There is no better evocation of the transition to democracy in Spain than the cinema of Eloy de la Iglesia. Colegas feels like a Pre-Code Warners film: fast, filled with incident, speaking to the issue of the day, siding with the under-dog, throwing in the occasional song for snap and verve, with young energetic performers. De la Iglesia’s films have the added advantage of deploying a lot of on-location shooting, so one gets a feel for the Madrid of the time: the streets and housing estates, the carriageways, the lack of amenities, the dirt on the street.
The story revolves around a trio of teenagers, José (Jose Luis Manzano), Antonio (Antonio González Flores but billed simply as Antonio) and Rosario (Rosario González Flores, billed as Rosario González, today one of the great international stars of Spanish-speaking music known simply as Rosario).
José and Antonio are best friends; Antonio and Rosario are siblings (as are the actors who play them, on which more later), and José and Rosario are in love, and going steady against the wishes of Rosario’s mother, who sees José’s family as a bunch of borderline criminals and losers.
The film is set in the government housing projects on the outskirts of Madrid, by the highway, and with no amenities (see below), Figuring the teens in front of what is clearly depicted as a waste-land of rabbit hutches in the middle of nowhere, by carriage-ways, or in the midst of dirty, rocky derelict space is perhaps the characteristic shot in the film. These kids are living their melodrama in a social context. It’s not just their story, it’s the story of a generation.
The context as we can see below is one of youth unemployment:
What drives the drama, in a typical de la Iglesia melodramatic vein, is two teenagers in love, imprisoned by the concrete boxes they live in, and the even tighter patriarchal morality their parents have been taught by fascism, about to have a baby out of wedlock, forbidden by the family, shaming by the broader community, and trying to find a solution to a problem which the family and community have themselves created. Some of this is underlined in the two clips below:
Rosario finds herself pregnant from José. The film is careful to always leave the decision making as to what to do about it to her; but it’s the young colegas who the film follows in their efforts to first find an abortionist, then get the money for the abortion.
José and Antonio try prostitution but can’t get hard; they try robbing but don’t have the stomach for it; they hook up with a crime gang to carry drugs in from Morocco (bajarse al moro, a practice which gave name to a popular Gonzalo Suarez comedy starring Antonio Banderas). When the kids finally get the money for the abortion, Rosario can’t go through with it. They then decide to have the baby but sell it to a good home through a gang. They can’t go through with this either. Their families finally come to an understanding but it’s one the couple can’t accept.
Everything is oppressive. What they want is expressed in Antonio’s song (see clip below): to get very far away from there:
In his excellent book, The Spanish Quinqui Film: Delinquency, Sound, Sensation (University of Manchester Press, 2020), Tom Whittaker cites Steve Marsh’s observation that ‘de la Iglesia’s raw style has been labelled tremendista: sensationalist, populist and lurid’ (2013: 157),’ which it certainly is; it is also funny and moving. Whittaker also cites an interview in Triunfo in 1979 where de la Iglesia ‘not only defended his cinematic excesses – described here by the journalist as ‘sensacionalista‘ (sensationalist), ‘molodramática‘ (melodramatic) and ‘panfletaria‘ (propagandistic), terms that are frequently associated with his work in the Spanish media but commented that he actively sought to encourage them in his filmmaking (Galán, 1979) (Whittaker, p. 115).
Whittaker argues that, most of all, de la Iglesia’s cinema is marked by its fascination with the fragile glamour of male youth. I would go further than this and say that Colegas peoples its crowd scenes with youth that look suspiciously like rent boys of the era. See below:
This persistent peopling of shots with particular types of young men — working class or sub proles, signalling their availability — for a price — through dress and posture –and the way they are presented to the camera make his films distinctive. The margins are always present, sometimes in the centre of the frame, even if they are but fragments of the scene. De la Iglesia features male nudity in a way rare for any other director of the era — including Passolini and Fassbinder — part of the reason his films were advertised in North American gay magazines of the time. But these were not art films but mainstream successes in Spain, particularly popular with young boys, so what Manuel Hidalgo dubbed the ‘estética del calzonzillo’ (aesthetic of the underpants (in Whittaker p. 116) and what I see as a rent-boy aesthetic perhaps deserves further exploration. What did its popular audiences make of that male nudity, present, arguably objectifying, but never intrusive, always with the rationale of ‘this is the way these people live’?
There’s a very striking gay gaze — and I use the word gay advisedly –on young bodies in these films, always realistically motivated as below, three brothers in cramped quarters having to share a bathroom. The camera doesn’t fetishize the nudity — it doesn’t move in for a close-up — but it does make the penis visible in a way that was then at least unusual:
That is the way you would expect to see three brothers sharing a bathroom but it’s certainly not the way you would expect it to be represented in cinema (if they were sisters, however….). How this gay male gaze intersects with or communicates to a popular audience is a source of fascination to me. That and the propulsive narrative is what makes Colegas and the other quinqui films so interesting and exciting to see.
The last element of this particular film that fascinates me is the disrobing of Antonio and Rosario Flores. The disrobing of marginal teens is one thing, but these were the children of one of the most famous women in Spain, Lora Flores, Lola of Spain, La Faraona. And these kids had been cover stars of the popular photo magazines such as Hola and Semana since they were born. How was this negotiated? Was it seen as just new conventions for new times. Was it proof of Lola’s modernity and that of her children? Was this commented on at the time? Was it a selling point? How did audiences react? The two Flores have become icons, mainly for their music and the various ways it continues to live in the culture; but also, in Antonio’s case because his death of a drug overdose was so emblematic of the times; and in Rosario’s case, because of her continued survival, relevance and the ties of family her, her sister Lolita and the various siblings continue to symbolise in Spain. It is useful to see de la Iglesia’s films next to Almodóvar’s from the same period, each evokes a movida, but a different one, or at least another side to it.
Aside from the pleasure of its narrative and its mode of telling, Colegas is also a valuable evocation of particular structures of feeling of marginalised youth in a time of political, economic and social change in Spain’s transition to democracy. According to de la Iglesia’s himself, it’s a turning point in his cinema, a move away from the pamphleteering aspect that had to then been so characteristic of his work. Many reasons to see it.