A landmark film in the history of Spanish cinema, Surcos vividly evokes a way of life and structures of feeling of Francoist Spain and is the best snapshot of that moment in history I can think of. The Perez family migrates from their village to Madrid in the hopes of a better life. The film begins with their arrival at the old Estación del Norte, with their chickens in their hand-baskets. They already have a son there, Pepe (Francisco Arenzana) who knows the city a bit due to having done his military service there. He find them rooms with a relative in Lavapies whose daughter Pili (Maria Asquerino),has already been corrupted by the city. Pili’s street-smart, cynical, makes a living off the black market (estraperlo) that was such a feature of life in those days, and is involved with a small time hood, a typical Madrid chulo called El Mellao (Luis Peña) who lives off her and occasionally beats her.
The Perez family arrive with just about enough money to pay their rent so their first objective is to get a job. They register with the unemployment agency but there’s a huge queue for work and in the meantime the family’s got to live. The father starts selling contraband cigarettes and candy along the Avenida del Prado but he’s too imbued with rural values — love of children, honesty — and ends up giving the candy away and getting arrested and fined by the police for illegal activity. The youngest son, Manolo (Ricardo Lucía), gets a job as a delivery boy at a grocery store but he’s so decent and naive he’s quickly robbed and the family is now in hock for all the father and the youngest son have lost. The father is so emasculated by the city, failing as both a vendor and a factory worker, that he ends up clearing the table and washing the dishes at home. The youngest son is kicked out of the house by the mother- who’s here depicted as one of those monster mamas so typical of Francoist cinema –for losing his job and landing the family in hock to his employers for the goods he’s been robbed and he ends up on the street, drying his one shirt amidst bombed out buildings, and fainting from hunger.
The only Perez child who gets and keeps a job is Pepe who Pili hooks up with Don Roque, ‘El Chamberain’ (Félix Defauce), a local gangster. Pepe begins as a driver. He moves up to armed robbery and makes enough money to replace ‘El Mellao’ in Pili’s affections. The daughter Toña (Marisa de Leza) dreams of being a singer but like so many young girls of that generation ends up in service as a maid, in her case to Don Roque’s mistress. When they leave the house to go to the pictures — one of the neo-realist films so in vogue, the film tells us — Toña tries on her employer’s clothes but in doing so rips a stocking. In this film a pair of silk stockings is an unaffordable dream to a poor family and spells ruin for Toña. This is a film with a palpable yearning for things that to us are basic but to these people in this time is completely out of reach. Toña caresses her mistress’s silk stockings like they’re the most precious of jewels, Pili yearns for years for a winter coat she never gets, Manolo is pictured outside shops stacked with food he can’t have.
As the film progresses, the father sees the deterioration of his family. The eldest son is the only one bringing in money and he thinks that makes him head of the family and gives him the right to bring his girlfriend home to have sex with, such an outrage that the father beats him for it. The daughter Toña gets conned by Don Roque into sleeping with him to comfort her for her failed debut as a singer — a failure Don Roque engineered for precisely that purpose. When the father goes in search for her and finds her ensconced as Don Roque’s new mistress, he beats her too. When he gets home, he hits the mother as well, blaming her for, well, everything.
Above, father beats son, wife and daughter, at different times, for crossing the ever-so-rigid lines of a particular and precisely delineated ways of being
At the end of the film, the family is at the cemetery, burying their eldest and headed back home to their village, accepting the shame their failure will bring on them, but glad of their straight and narrow furrow where things are the way they should be, a typical colloquial phrase from a culture that held those things to be certain; and away from the corruptions of the city, where they’re not.
The film is a landmark film in the history of Spanish cinema for many reasons: its on-location shooting and its attempt at a neo-realist style; its depiction of prostitution and other ‘immoralities’ then forbidden; its implied critique of the society its depicting, then remarkable because forbidden. It’s intelligent and well-made. But it’s too manichean to be great. It’s view of rural poverty as enobling is in itself a Francoist ideal. Its dichotomous juxtaposition of the rural and the urban, facile.
Though it might not be great, Surcos is nevertheless a film I love. The story of internal migration in the film has parallels with external migration now. Hicks from villages in 1950s Madrid were treated just as contemptuously as Latin American immigrants are now. The jobs, the way of getting them, the patriarchal family structures of the day, the strict gender roles are recognisable to me and lasted way past the period in which the film is set. I think many Spanish people would recognise aspects of their own family history or of people they know in this film. Plus, because it was shot on location, the film also acts as a kind of document of how Madrid used to be and I find myself pulled into a haze fo feeling — part nostalgia, part sadness, a kind of mosaic of the many phases of Madrid’s development that I’ve witnessed compared to those I haven’t, such as here, that I find fascinating and satisfying.
It’s a film those who continue to feel nostalgia for Franco’s Spain should see. Here is a Madrid as poor as some rural villages are now. Compare it to Almodóvar’s Madrid. The places in Surcos are identifiable; the attitudes, ways of life, levels of poverty and hunger are not. In Surcos the characters are constantly placed next to things they can’t have; the riches evident in American films like Father of the Bride, the show-business glamour of the singers and dancers of the Madrid of the era but also food, stockings, bras, new coats. What the film shows as impossible glitz are people’s everyday lives in Almodóvar’s Madrid. The change is not only physical and material but also evident in more expansive, generous and open ways of living, being and thinking.
Below I’ve enclosed image-capture from the film that those who know Madrid might recognise and get a special kick from seeing: