In Café de Chinitas Antonio Molina plays Antonio Vargas, a rich and famous star who returns to his hometown of Malaga and is taken to the Café de Chinitas, the flamenco bar where he began his career, now in ruins. The narrative then intertwines what the café was and meant – a hangout for gangsters, very demanding of their entertainers but also a place where the upper classes and even Oriental Potentates went to experience and be moved by the art of flamenco – with Antonio’s own story told in flashback.
The young Antonio, an orphan, is working two jobs to feed himself and his younger siblings: he’s the curtain puller at the Café and also works pulling in the fisherman’s catch at the beach. He’s barely managing. A kind neighbour, Consuelo (Delia Luna), is helping him look after the kids. But some well-meaning ladies in the neighbourhood are pleading with the local nuns to take them into an asylum where at least they’ll be properly washed and fed (it’s a marker of the Spanish culture of the time that splitting up families in this way was considered a privilege instead of a punishment).
Antonio has a beautiful voice but he gets so nervous that he can only sing for his friends or whilst at work (see clip below). Whenever he tries to sing in public, he gets so nervous, audiences boo him off the stage. But faced with losing his siblings, he gathers up the courage and, of course, triumphs.
The money and fame go to his head, and soon he’s courting a famous dancer, Rocío (Eulália del Pino), who’s seeing him primarily as vengeance to the man she really loves, the man who dumped her for another, Paco el Rondeño (Rafael Farina). Rafael is jealous of Antonio’s success and in a fight over Rocío cuts Antonio’s throat. But Antonio recovers to sing once more, and in the ruins of the mythic café, we’re shown that he’s actually married the kind and good neighbour, made of all his siblings successful professionals, and is now the head of the type of family most prized by the Franco regime, la numerosa, a big family of six children (see image above).
When seeing this type of film I’ve often asked myself, why see much less write on this type of film — often so bad — in English? They’re low-budget, poorly made. Spanish critics, when they deign to write on it, do so as if handling dirty diapers. As cinema, they’re null. Or let me be more specific, they have nothing to offer to anyone thinking of cinema as an art form. They’re not sub-titled and few in the English-speaking world have even heard of them. However, to me at least. a sampling are essential to an understanding of the popular culture in Spain and also of the history of popular cinema in Spain during the Franquist period.
The films were popular. Audiences saw themselves reflected in these poor people whose struggle was merely to feed and clothe their family and whose joy was in singing a type of song, the copla, a type of flamenco popular song, ‘flamenco light’ so to speak, which is a soundtrack to the lives of several generations in Spain. And the films continue to be popular. They’re the focus of the Cine de barrio television programme, the popular staple of afternoon television on Spanish TV, a nostalgia-fest for a certain generation, often including interviews with the stars before a screening of the films, which began its run in 1995 and persists to this day.
The films may have been crude and rickety. Certainly Café de Chinitas is. But these films were also an opportunity for audiences to see the great singing stars of the era they’d come to love on radio. And the singing of Antonio Molina and Rafael Farina, two of the great stars of the ‘copla Española, is the only reason to see this particular film. They’re not particularly handsome and their acting is stiff and unexpressive: they both seem slightly embarrassed to be there. However, as you can see in the clip above, there are moments where Molina begins to trill and bend the notes with that prodigious high falsetto of his when I began to understand why my Mom loved him so. In a program called ‘El Legado de….Antonio Molina’ on Youtube, we’re shown how Molina was the teen idol of the day, with a high falsetto that made women swoon, a placid persona and the lack of sexual threat that often permits or increases a female teen audience to voice their desires, often inarticulate but nonetheless energetically expressed. Some of you may know him best as the father of Angela, that great star of classics by Buñuel (Ese oscuro objeto de deseo), Almodóvar (Live Flesh) Bellochio (The Eyes, The Mouth) and numerous classic Spanish films of the 1980s (Demonios en el jardín, La mitad del cielo, Esquilache etc.)
Angel Quintana has written of Antonio Molina: ‘His melodious voice was ideal for a type of decaffeinated flamenco singing whilst his light style offered him an approach to different modalities of flamenco — tonadilla, la copla, fandangos, fandanguillos — that was unmatched/ Su voz melodiosa fue idónea para un modelo de cante flamenco un tanto descafeinado, al tiempo que su estilo ligero le permitia abordar inigualablemente modalidades como la tonadilla, la copla, los fandangos y los fandanguillos.
Antonio Molina is past his teen idol phase in this. But the singing is sometimes vey beautiful and moving. The film even has a sing-off between the two stars, like they do in rap contests but admittedly less exciting. I enjoyed seeing Malaga before mass tourism and developers pitched their fork into it. And moments: a few of the trills in the second clip; or the singing over the fishermen bringing in their catch, a way of life insufficient to sustain the life of those picking up the scraps of the job (the pulling); the sight of those barefoot children having to do that work not to starve….well the film might be crap but it moves me nonetheless.