History


History
   History on film can be either used in a visual way to display costumes and epic events for the sake of entertainment, or politically to reinforce a certain idea of the country. Spanish cinema has been prolific in both approaches, and at many stages has made history into a central concern.
   Until 1936, the entertainment approach predominated. Films were set in the past for a degree of exoticism, seemingly without debate on the "rightness" of any particular representation. The preferred periods were the Golden Age, largely because so many illustrious literary texts could be adapted, and the early 19th century, because of the rich mythology of outlaws, traditional singers, and bullfighters that remained associated with an essential "Spanishness" (this was a central period in the "españolada" type of film). Other than those, very few periods were actually represented, which to some extent can be related to the limited knowledge average audiences had of their own country's past. The years around the convoluted late 19th century (a period known as the Restoration, following the end of the First Republic in 1874) was attractive, and like the Golden Age, was brimming with literary classics (by Benito Pérez Galdós and Leopolgo Alas Clarín, for instance), but it was politically too complex to be articulated in a cinematic tradition with a strongly popular vocation.
   It is only after the Civil War that the representation of history becomes blatantly political and certain periods and individuals become problematic. To begin with, the whole idea of Spain was deeply problematic, as the Spanish nation only consolidated in 1812 as a political unit. Given that the unity of Spain had been one of the ideological mainstays of the Franco regime, it was dangerous to venture in pre-19th century territory. Some films occasionally did, but then a particular version of history focusing on the essential Spanishness of the country was used to distort reality. The decades following the 1812 consolidation remained riddled with confusion and the clash of different factions: the First Republic and the Carlist wars were, for the Francoist authorities, better left unrepresented as they could easily be seen as attempts to break down the nation. When the Restoration period was featured, this was done sentimentally and strictly making use of the more spectacular aspects of the period, as in the phenomenally successful Pequeneces (Little Matters, Juan de Orduña, 1950), which also condemned the frivolity brought on by liberalization and laicism, and the equally popular ¿Dónde vas, Alfonso XII? (Where Are You Going, Alphonso XII? Luis César Amadori, 1958), which shrewdly focused on the romance between King Alphonso XII and María de las Mercedes and avoided the more sensitive aspects of the period, presenting politics in a somewhat farcical way.
   The Independence War (1808-14), however, became a favorite for patriotic filmmakers. Popular legend distorted and simplified this event, claiming that the Spanish people expelled the French invading army. Reinforcing this legend was no doubt useful for the Franco regime, as it was a way of strengthening an idea of Spain untouched by nationalist claims from regions such as Catalonia and the Basque country, and several films of Francoism use this historical event to suggest a certain epic Spanish identity. They were often associated to folkloric musicals, as in Lola la Piconera (Lola the Coalgirl, Luis Lucia, 1952).
   The Age of Empire (roughly the 16th century), particularly the events surrounding the Columbus expedition, was conveniently simplified to reinforce national pride, as in Alba de América (Dawn of America, Juan de Orduña, 1951). Given so many difficult areas, Francoist authorities preferred the more spectacular uses of history to be found in CIFESA historical epics.
   As the regime chose to play down reactionary ideologies in order to present a more liberal face to other countries, history became less problematic, and it does not seem to have been an issue for most of the 1960s. It was up to filmmakers, who maintained a critical stance, to gesture toward the past as the diffuse, unspecific source of a general state of melancholy, as in Nueve cartas a Berta (Nine Letters to Berta, Basilio Martín Patino, 1967) and El espíritu de la colmena (The Spirit of the Beehive, Víctor Erice, 1973), or tension between friends, as in La caza (The Hunt, Carlos Saura, 1965).
   After the end of Francoism, more explicit treatments of history, however, become obsessively central in Spanish cinema. The preferred period was now the early post-Civil War years, but also the Civil War itself. Filmmakers and audiences saw representations of the misery, political upheavals, and betrayals suffered by Spaniards at the time as a way of settling scores, and there was a strong need to represent what had until then been forbidden. There was also an interest in the spectacular aspects of the past, but the political approach predominated for almost two decades.
   It was only around 1992 that history seemed to become less crucial. In 1990, ¡Ay Carmela! (Carlos Saura, 1990) still presented the past politically, but two years later, a film like El rey pasmado (The Baffled King, Imanol Uribe, 1991) offered a farcical version of the Golden Age in which it is hard to make out relevant references to Francoism. Depolitization continued through the decade. Younger filmmakers like Alejandro Amenábar and Alex de la Iglesia were notoriously uninterested in engaging with history, and so was Pedro Almodovar: their films are either genre films in which period is irrelevant or simply set in the present. In some films of the decade, like El amor perjudica seriamente la salud (Love Can Seriously Damage Your Health, Manuel Gómez Pereira, 1995), set in Francoism, the political edge is blurred. The trend continues strong through the 1990s, and in recent films like Alatriste (Agustín Díaz Yanes, 2006) and Teresa el cuerpo de Cristo (Teresa, the Body of Christ, Ray Loriga, 2007), history is prominent but harder to read in contemporary terms.

Historical dictionary of Spanish cinema. . 2010.

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