by Paul Julian Smith
from Film Quarterly Fall 2012, Vol. 66, No. 1
The seventh annual edition of Spanish Film Screenings took place in the capital on June 18–20, 2012. Intended as the major professional event for the promotion of Spanish film, Madrid de cine (as it is also known) is organized by FAPAE (the producers’ association), ICAA (the film academy), and other bodies including the Madrid tourist authority. Sixty-six foreign buyers and twenty-four representatives of the international press (including your correspondent) were treated to meetings with Spanish sales agents and film crews and screenings of forty-three recent titles. In a uniquely Spanish touch, there was also a padrino, or godfather, for the event. Enrique Urbizu (director of No Rest for the Wicked, the most recent feature to gain the best film award at the Goyas or Spanish Oscars) gave an evocative and informative talk on “The Light of Madrid” high above the city in the tower of the Cibeles Palace.
The location was emblematic for more than one reason. While the Cibeles statue in front of the palace is a famous symbol of the city, the huge building itself was recently transformed from central post office to town hall at ruinous expense. Coming as it did just days after Spain was granted a humiliating bailout (known significantly in Spanish as rescate—rescue) by the European Central Bank, Spanish Film Screenings provided a rare opportunity not only to take the commercial pulse of a national cinema, but also to ask what the future of such a mid-sized industry (and nation) might be at a time of unprecedented fiscal crisis. The Spanish case thus holds clues for the future of film elsewhere in Europe and beyond.
At first things seemed surprisingly positive. A FAPAE report on 2011 suggested that, out of a total of 199 features made that year (the fourth-highest figure in Europe), the number of titles screened abroad had increased (by twentyone percent), as had the number of countries in which they were seen (by fifteen percent). In Mexico alone distribution had risen to thirty-six titles, higher than ever before. An award was presented to Agustín Almodóvar, producer of The Skin I Live In, as the film with greatest international impact: to date it had been sold to forty-two countries and seen by 4.2 million people.
In private interview, however, Pedro Pérez, the head of the producers’ association, was more cautious. Spanish cinema had always been in crisis; and he hoped that his country, the first to go into recession, would also be the first to come out of it. But there were three new problems. Firstly, a change in the market meant that, in this current transitional period, box-office receipts were down but it was as yet unknown how to monetize new windows such as video-on-demand and Internet (the rate of piracy in Spain remains among the highest in the world). Such uncertainty damaged small businesses like Spanish production companies above all. Secondly, the very visible economic crisis in Spain cast a shadow over the industry. Thirdly, a recent change in government from the Socialists to the right-wing People’s Party had brought with it a shift in funding policy from state subsidies to fiscal incentives. The latter would prove insufficient to fund features, unless they were raised enough to reassure private investors, an initiative that might well be vetoed by the European Union on anti-competition grounds.
Pérez also addressed the open secret of the Spanish public’s hostility to its own cinema (market share is just thirteen percent at home). This he attributed once more to three causes: the law by which television companies were obliged to subsidize the cinema sector raised the hackles of newspapers which belonged to the same holding companies as the TV stations, thus fomenting negative coverage; the film community’s leftist political grandstanding likewise antagonized a hostile right-wing press; and, in spite of the fact that just 1.4 percent of the last decade’s features had treated the Civil War, the audience’s perception (politically motivated once more) was that local filmmakers were obsessed with the past. There had moreover been a forty percent decline in production over the last two years.
Ironically, then, just as Spain boasts a greater number of tourists than it does inhabitants, so its cinema earns twice the income abroad than it does at home (in 2011 the figures were €185 million versus just ninety million). A representative of Rentrak, the box-office number crunchers, put the blame for the collapse of grosses (which this year struck U.S. titles too) on massive youth unemployment (which affected the young target audience of cinemagoers), mild weather (an unusually sunny winter and spring had kept Spaniards out of theaters), and the disappointing performance of U.S. blockbusters (which had failed to live up to their promise). Given this decline in the home market, the President of AEC (the state association of cinema) proposed that the only choice for producers was to “go outside.” Spanish content had to be made more “general” and international elements incorporated into the script at the preproduction stage. This radical change in mentality would require more co-productions, more shooting abroad, and more projects in English. Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris(held to be “Spanish” in Spain because local companies provided half the funding) was cited as a prime example here.
Unsurprisingly, creative types contested this new internationalist vision. Godfather Urbizu, recently named best Spanish director at the Goyas, responded that the strength of Spanish film was its diversity. And as a teacher, he praised the commitment of his film students and the vital importance of cinema as a “cultural good.” Agustín Almodóvar noted that he and his brother Pedro had never abandoned Spanish language or content, even though the funding for their next feature included not one euro from Spain. He also warned that if Spanish producers began making features with well-known actors in English they would face “ferocious” competition on the international market. For him the “cultural values” of Spain remained a unique selling point. Local journalists also attacked this new trend as simply “following Hollywood,” to which Pérez replied that Spain’s unique export is indeed its “cultural identity.” This claim sat somewhat uneasily with demands framed in more commercial terms such as the need to “redeem the brand ‘Spain,'” shaken by an embarrassing crisis, not to mention with the creative contribution of international distributors at the scripting stage, which, it would appear, was already taking place.
Three recent fiction features shown to the press at Spanish Film Screenings illustrate this tension between the national and the international and offer three different visions of the future for Spanish (and European) cinema. And the event also offered a unique attempt to interview personnel from each film.
The first is historical drama The Sleeping Voice (La voz dormida). Set in Madrid in 1940, just after the end of the Civil War, this is the story of two sisters, one politically active, pregnant, and imprisoned, and the other, more naive, rural, and conservative. The latter tries in vain to save her sibling from execution, falling in love as she does so with a handsome freedom fighter. The film was seen by a respectable audience of over 300,000 in Spain (still not enough to earn back its budget), but failed to receive major prizes at home or significant attention abroad. At the press conference director Benito Zambrano (still best known for his debut Solas, a moving drama on domestic violence), tried to rebut the charge of “Civil War fatigue” among domestic audiences, the only ones likely to be familiar with the historical context of his film. As a director specializing in female protagonists, he laid claim to a special spin on Spanish history. This was in spite of the fact that another film with the same premise of a woman’s prison, Thirteen Roses (Las trece rosas) had been released as recently as 2007. Moreover his top-billed actress Inma Cuesta had served a lengthy term on Loving in Troubled Times (Amar en tiempos revueltos), a daily TV drama set in the same period. The Sleeping Voice’s convincingly grimy mise-en-scène, shaky cinematography, and disturbing torture scenes distanced it somewhat, however, from the more familiar romanticized versions of early Francoism. Whether Spaniards are indeed tiring of the theme or not, they are unlikely to see more historical dramas of this kind. In interview the director said that his €3 million budget, modest for a period picture, was no longer feasible in current funding conditions.
The second feature was Urbizu’s No Rest for the Wicked (No habrá paz para los malvados), a brutally efficient thriller which swept the boards at the Goyas and attracted a domestic audience of almost 700,000. When a corrupt cop (veteran José Coronado) drunkenly shoots three dead in a Madrid nightclub, he sets off a double hunt: his own for the sole witness to his crime and that of a women judge (a recurring character at films in the screenings) who takes on the murder investigation. With its expert suspense and action sequences, No Rest for the Wicked might seem to be a fine example of that internationalized production that is content to follow the U.S. lead. But this slick genre film has clear local referents. In an early sequence Coronado stands in a wasteland in front of the four new skyscrapers that have come to symbolize the unsustainable boom-and-bust of the Spanish economy. And it is a shock to see an actor warmly remembered as a dashing leading man now so battered and grizzled. Moreover—spoiler alert—halfway through the film, the thriller veers into politics as the criminal cop blunders into the preparations for an Islamist terror atrocity similar to that which struck Madrid in 2004. In interview Coronado noted the close connection between the three media of film, television, and theater across which jobbing actors now move at will. Likewise Urbizu shows that skilled directors can make apparently abstract genre films that draw on a U.S. TV aesthetic and yet connect closely with the concerns of local cinema audiences: one actor noted at the screenings that the film’s title had been borrowed for placards in street demonstrations during the current crisis.
My third and final feature is perhaps the most anomalous. Ignacio Ferreras’s Wrinkles (Arrugas) is an adult 2D animated film that, in competition with Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In, won the 2012 Goya for best adapted screenplay. Skillfully avoiding sentimentality, it follows the friendship of Emilio, an elderly man in the first stages of Alzheimer’s, and Miguel, his thieving roommate in a care home. Adapted from a prizewinning graphic novel, Wrinkles startles from the opening sequence when the fantasized office in which Miguel is denying a young couple a mortgage (another reference to the crisis?) fades into the real-life flat where his son and daughter-in-law are struggling to cope with his dementia. At the screenings Wrinkles’ executive producer Manuel Cristóbal noted that, although some three hundred people had worked on the film, its budget was a mere €2 million euros; and that in current conditions, animation had two advantages: it was readily open to co-production and found it relatively easy to reach an international level of production values.
Pitched as “the Spanish Persepolis,” Wrinkles has been sold to many markets including the U.S. and U.K. But if the theme of aging might seem universal, the film’s initial appeal is very domestic. Set and made in the cloudy northern territory of Galicia, Wrinkles juxtaposes the local accent of its main character with the marked Argentine diction of his companion; and flashbacks reveal a Francoist schoolroom and village that could have come straight from The Sleeping Voice. The winner of best animated feature in Europe, at Lyon’s Cartoon Movie co-production forum, is thus the pioneer of that tricky thing: an internationalization of content that still preserves national cultural identity and values. Ironically, then, animation, often neglected by proponents of local cinema, here points the way to quality content for live-action films, whether they are familiar historical pieces or more experimental essays in genre.
PAUL JULIAN SMITH is Distinguished Professor in the Hispanic and Luso-Brazilian Literatures and Languages Program at the Graduate Center, CUNY, and the author of Spanish Screen Narrative: Between Cinema and Television (Liverpool University Press, 2009) and Spanish Practices: Literature, Cinema, Television (Legenda, 2012).