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

Alex Hobbs — Mandy, The Film Concert

Over the next ten days or so I shall be posting a wide range of video essays. The series begins with this superb work from Alex Hobbs   Mandy: The Film-Concert – Creator’s Statement This video essay explores the use of music and sound in Mandy (2018) in order to gain a greater understanding of … Continue reading Alex Hobbs — Mandy, The Film Concert

Approaching Ingrid Bergman



Took a stab at cleaning my office this morning and found this; on the left a poster for a magnificent retrospective of Bergman’s Swedish films, all screened on 35mm. at the Pacific Cinémathèque in Vancouver in 91-92, which I attended religiously, and which greatly informed my knowledge of Bergman’s career; on the left, a box set of some of those films. A more complete box set, mirroring the retrospective from a quarter century ago, is out now from Criterion. Sometimes things take a while to circulate.


The find made me reflect on how film scholarship and cinephilia have changed since then. As a tween film buff my main point of reference for Bergman was the Curtis F. Brown book on her career for the ‘Illustrated History of the Movies’ series I’d begun to painstakingly accumulate in relentless trawls through Montreal’s English-language second-hand bookshops. Now one looks at these books and it’s clear even the writers had often not seen all of the films they wrote about. But we didn’t know that then, and each volume was  very handy in giving a chronology and a kind of arc to the Hollywood career of each of its subjects.

By reading, one more or less knew what Bergman had done and what she was celebrated for. But seeing the films was another story. I remember magical screenings of Casablanca at the Seville repertory cinema in the late 70s & early 80s; the whole audience with the film every step of the way; I saw it several times there —  it seemed to be on rotation; and each time was the same; the hushed tones; what seemed like a whispered intensity; the glow that seemed to exude from Bergman; the intensity of Bogart’s mingled feelings for Bergman contrasted with his cool irreverence for authority and the law;  the jokes, Dooley Wilson’s songs. It was an incantatory experience.

I also caught Spellbound (1945) and Notorious (1946) at a retrospective of Hitchcock films at Concordia University’s Conservatoire d’art cinématographique. I vividly remember the tiny Place Bonaventure Cinema, the smallest of the two — I saw Star Wars in the other — where I saw Ingmar Bergman’s Autumn Sonata and retain powerful images of Ingrid Bergman and Liv Ullman’s faces in that film. I was also enraptured by her Golda Meir on television in A Woman Called Golda (1982). I have a memory of seeing the original Murder on the Orient Express (1974) that I don’t wholly trust: I have a powerful memory of the newspaper ads for the movie but can’t remember the cinema; and it makes me wonder whether I did see it in a cinema: I would have been twelve. But I did go to movies on my own then. Still, it’s possible I caught it on its first television broadcast. Her ‘African babies’ monologue certainly made an impression and has always, for better and worse, stayed with me.

All of this to say that it was very difficult to see films. One had to grab the rare opportunities that offered themselves. One saw only some things, mostly only once, and randomly, as they appeared. The restrospective of the Swedish work in Vancouver, was the first chance I got to see so many of her films together, in a certain kind of order, where you could chart chronology, progression, compare the contributions of various directors (Gustaf Molander made a huge impression). It was also my first exposure to Bergman’s early work in Sweden. It would take me many more years to see her extraordinary work with Rossellini in Italy; and her wonderful performance in Elena et les Hommes for Renoir; I did manage to see Saratoga Trunk (1945), The Bells of St. Mary’s 1945), Indiscreet (1958), The Yellow Rolls Royce (1964), Cactus Flower (1968) on tv when  I still lived at home. But it was haphazard; whatever randomly came one’s way, by accident: lovely to see, but very difficult to study.

Now it’s all changed. The films can be obtained: even personal ones like Ingrid Bergman in Her Own Words (2015), a wonderful documentary composed of images she filmed herself, and where her love for her children is evident in every composition, in every frame, is available to see currently on BBC iplayer. Anyone can make a project of studying an actor or a director and through purchase (the Criterion set of Bergman’s work in Sweden is superb) or torrenting, be able to see all or almost all of their work that still exists, and in chronological order. The surprise is that so few do.


José Arroyo

Maigret tend un piège/ Inspector Maigret (Jean Delannoy, France/Italy 1958)

    I love the Maigret films; they offer the double satisfaction of thrilling you with some of the worst humanity has to offer – though usefully shown tastefully – and then restoring order; moreover, that rebalancing is itself done in an orderly and systematic manner; one we’ve learned to know and enjoy playing along … Continue reading Maigret tend un piège/ Inspector Maigret (Jean Delannoy, France/Italy 1958)