Tag Archives: Franquist Cinema

La danza de los deseos (Florían Rey, Spain, 1954)

la danza de los deseos

Lola Flores, designated ‘The Pharaoness’, or ‘Lola of Spain,’ was the leading star of Spanish folklore musicals of the Franco years, a period where, as a popular saying had it, ‘everything that wasn’t obligatory was forbidden’. She introduced many hits that marked an era — ‘Ay pena, penita, pena‘, La zarzamora’ , ‘Limosna de amores‘, ‘Lerele’, ‘Al verde limón‘ — and that would be associated with her throughout her life. Her back catalogue was the soundtrack to an era and continues to evoke it.

She was a great dancer, one only needs to look at the care she takes with her hands and fingers — every part of her body is expressively deployed. Though a perfectly adequate singer, particularly in her younger years, when her voice was higher, she was the first to admit that there were better ones than she. Her acting on film is  bit stiff and awkward in the dialogue scenes and a bit overblown in the musical numbers. On stage no one could touch her; she was arguably the defining figure of show business in Spain for several generations. She became a star on stage barely out of her teens and remained one until her death.

As her career progressed, her stardom expanded to radio, records, film and she finally entered everyone’s home with television, where she became even more beloved, a towering myth made as knowable as one’s neighbours, part of the psychic furniture of homes across the nation. Her stardom extended throughout the Spanish-speaking world, often signifying a Spain of flamenco, bullfighters, and the gypsies she was almost always relegated to play on film. To my Mom, she was a ‘whirlwind of joy/ un torbellino de alegría’.

It’s interesting to read Camilo José Cela’s La colmena/The Hive, with Lola Flores in mind. That bleak wintry Spain of hunger, secrecy, and surveillance was the other sign of the coin represented by Lola’s radiance, sexyness, and the freedom of spirit she embodied and evoked. The characters of La Colmena might have looked askance on Lola but she signified the liberty, plenitude and joy they lacked but wished for themselves. She still does.

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Who she was behind her as Lola Flores faces who she’s become

La danza de los deseos, whilst far from a good film, might be one of her best in spite of the excessive melodrama and moralism of its plot. She plays Candela, the daughter of a gangster who is killed whilst trying to escape the authorities on a boat. She gets marooned on an island and is raised by a blind recluse and his assistant.

Candela grows up a child of nature taking pleasure in the people around her, the sun and the sea, innocent and loving, wild and free. On her birthday, as she dances on a cliff for the man who raised her and now calls grandfather, she’s spotted by rich people on a boat. Juan Antonio (José Suárez), a young millionaire, goes to the island to seek her out. She becomes instantly besotted and swims after him to his yacht after he leaves. The rich people bring her with them to Marseilles but she overhears a conversation between Juan Antonio and his betrothed  in which she’s spoken of a  threat to their relationship and runs away.

She’s so innocent that she’s instantly picked up by a pimp in a dive and exploited into the lower depths of a Marseilles of cabarets and whorehouses. The image above showing the wild innocent she used to be,  associated with nature, on the right; and the fallen woman she’s become, on the left with her drink, cigarettes and the leg as advertising of the goods for sale, vividly communicates this transformation.

 

I initially wanted to show you the clip above to make a point about the social construction of race. There’s a moment in the clip were a black Cuban approaches the pimp and he says that it’s a white girl he wants today, referring to Candela. Now part of the reason Lola is often associated with gypsies is because in Spain, she’s as dark as one can be without  Spanishness coming into question. But in England, for example, she’d easily pass as a South Asian, and in India she might be mistaken for a native. However, next to a black woman from Cuba in a Spanish film with a Marseilles setting, she’s ‘white’. People often think of markers of race as absolutes dictated by skin colour whereas as we can see so clearly in the film, how we reads the colours and features of skin, faces and bodies are a construct.

The other reason I wanted to show the clip above was to praise the narrative economy. In five minutes a young girl gets corrupted, moving from a millionaire setting to a low-down dive and ultimately, through a bottle of rum, we’re told she’s been taken advantage of by a man who wants to first use her then sell her. It’s very fast and very skilful, like the plots of early Warners films.

But one can also see in the clip above the extraordinary display of skills in the mechanics of direction. Florian Rey, does the whole thing in very impressive long takes, with the last one that begins with a close-up of the bottle of rum, moves back to show us the pimp with Candela in bed, his disdain and her shame, all in one long take would be impressive on its own. But just as you think the film is going to cut, the maid enters the room and the patterned movement of the take is repeated once more but this time with the maid.

I extracted the clip above as an example of the type of song, the copla, of the period and also as an example of the musical number so typical of Spanish musicals of this period, though this one constructed with greater skill. Note how Rey films the whole thing in medium long shot so that we can see Lola perform, but then at the end moves to close-up for the song’s refrain: ‘I no longer believe even in death/ Let it come free me/ Why can’t I be lucky enough to die and rest/ I no longer seek in consolation/ I don’t even believe in myself/ But when I look up at the heavens/ when I look up at the heavens I believe in God and you’. Note also the camaraderie amongst the women, with no discrimination as to colour.

 

As you can see above, the millionaire who in spite of himself led Candela from nature and innocence to the corruption of the big city, rescues her from prostitution and jail. But by the time he brings her back to the island it’s too late. She’s dying. She arrives on the island only to say hello to her blind grandfather. Whilst he thinks she’s off to marry her millionaire, she is in fact buried practically in front of his face, without his knowing, and next to her father.

The messages in this film are mixed. There’s no place in this Spain for gangsters and prostitutes. But millionaires who cavort outside the borders are destructive even in spite of themselves. On the other hand, there’s the image of Lola Flores, dancing her joys and her pain, even though they’re joys that are not meant to exist outside of marriage and pains that are not allowed to exist at all.

I’m often moved by Spanish films of this period. They’re so rickety. So low budget. So poor in terms of means, ideas, skills, aspirations. But contra all of this, one of Florian Rey’s camera moves, or a Lola Flores, will leap out of all that poverty and oppression and assert something powerful and fundamental about what it is to be human that all the censorship by Church and State simply can’t dampen. They’re moments. But they’re moments that assert a huge gap between the way things are and the way things should be. They’re moments to cherish. They’re moments to seek out in a cinema too easily dismissed for its obvious faults.

 

José Arroyo

Pequeñeces (Juan de Orduña, Spain, 1950)

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Pequeñeces/ Trifles is one of the super-productions of Cifesa, arguably the most important studio in Spain during the Franco era, and certainly the one that best toed the party line and reflected its ideology. It’s got a sparkly star cast — Aurora Bautista, Jorge Mistral, an early but important appearance by Sara Montiel — and high production values. The director is Juan de Orduña, one of the era’s better and more successful ones.

It’s a period piece set in the era when Amadeo de Saboya temporarily took over the throne in 1870-1873 from Queen Isabella II, after she was forced to abdicate and before her son Alfonso XII took over the throne. The narrative revolves around the rich and powerful Curra (Aurora Bautista), the Countess of Albornoz and how her intrigues at court and in her love life lead her to neglect her child. She’s wilful, selfish, accustomed to getting her own way; proud and certain that her social position means that she can get around all the laws of men. Which she manages to do for quite a while, carrying on an affair with the handsome and trecherous Marquess de Sabadell (Jorge Mistral) right under her husband’s nose.

Everyone in society knows except the husband — played to great comic effect by Juan Vázquez — who only seems to be interested in his food. They also know that Sabadell is cheating on Curra with Monique, a French courtesan played by Sara Montiel. Sabadell has been selling state papers that don’t belong to him and pays for it with his life, rhyming with the death of Curra’s previous lover and secretary at the beginning of the film. It’s a death too much.

As a result of Sabadell’s murder, their affair becomes public knowledge and Curra is socially shunned. Worse, her son hearing the names she’s being called tries to defend her, even though he chose to leave home and go to a religious school because he caught his mother in flagrante with her lover, and in doing so drowns both himself and Sabadell’s son. But no matter, the boy speaks to the mother from heaven and lets her know his death is an opportunity for her to redeem herself and become the good person he’s always known she is. That religiosity — I’m not sure if it’s a false one since the film is an adaptation of a book written by a Jesuit — is the alibi for all the racy elements in the film. It’s a bit C.B. De Mille-ish. You can show all the sexyness and excitement so long as you moralise about how wrong it all is. Wish it were more exciting here. It would make it easier to bear all the sermonising priests and angelic children.

José Luis Tellez in his excellent piece on the film in Antología Crítica del Cine Español has called Pequeñeces an ‘unquestionable masterpiece and an exemplary melodrama’. I don’t see it. I hate this movie. I hate the hypocritical religiosity; the sentimentality over children, the choppyness of a narrative which has to rely on voice-over, letters, sermons, and even a voice from beyond the grave; and most of all I hate Aurora Bautista’s performance. She’s the Greer Garson of Spanish cinema in this period, lady-like, heroic, important, without an ounce of humour about herself, not the least sexy, and yet theatrically ‘expert’, which means she hits all the right notes whilst never being believable. Everything she does grates.

It was one of the most expensive films of the period, a super-production costing four million pesetas, forty prints were struck so that it could premiere simultaneously across Spain, and it was a hit at the box office, running continuously in one Madrid theatre for 107 days. The message is that what one might see as mere trifles might have a great effect on society and on one’s children. Yawn.

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For me, if you’re not an afficionado of Franquist Spanish cinema there are only three reasons to see the film:

  1. It does have interesting imagery (see an example above, when the priests at the school are searching for the boys).
  2. There’s an early appearance from a young zaftig young girl in the process of becoming Sara Montiel (see her entrance in the film in the first clip below)
  3. There’s also the only representation of a gay man I know of in this period of Franquist cinema, clearly coded as such. I apologise for not knowing the actor’s name (and perhaps one you can help with this) but he’s Jacobo’s uncle Francisco, and you can see Jorge Mistral and he in the second clip posted below

 

José Arroyo