During the years of the Franco government, the Spanish cinema was nearly smothered by censorship. Films were expurgated or banned on political, religious, and sexual grounds. In some cases, screenwriters and directors became experts at circumlocution, making serious statements through metaphors and subtle allusions.
Since Franco's death, all that has changed. According to leading filmmaker Carlos Saura, "Censorship has disappeared. We are completely free to express ourselves."
The results of this freedom can be seen by American viewers in a series called "New Spanish Cinema" -- billed as a "festival revealing Spain's outburst of creative talent and free discussion since the end of the Franco years." The series recently concluded in Washington and New York, and is now onscreen in Los Angeles (through March 12). It will soon travel to San Francisco, Boston, Chicago, and several Canadian cities. It was assembled by the American Film Institute.
The end of censorship has not automatically solved all of Spain's cinematic problems. In Saura's view, the new situation has positive and negative aspects. On the plus side is the new "liberty" for artistic expression. On the minus side is a set of economic difficulties "that were evident in the past, but not as clearly exposed as they are now."
According to Saura, Spain is a country with "limited resources" and a "delicate and difficult" economy. This bodes trouble for a medium as expensive and financially risky as cinema.
Moreover, since the abolition of censorship "the market has been totally opened to international films." This has caused a dangerous financial inflation in the film industry, as well as a glut of non-Spanish movies that are crowding out native productions. Adding insult to injury, says Saura, an invasion of pornographic movies has also hit Spanish screens. "I'm sure it's only temporary ," he says, "but right now everyone wants to see the films they were forbidden to see before. And there's no way we can compete with it."
The challenge becomes greater when Spanish films try to crack the foreign market. Latin America was once a prime market for Spanish movies. Now, according to Jose Luis Borau, socially and politically meaningful films run into walls of censhorship erected by repressive regimes. Though Spanish cinema has attracted attention in such countries as England, West Germany, France, and Sweden, the profitable United Sates market has so far proved elusive.
According to Saura -- whose "Cria!" is one of the few Spanish pictures to play successfully on American screens -- Spanish films will never truly compete with American productions. "In ways," he says, "American films are specifically American. Audiences are primed for them. Also, the Americans do a wonderful job of assimilating fashions and methods from other countries. Woody Allen is very much like a European director, in some respects."
Yet he hopes Spanish films can find increased exposure on American screens, even if they don't become hits. "Don't forget the cultural side of cinema," he warns. "If you want to be culturally alive, you can't ignore what we're doing on our side of the world. That's why we're trying so hard to express ourselves. . . ."
The "New Spanish Cinema" series reflects many of the problems and challenges pointed out by such directors as saura and borau. It also illustrates the new freedom found by Spanish filmmakers in recent years. Gone are the days when the Spanish government threatened to ban Borau's "Furtivos" unless 60 cuts were made. Some of the pictures on view in the series deal with themes and topics that might have been unthinkable under the Franco censors -- from transsexuality in Jaime de Arminan's "My Dearest Senorita" to political oppression and torture in Saura's "Blindfolded."
Many of the films are rooted in the past, turning over perennial social and political questions. These include Jaime Camino's "The Old Memory," a documentary on the Spanish Civil War, and "The Burnt City," Antoni Riba's melodramatic study of politics in Catalonia. Camino's "The Long Vacation of '36 " deals with personal reactions to the outbreak of the civil war.
Other films deal with more current issues.One of the most powerful pictures in the series -- "Black Brood" by Manuel Gutierrez Aragon -- probes the mentality of a right-wing terrorist group from an insider's point of view. Aragon's "Sleepwalkers" tells of a politically troubled time in 1970, exploring this subject with visual metaphors that are alternately murky and expressionistic -- perhaps reflecting both good and bad habits developed during the years of censorship.
The remaining films lean more to personal than to political subjects, though the stories often contain references to socially important matters. In "Mama Turns 100." Saura again uses a turbulent family to express his feelings toward Spanish life. By contrast, "Elisa My Love" and the excellent "Cria!" -- a complex but ultimately rewarding drama -- are delicate emotional studies. Victor Erice's "The Spirit of the Beehive" resembles "Cria'" in its use of a child (again played by the lovely Ana Torrent) as the central figure in an evocative psychological study with a gossamer texture. Both "Cria'" and "The Spirit of the Beehive" have played successfully in the United States. And their durability continues: They lead the pack (in terms of quality) at the New Spanish series.
The festival is rounded off by a variety of other pictures that demonstrate the variety of Spanish cinema during the past five years. "Anguish," by Pedro Olea, is a romantic drama with a period setting and a soap-opera format. "The New Spanisards," by Roberto Bodegas, is a bright parody of the insurance-company mentality. "What Max Said," by Emilio Martinez Lazaro, is the quiet drama of a lonely man yearning for a positive relationship with his daughter. Borau's "The Sabina" is a wierd story of tempestuous passions, some of which belong to a mythical monster living in a cave.
To at least one Spanish filmmaker, the legacy of the Franco years has not been negative. Saura acknowledges that he developed a sly, indirect sotry-telling style during the censorship period and still uses elements of that style today, even though it is no longer necessary. "The use of indirect story-telling can enrich the narrative form," he says. "And it corresponds perfectly with my true personality. I want to do more than tell a direct, linear story I'm interested in what's going on at the second, third or fourth level of the story."