Tag Archives: Juan de Orduña

La leona de Castilla/ The Lioness of Castille (Juan de Orduña, Spain, 1951)


DSC06063.jpgMy 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.

DSC06066.jpgIn 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.

From the distributor’s handbook to the film designed for its premiere in 1951

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.

From the film’s premiere on the 28th of May, at Madrid’s Rialto Cinema.

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.

Sigfredo Burman’s designs for the film

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.

José Arroyo

Pequeñeces (Juan de Orduña, Spain, 1950)


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