My recent film viewing has alternated between ‘Golden Age’ Mexican Cinema of the 40s and 50s and Spanish films of the same period. The contrast has proved illuminating; both often figure a historical setting, both often feature strong women in adverse circumstances, both often feature high production values. But whereas the Mexican films open up many ways of being and understanding, the Spanish ones are rigid and hierarchical. The Church is all; then men, who have to know how to be ‘real’ men; then women, who can only take action if the men are out of the way or too young to act on their own; promises must be kept, honour must be maintained, parents have to be obeyed, the social order has to be followed, everything is clear and every infringement noted and commonly understood. The narrowness of the world view is asphyxiating, particularly in a film, which is, after all, about revolt.
In La leona de Castilla, Amparo Rivelles, arguably the biggest female star of the 40s and 50s in Spain until overtaken by Aurora Bautista, plays María Pacheco, the widow of Juan de Padilla, Lord of Toledo. He’s in revolt against Charles 1st of Spain and, as Charles V, head of the Holy Roman Empire. The Revolt of the Comuneros was Castille’s attempt to maintain traditional rights and liberties against its incorporation into Charles’ Europe-wideEmpire. Some historians see it as one of the first revolutions because of its basis on ideas of democracy and freedom. Others merely see it as a rebellion against high taxes and foreign rule. The film doesn’t focus much on either aspect. What we see is a wife seeing her husband beheaded for what she sees as his heroic actions and vowing to continue them at all cost. In the process, she bonds with the Duke of Medina Sidonia (Virgilio Texeira) who shares her concept of honour and nobility. Manuel Luna plays Ramiro, the double-crossing assistant who’s secretly in love with her but who will betray them both. She loses her husband at the beginning and her son at the end. Alone, she rides into exile, where she will die and where the Duke of Medina Sidonia will build her a mausoleum, the ruins of which are shown under the film’s opening voice-over.
Spain made a whole series of expensive historical films between 1943-1954, many of them successful. While Spain was isolated internationally, its cinema featured the glories of its history and its empire: It’s not unlike Brexit British Cinema now. Whilst most of the country suffered from food shortages and many experienced hunger, the screen was all noble lords and ladies doing noble things for the good of the Fatherland; whilst women in the audience had been denied rights previously held (divorce, abortion) and were de-facto legally placed under the rule of their fathers or husbands (lucky widows!), women on screen were strong, brave, daring. It’s an interesting phenomenon to explore.
Juan de Orduña directed five of the most successful of these historical films from 1948 to 1951, including La Leona de Castilla. The four others are Locura de amor (1948) Pequeñeces/ Trifles (1950), Augustina de Aragon (1950) and Alba de America (1951). These are landmark films, popular successes that also enjoyed the regime’s support, grandly produced (at least in a national context); and their combination of melodrama and history, stars and spectacle, also helped open up other markets to Spanish Cinema, particularly in Latin America, . They are essential to an understanding of Franquist culture and Spanish cinematic culture of the era.
But are they good? Juan de Orduña is a very good director; he knows how to move the camera for dramatic effect; how to let images carry much of the story-telling, and how to move the story along whilst keeping the eyes and ears engaged and entertained. He knows how to film action also and how to interweave this type of narrative with spectacle, action and jokes. The films are beautifully designed, this one by Sigfredo Burman, a German who emigrated to Spain in 1939 and wound up designing many of CIFESA’s leading films. But it’s significant that even the book part of the handsomely-produced ‘video-book’ from which I saw the film, and from which many of these illustrations are taken, highlights the cost of the film, the splendour of the the costumes and designs, and the film’s popular success (it ran for 63 days at the Rialto Cinema in Madrid alone, a huge success in those days). The only negative it brings up is Amparo Rivelles’ theatrical performance, which I agree with, though she’s still very watchable. It’s significant that its achievements as cinema are not discussed.
For cinephiles who have no particular interest in Spanish culture in general or the history of Spanish cinema in particular, this is a film that will entertain and bring up interesting questions about Franquist ideology. But it’s neither a leading example of film art nor will it contribute to your understanding of what that might be.