, and a costumbrista background, this distinctive thriller joins a series of obsessive and dense post-war films with sharp psychoanalytical resonances. Set in the desolate and poverty-stricken night-time of Barcelona’s Chinatown, inhabited by long-suffering survivors without hope, the story delves into dark crimes and destroyed families, and stresses the recreation of lumpen settings in the Catalan capital, depicted as a place of prostitution and illegal trade, where the residents represent at once the danger of extortion and the possibility of help. What ultimately emerges, via the film’s formal density, is a textual fabric torn at its seams, and understood as a symptom of the unconscious repression in the ruling classes in the face of social decomposition and rotting morals after the war.

Actividad pasada May 26, 2016
Juan de Orduña. Locura de amor (Madness for Love)

1948, original version, b/w, 112´

The historical works directed by Juan de Orduña are the most original, complex and contradictory confluence of ideological interests from the Regime, from the eagerness for pomp and majesty from the producer CIFESA and from the tastes of the actual spectators. Locura de amor would constitute the greatest audience success of the season and one of the greatest in this decade; the “Spanishness” of these sorts of films was favoured by a large number of critics who saw in the historical literary, and not folkloric, adaptation a place in which film would have to redefine itself. The reasons for its undeniable popular allure were in its markedly melodramatic volition, characterised by the prominence of the suffering female figure. Built as a monumental and literal succession of living paintings, Locura de amor seeks to breathe life, not into events in History with a capital H but into the signs that have gone some way to building a romantic and timeless legend of the love story of Juana la Loca and Felipe el Hermoso.

Actividad pasada May 27, 2016
José Antonio Nieves Conde. Surcos (Furrows)

1951, original version, b/w, 99´

The direct appearance of questions related to a lack of housing, unemployment, prostitution and rural exodus, in addition to the direct relationship with models of film such as Italian Neo-realism, define the exceptional nature of Surcos, both in this decade and generally throughout the history of Spanish cinema. The film’s emotional tension places it in the orbit of the film seasons that narrate the vicissitudes of a group of characters in a hostile environment, in an occupied country, a besieged city, an idea that manifests itself through the reiterated visual motif of furrows (prison bars, farmyard steps, an open grave, a ploughed field). On one side, claustrophobic confinement in small, shared spaces that are overpopulated or inhospitable; and on the other, an urban prison in which one cannot settle, feel at home and rest. Each sequence is structured through an exit or arrival, repeating the transition to nowhere that underpins the film to the grave, the final furrow.