Metaphorical cinema


Metaphorical cinema
   Film recurrently makes use of metaphorical images to reinforce narrative points or to otherwise suggest aspects that are not dealt with explicitly in literal narrative terms, sending the story into a different level of abstraction or thematization. This can be enriching, and sometimes creates a fruitful tension between storytelling and more artistic meaning. Still, there is a kind of cinema that makes metaphorical discourse a central signifying procedure to the extent that, if the metaphorical logic is unrecognized, the film makes little narrative sense. Given the demands that metaphorical reading make on the audience, such films are not bound to be popular. Building a story insistently around a central metaphor (or a set of metaphors) is closer to the European approach to filmmaking than to Hollywood plot-bound narratives. One can think back to F. W. Murnau's Der Letzte Mann (The Last Laugh, 1924) as an example of a European story that suggests meanings beyond the literal plot. In the 1960s, the European art tradition became strengthened, and it influenced Spanish directors, particularly those associated with the Nuevo cine español movement.
   Historically, metaphorical cinema in Spain constitutes a line of development that is associated to a response to censorship and the ambition to make an artistic cinema that goes beyond the demands of social realism. One good starting point is Carlos Saura's La caza (The Hunt, 1966), which has all the elements of metaphorical cinema and became an influence for directors of the late 1960s. Given the predominance of metaphor, a narrative inconclusiveness often dominates these films. Even worse, not every image or event can be immediately deciphered unless one has additional information on the filmmaker's references and aims. The central symbol of Víctor Erice's El espíritu de la colmena (The Spirit of the Beehive, 1973) is, as suggested by the title, the beehive itself, but critics have interpreted this in many different ways. This illustrates another aspect of metaphorical cinema: it lends itself to being interpreted by authoritative critics.
   The high period of metaphorical cinema in Spain was the years preceding and immediately following Francisco Franco's death. It seemed a quality of art films to be obscure, and it is telling to compare Saura's input in this period with both his later and earlier films: La madriguera (The Honeycomb, 1969), El jardín de las delicias (The Garden of Earthly Delights, 1970), and Ana y los lobos (Ana and the Wolves, 1973) emphasize metaphor over narrative specificity, whereas Los golfos (Lazy Young Men, 1960) and the more recent ¡Ay Carmela! (1990) and El Séptimo día (The Seventh Day, 2004), do not. Although audiences knew the films dealt with politically sensitive themes, these had to be coded so that censors would have no grounds to ban them. Metaphorical cinema in those years became a peculiar communicative act between artists and the chosen few informed enough or patient enough to grasp their meanings. Manuel Gutiérrez Aragón has come to be regarded as the most emblematic metaphorical director: most of his output until the mid-1980s, including Habla mudita (Speak, Little Mute Girl, 1973), Sonámbulos (Sleepwalkers, 1978), El corazón del bosque (The Heart of the Forest, 1979), and Maravillas (Wonders, 1981) all could be said to fall into this category. Other directors who worked consistently in this tradition were Francisco Regueiro in Me enveneno de azules, (I Get Poisoned with Blue, 1971), Antxón Eceiza in De cuerpo presente, (In the Presence of the Body, 1967), Angelino Fons in La piel quemada (The Burnt Skin, 1967), José Luis Borau in Furtivos (Poachers, 1975), and Basilio Martín Patino, even to his last film Octavia (2002).
   By the end of the 1970s, the metaphorical cinema model seemed to have run its course and very quickly began to look outmoded. Saura moved on to more literal narratives and his series of musicals; even Gutiérrez Aragón, the director most insistently identified with the trend, made his stories increasingly more readable from La mitad del cielo (Half of the Sky, 1986). Metaphor could still work centrally on film, of course, as in Luis G. Berlanga's La vaquilla (The Heifer, 1985), but this film's main impulse is farcical, rather than critical or metaphysical.
   Later, in the 1990s, a few directors of the new generation referred back to the metaphorical tradition, although this prioritization of metaphor over literal narratives was based on aesthetic choices rather than practical necessity. Julio Medem's Tierra (Earth, 1996) is one of the key films of the period and one of the most important instances of the centrality of metaphor in film.

Historical dictionary of Spanish cinema. . 2010.

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