Sonatas (J.A. Bardem, Spain/Mexico, 1959)

This is an execrable copy of Juan Antonio Bardem’s Sonatas. The DVD is from the ‘Clásicos Imprescindibles del Cine Español/ Essential Classics of Spanish Cinema’ collection so you’d think they would have taken greater care. The colour is terrible, as if transferred from a highly deteriorated print; the sound is dubbed, badly, and this is before we even get to whatever one of the great directors of Spanish cinema was ever able to achieve with this material.

On the evidence, it’s not much: the dialogue is highly stylised as possibly befits an adaptation of Valle Inclán, but there’s a failure in finding a tone commensurate with such a style; and that failure in turn results in the betrayal of the actors, who perform sometimes in a style one usually associates with provincial touring companies: arch, mannered, often speaking in a declamatory style accompanied by a Delsartean deployment of gestures; and sometimes in a more ‘realist’ psychological style more typical of the cinema. Bardem’s parents, who toured in such companies, both appear here in small roles and both fare better than Aurora Bautista (Concha) or Carlos Casaravilla (Conde de Brandeso). Even Fernando Rey succumbs to the grand arch style intermittently during the course of the film, so one has to assume that the actors were directed to perform in such a way. But it is not a success and some scenes now appear laughable (see below).

The film is an adaptation of Valle Inclán’s Autumn and Summer Sonatas, which El Mundo ranked as amongst the greatest of 20th century Spanish novels. Bardem has said that he was inspired by Visconti’s Senso, and the gap between aspiration and achievement is a sad one to witness. As can be seen from the battle sequences, this was an expensive production. The great Gabriel Figueroa was the dop in the Mexican sequences and Cecilio Paniagua was the dop in the sequences set in Galicia, in the north-west of Spain. The film has a cast most directors or producers of the time would have killed for: did anyone in the history of cinema give better close-up  than María Felix (see a selection below, after an extract of the marvellous but clearly chopped up star entrance Bardem prepares for her)? There’s Paco Rabal, the greatest leading man of the era, with his deep and sonorous voice; there’s also Fernando Rey, a great actor who would go onto international success with his work for Buñuel (Viridiana, amongst many others) and Friedkin (The French Connection); and there’s also Aurora Bautista, whom Bardem himself describes as the ‘only real star Spain had at that time’ (note the difference in billing between what I assume are the Mexican and Spanish posters for the film at the very top).

So what does Bardem do with this dream cast, great crew, excellent budget? As indicated above, the story’s hard to follow, the tone is inconsistent; the battle sequences create neither suspense nor excitement: inserting close-ups of babies crying is no substitute for care with editing and point-of-view. The film was highly censored upon its release but that can only explain some of its problems.

Sonatas was a Mexican co-production with the Spanish production house Uninci, which Rabal, Rey and and Bardem all had shares in. Bardem writes about how their main goal during the making of the film was to convince Luis Buñuel to return to Spain to make movies with them, which he would do with Viridiana, in which both Rabal and Rey would got roles they’re still associated with today. Bardem also writes in his memoirs, Y todavía sigue. Memorias de un hombre de cine (Ediciones B, Barcelona, 2002), that, ‘As I told a journalist then, I was satisfied with having the protagonist of my Sonatas ride on a horse, shotgun in hand, screaming ‘Long Live Liberty’. Well, pip, fucking pip, hurrah. He achieved his goals. But where does that leave the audience?

Bardem writes of how they screened it at the Venice film festival and were surprised at how the film didn’t make an impression. He blames the lack of interest in Spanish literature and culture in the rest of Europe then. To which one can say perhaps.  But one wouldn’t expect the mainstream Spanish cinemagoer to be intimately knowledgeable of the works of Valle Inclán either. Moreover In Valle Inclán’s novels, the focus on the Autumn one is on a melancholy love of the past; the Summer one on erotic love and desire. The film however bounces between something to do with Carlist wars, the Church, and struggles for liberation in the Spanish section; and something to do with Mexican revolution in the Mexican section; admittedly both  as the setting for those depictions of love, but periodically losing focus. One can detect how, wherever he can, and to the confusion of the viewer, the fight for freedom, the critique of totalitarianism and the depiction of questions of conscience, all are privileged at the expense of dramatisations of love.

Bardem blames himself for the miscasting of Aurora Bautista. And as you can see above, in the very first clip, she is indeed terrible. But, and in spite of the film being ostensibly highly censored before its release, Bardem must shoulder a much greater share of the blame than he’s willing to acknowledge. Some of the shots are beautiful (see two instances of wide-shot compositions below). Actually, almost all of the shots are beautiful; almost all shot on location; and the film is worth seeing for that: the compositions are striking and original (see some examples of his characteristic two shots and a very striking close-up above), there is a marvellously intelligent use of the camera throughout with liberal use of long-takes and in depth, and a very poetic use of space. But the lighting doesn’t match from shot to shot, the shots don’t join up into scenes, and the scenes don’t connect into a shape that has rhythm, drama and logic.

On his watch, Bardem, the child of generations of performers, allowed actors, through no fault of their own, to make complete asses of themselves, a terrible betrayal. Only the divine Felix — who clearly had a sense of what worked best for her and performs the whole thing in a silent film star diva style — and to a lesser extent Rabal, escape unscathed.

And yet….some of the compositions, mise-en-scène and the design of shots is so skilled that one still wishes a better copy of this very flawed film was generally available.

The film won the 1959 Prize of the National Syndicate of Spectacle for Best Cinematography in Spain for Cecilio Paniagua and the 1959 Venice Film Festival surprisingly nominated it for Golden Lion, at which one can only scratch one’s head and wonder ‘why’?

José Arroyo

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