The years before the 1970s were hard on Spain; the dictatorship of Francisco Franco left its unsettling mark on everything, especially on Spanish films! The regime’s censorship had kept Spanish films in a corset and a bubble, isolated from international trends. Until the 1970s, there was practically only one genre, the popular comedy of manners with or without musical numbers. Yet, there are many great Spanish films from the 1970s; how so?
After the death of the dictator in 1975, there was an explosion of creativity and a binge of freedom; the disappearance of prior censorship diversified the themes, and a new generation of filmmakers made a much more realistic cinema producing brilliant Spanish films from the 1970s.
The Spanish films of that time were without taboo subjects, much more modern and adapted to urban life, of different genres, sometimes even cosmopolitan and with foreign influence, as a product of the social change that the country had undergone.
What are the best Spanish Films From the 1970s?
Coming up next, we remember some of the best Spanish films from the unnerving decade of the 1970s.
Tristana by Luis Buñuel (1970)
After the scandal of Viridiana ten years earlier, it seemed highly unlikely that the talented filmmaker Luis Buñuel would return to work in his home country Spain. But the project of adapting one of the most famous works by Benito Pérez Galdós, one of the filmmaker’s favourite authors, brought him back to Franco’s Spain.
For this film, Buñuel was surrounded by a team of old acquaintances; among them was one of the great actresses of that time Catherine Deneuve, along with Fernando Rey and Lola Gaos. Thanks to his magical touch and that cast, Buñuel came out with one of the best Spanish films from the 1970s and one of the best Spanish films ever!
Tristana follows the story of an orphaned, poor girl named Tristana who is abused by her guardian, Don Lope. However, when love comes in the scenes, Tristana finds herself in a hot spot where she has to learn how to defend herself and fight for her love.
In contrast to the provocation of Viridiana, Tristana is a work of maturity; although still cynical and full of sexual fetishism, the film is much more hermetic and restrained. Needless to say that the film features the famous Buñuel’s bizarre taste, both in the framing and in the treatment of the characters. However, it was this taste that kept Buñuel at the forefront worldwide 40 years after his first films.
Tristana received numerous awards and nominations, including being nominated for the Oscars’ Best Foreign-Language Film.
Mi Querida Señorita (My Dearest Senorita) by Jaime de Armiñán (1972)
While the old Hays code of Hollywood censorship scrupulously regulated every detail of what could and could not be seen on the screen, Franco’s censorship was governed by the arbitrariness and personal criteria of each censor.
This was a problem because the filmmakers didn’t really know the boundaries they shouldn’t exceed, but sometimes it gave them the advantage of being able to score big goals, like Mi Querida Señorita. What makes Jaime de Armiñán’s film one of the best Spanish films from the 1970s is that Mi Querida Señorita is one of the early masterpieces and the first Spanish film to tackle the delicate topics of sex change and intersexualism.
The film follows the journey of 43-year-old Juan, who has lived his whole life trapped in the body of a woman. We follow Juan, who moves to a new city, as he tries to rediscover himself and build a new life.
In this gem of a film, the protagonist is treated with enormous respect; his unsatisfactory and repressed life as a woman, his transition to a man and, another very modern aspect, the gender perspective with which his difficulties in his new life as a man are narrated due to the sexist education he has received.
Actor José Luis López Vázquez, who played Juan, approached the character equally with empathy and without a hint of parody in a change of what was normal at that time. His approach to the character confirmed him as the most important actor of his generation. For its director, Jaime de Armiñán, the Academy-Awards-nominee film was also a qualitative leap and a new direction in his career, moving him towards a more ambitious cinema.
Lo Spirito Dell’alveare (The Spirit of the Beehive) by Víctor Erice (1973)
In his first film, renewed Spanish filmmaker Víctor Erice created a masterpiece of Spanish cinema. He shrewdly eluded the censor’s grasp by employing artistic symbolism throughout the whole film to bring to the screen the raw Spanish life of the Franco regime.
The film follows Ana, who is a young girl living in a remote village in Franco’s Spain with her father, who is devoted to the study of bees. One day she attends a screening of James Whale’s Frankenstein and becomes fascinated by the monster. Increasingly locked in her daydream, when she comes into contact with a Republican seeking help because he is wounded, she mistakes him for the monster of her cinematic fascinations and takes him in and rescues him in an abandoned farmhouse which leads to dramatic changes in her life.
The award-winning film was the directorial debut of the secluded and rigorous Víctor Erice, who presented in this film a delicate and poignant parable about the meeting of loneliness and the useless comfort that different people can give each other. Rumour has it that Erice’s work in this film inspired another brilliant filmmaker, aka Guillermo del Toro, on the two films The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth.
Cría Cuervos (Raise Ravens) by Carlos Saura (1976)
In terms of box-office success inside and outside Spain, director Pedro Almodóvar always comes to mind. However, director Carlos Saura was kind of the Pedro Almodóvar of the 1970s: the prestigious name with which Spanish cinema was identified abroad and became a regular participant at all the major festivals.
Saura was behind many successful Spanish films, but his Cría Cuervos will always be special as it won the Jury Prize at Cannes, the first nomination for a Spanish film at the Golden Globes and unexpected success with audiences in several countries, thanks in part to the legendary song Porque Te Vas, composed by José Luis Perales and performed by Jeannette, which is played several times throughout the film.
Set against the final days of Francisco Franco’s dictatorship, the film follows young Ana and her two sisters who move in to live with their aunt after losing their father. Cría Cuervos is a historical parable of the last days of Franco’s regime with a clear reference to the political situation of a country asleep under a long dictatorship.
El Desencanto by Jaime Chávarri (1976)
The great thing about the Spanish films from the 1970s is how they broke free from all the previous chuckles that crippled the filmmakers in a way, making them unable to present the whole truth. This notion was so clear in Jaime Chávarri’s documentary El Desencanto, probably the most famous documentary of the transitional period post-Franco.
The documentary is a unique film of its kind, a journey into the heart of the Spanish family, taking as its centre the clan under the wing of the Francoist poet Leopoldo Panero. The writer’s widow and his three troubled children unravel the family puzzle, recounting their experiences on camera, bordering on dementia and alienation.
This dysfunctional family portrait was tantamount to pulling the rug out from under Franco’s decadent society and was widely celebrated for it, becoming one of the most prestigious Spanish films ever. If there is one masterpiece that continues to cast its long shadow over the work of its author, it is El Desencanto, Jaime Chávarri’s first film, which has become a true cult title in Spanish cinema over the years.
¿ Quién Puede Matar a un Niño? by Narciso Ibáñez Serrador (1976)
The genius Narciso Ibáñez Serrador’s enormous success on the small screen took him away from Spanish films, but it did not prevent him from still leaving a mark on 1970s Spanish cinema.
Serrador’s first work, The House That Screamed (1969), was a conventional gothic horror story, but his second and final feature film, ¿ Quién Puede Matar a un Niño?, delved into a hitherto little explored and deeply disturbing aspect of the fantastic cinema. The film is something along the lines of Hitchcock‘s masterpieces, taking the horror to a tourist resort under a scorching sun as opposed to the usual mists of the genre.
The film follows a British tourist couple on holiday as they hire a boat to travel to an island off the south coast of Spain. Upon arrival, they discover that the village seems to be inhabited only by children, who moreover do not answer their questions and look at them with a strange and disturbing smile. They soon discover that the children seem to be possessed by a mysterious force that makes them aggressive (and lethal) towards adults.
Like many of the Spanish films from the 1970s, ¿ Quién Puede Matar a un Niño? has become a cult title and classic of the Spanish cinema.
Asignatura Pendiente by José Luis Garci (1977)
Over the years, José Luis Garci’s Asignatura Pendiente (Unfinished Business) achieved enormous success, becoming one of the best Spanish films ever. The film is celebrated for capturing in a bittersweet and sentimental way the political and also personal, and sexual frustrations of a generation whose youth had been stolen by the dictatorship.
Asignatura Pendiente follows the relationship between two friends who once spent a summer holiday together as they meet again after many years of being apart. As the story unfolds, some Asignatura Pendiente (Unfinished Business) comes to the surface, changing their lives forever.
In this film, Garci presented a mixture of hope and disenchantment with which a well-off left-wing social class, the so-called progressives, experienced the social change produced in those years, also transforming themselves from Marxists to petty-bourgeois social democrats. It is worth mentioning that Asignatura Pendiente was the highest-grossing Spanish film of the year of its release.
La Escopeta Nacional by Luis García Berlanga (1978)
How can we make a list of the best Spanish films from the 1970s without mentioning at least one of the pioneers, Luis García Berlanga’s films?
Luis García Berlanga is celebrated by many as the great master of Spanish cinema due to the marvellous feats he made in the 60s. However, Franco’s death freed him, giving him the space to mix his own uncritical and carefree viewpoint with the acidity and black humour of his co-screenwriter Rafael Azcona, which led to the production of some cinematic strokes of genius!
It is the winter of 1972, and the Catalan industrialist Jaime Canivell travels with his lover to Madrid to take part in a hunting party at the Los Tejadillos estate, owned by the Marquises of Leguineche. The agreement between the Marquis and Canivell is that, secretly, the latter pays the expenses of the event, and, in exchange, the Marquis gives him a chance to rub shoulders with his high society guests so that he can improve his business; however, things don’t go as planned.
La Escopeta Nacional, which ended up becoming a trilogy due to its great success, takes an amusing and caustic look at all social classes, and in particular at the already dead forces of a regime that has collapsed, through the author’s trademark chaotic style of sequence shots.
El Diputado by Eloy de la Iglesia (1978)
One thing for sure is that director Eloy de la Iglesia was one of the most emblematic directors who were behind many great Spanish films of the transition period: his restless, prolific, provocative, erotic and political cinema symbolised an entire era.
His film El Diputado brings the story of Roberto Orbea, a clandestine militant of a left-wing party during the Franco regime, who is elected in the 1977 elections. At the most important moment of his political career and when he is about to be appointed Secretary General of his party, an extreme right-wing group takes advantage of his homosexuality and sets a trap for him that could end his career.
In this film, and like many of Eloy de la Iglesia’s work, he presented his transgressive and provocative point of view. The film dealt with subjects considered taboo and very sensitive for the time, in this case, blackmail in politics and homosexuality.
Bilbao by Bigas Luna (1978)
Bigas Luna is the first filmmaker who worked on Spanish films that belonged to what can be considered Spanish underground cinema: an urban, depoliticised cinema made by young filmmakers for a young audience, heavily influenced by television, comics and Anglo-Saxon pop culture, with large doses of sex and violence, and with a commercial but at the same time very personal inclination.
Luna’s film Bilbao follows Leo, the eccentric man who likes to collect objects for his erotic collection. Tired of his regular routine and in search of something new to satiate his fetishist motivations, Leo crosses paths with a prostitute named Bilbao, who fits the profile of what he is looking for. Leo starts to stalk Bilbao and then goes on to abduct her, unknowing of the dire consequences of his actions!
Bilbao was Luna’s second film, and it helped build the director’s reputation and defined his overloaded, excessive and provocative style. His proposal to tell the story of a psychopath obsessed with a prostitute showing the woman as an object, would be unthinkable today and, even at the time, it generated as much curiosity as rejection, a constant in his career.
Over the years, the controversial film turned into one of the most fundamental works of the erotic cinema of the 1970s that, in a way, helped shape modern Spanish cinema.
Arrebato By Iván Zulueta (1979)
The cursed title par excellence of Spanish films; it was a total failure on its release, but it didn’t take long for it to become a myth among the hipsters of the time, what would later be called the movida madrileña movement (The Madrilenian Scene) in Madrid and parallel movements in other cities. Its myth also grew because of the almost total public disappearance of its director, a promising talent that was snatched away by drugs like many artists of his generation.
In the film, we follow the filmmaker José Sirgado whose career and whole life are distorted by his heroin addiction. His life takes an unexpected turn when he receives a mysterious package sent by Pedro, a disturbing character with a broken voice and childish impulses, who sends him an enigmatic film in which José finds both an escape route and the road of no return to the greatest of hells.
Arrebato could be considered a work of auteur horror giving a twist to cinema-within-a-film stories. It is a highly personal title with a fascinating atmosphere, despite its very modest production, which many subsequent films have tried to imitate.
The Spanish films from the 1970s were and still are a crucial stop in the history of cinema. How the Spanish films and filmmakers of that time broke free from all the rules that were imposed on them and experimented with art is truly admirable. It was thanks to their fearless and creative senses that we now have many unforgettable Spanish films from the 1970s.