The art of cinema has a very long history spanning dozens of decades. For cinema to reach the state where it is now, it took aeons and countless contributions, not only from the Hollywood side but from the European one as well, like the Spanish cinema.
Spanish cinema has certainly made its contribution to world cinema history. However, the story was a bit different for the Spanish cinema in comparison to the rest of the world. Spanish cinema’s path wasn’t filled with roses, yet, thanks to the dedication and talents of many key figures, the Spanish cinema still managed to thrive.
Since May of 1896, when the first cinematographic exhibitions took place in Barcelona, the art of camera and scripts found a new home in Spain.
The history of Spanish cinema stretches over the bumpy course of more than a century, shaken by drastic institutional changes, dictatorships and civil war. It almost seems that the only element of continuity has been the meagre production structure, which has always accompanied it, generating the image of an eternal crisis.
Yet, despite the political dramas and economic difficulties, Spain has made a large group of films that, for different reasons, deserve attention. Each of them speaks of a moment in the country’s cultural history, from the difficult 1920s to postmodernity.
The Origins of Spanish Cinema
Like most cinema history in most of Europe, the history of Spanish cinema begins with the French Lumieres brothers; after all, they are the ones who invented the motion picture system, AKA the Cinématographe (cinematograph).
The geographical location of the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal) was a plus allowing the invention of the cinematograph and other similar inventions to make their way to Spain quickly and encouragingly. The sea and river ports in the peninsula’s south and the proximity of Lisbon by road allowed various patents for the invention from France, the USA, and Great Britain to reach the country quickly.
The first public sessions of the cinematograph were organised on May 5, 1895, in Barcelona. That year was the year of exploitation of the film market, giving rise to local and foreign filmmakers, presenting the best of their creativity and dispersing this all over the country, opting for popularity on the part of the viewing public and achieving merits on the part of expert critics in the field.
In these early years, cinema consisted of so-called vistas, short shots showing a place or event. Parallel to the exhibition, the Lumiere sent operators to record shots in Spain to be included in their catalogue. Thus, were born the films of the port of Barcelona, the urban views of Madrid and military manoeuvres, which were the first films made in Spain. The first film made by Spaniards, which could be considered the beginning of Spanish cinema, would take a little longer to arrive.
The First Spanish Films
Tracing the first steps of the Spanish cinema is quite tricky; as per many sources, there is a lot of material that got lost over the years, and the available sources are not 100% trustworthy.
There is a lot of disagreement over which Spanish film came first; however, most resources end up mentioning the same three films from around the year 1897: Salida de la Misa de doce de la Iglesia del Pilar de Zaragoza by Eduardo Jimeno Peromarta, there is also unknown film Llegada de un tren de Teruel a Segorbe, and finally the film Plaza del Puerto en Barcelona by Alexandre Promio.
While there is an argument about the films, there is no argument about the filmmakers, or one filmmaker to be exact, Segundo de Chomón. Segundo de Chomón was a substantial force in these early years of Spanish cinema; it was his brilliant mind that put the Spanish silent films on the international map. He was famous for his mastery of animation and tricks, and he is usually compared to the legendary French pioneer Georges Meliés.
The Silent Films Era
Although the Spanish film industry was unable to consolidate itself in these early stages, the country’s neutrality during the First World War allowed some production companies to take off; however, it was mainly Barcelona that took over the industrial baton a few years earlier.
In contrast to Madrid, which developed a great deal of documentary film in the period 1905-15, as the political capital of a highly centralised kingdom, the peripheral Mediterranean industries consolidated themselves by creating productive and agile companies.
At that time, pioneer filmmakers such as Baltasar Abadal and Ricardo de Baños captured some of the historical events of the first years of the 20th century on film. Among the early documentary films that were shot at that time is the short film Asesinato y Entierro de Canalejas by Abelardo Fernández Arias and Enrique Blanco (1912).
In 1914, the boom of cinema in Spain began and especially in silent films; it was a different cinema with rich and interesting content, the predominance of the popular “Spanish films”, which were satire and exaggeration of the Spanish character which would last until 1980.
Barcelona became Spain’s first film capital. Several foreign filmmakers set up film shoots there, from Max Linder to the French filmmaker Gérard Bourgeois, who made the blockbuster film Christophe Colomb (1916).
However, the good times didn’t last long, and at the end of the 1920s, Spanish cinema hit another rock, transitioning from silent films to sound films. It wasn’t until 1930 that the first feature Spanish film with sound saw the light of day; it was Francisco Elías’s film Misterio De La Puerta Del Sol (1930).
At that time, the cinemas were not ready to show films with sound, and it took some time to get there, but soon things got back on track, and the companies produced new films, and the cinemas were fit to screen them.
Memorable films from that era are Don Quintín El Amargao (1935) by Luís Marquina, La Verbena De La Paloma (1935) by Benito Perojo, Morena Clara (1936) by Florián Rey and El Bailarín Y El Trabajador (1936) by Luís Marquina. These films were very popular, and their impact contributed to these years being called “the golden age of Spanish cinema” during the Second Republic, a period when the war was to end abruptly.
The Civil War Effect!
By the mid-1930s, Spanish cinema experienced its hardest time. The Civil War started in Spain in 1936, and like everything else in the country, the face of production changed drastically. Commercial production faded, but documentaries and propaganda films abounded. Political and trade union forces gradually took possession of the cinema. Both parties used cinema as a tool of propaganda and to mobilise public opinion, which can be seen in films like Luis Buñuel’s España (1936).
With the advent of Francisco Franco’s regime in 1939, Spanish cinema entered the most tragic period in its history: production was reduced to a minimum, and censorship took many forms (military, political, religious, etc.). Through the Ministry of the Interior and Propaganda, the dictatorship controlled all forms of creation, foremost among them the seventh art.
The 1940s were not much different for Spanish cinema; however, one filmmaker still managed to make some memorable films; we are talking about Edgar Neville. It was in the 1940s that he produced his most interesting films: La Torre De Los Siete Jorobados (1944), El Crimen De La Calle Bordadores (1946) and Nada (1947).
New Spanish Cinema
From the 1950s onwards, Spanish cinema had its renaissance, gaining more and more popularity. Among the most memorable figures from that era is the Spanish filmmaker Carlos Saura who is considered by many as the man behind the movement of the ‘New Spanish Cinema’. The 1950s were the perfect time for new trends like child actors, and there was a huge influence on the movement of neorealism.
The next decade was even better, and the Spanish cinema was going strong thanks to masterpieces like Viridiana by Luis Buñuel (1961) and El Verdugo by Luis García Berlanga (1963). These films helped reshape the history of Spanish cinema; they gained international recognition and awards and many renowned film festivals.
Franco’s regime came to an end when he died on 20 November 1975, and in the following year, the censorship was finally lifted. It seemed like the perfect time for new blood, new themes and a new strategy for the Spanish cinema.
The filmmakers of that time made the best of the opportunity and gifted the world with gems like José Luis Garci’s Asignatura Pendiente (1977), Juan Antonio Bardem’s El Puente (1977), Paulino Viota’s Con Uñas Y Dientes and, more comically, and Luis García Berlanga’s La Escopeta Nacional.
A New Era!
The decade of the 1980s was definitely a new era for Spanish cinema! There was a new government in charge, and the possibilities were endless. The films produced in the 80s had a huge impact on Spanish cinema; these films presented a dramatisation of Spanish culture and history.
Things kept going for the best since the 1980s; the Spanish cinema was burgeoning in the wake of the production of more Spanish cinema gems like Álex de la Iglesia‘s El Día de la Bestia (1995), Fernando Trueba’s La Niña De Tus Ojos (1998), Alejandro Amenábar‘s Abre Los Ojos (1997), and Pedro Almodóvar‘s Todo Sobre Mi Madre (2007) by. Until today, these films are regarded as masterpieces of Spanish cinema and have grossed many awards worldwide.
Best Spanish Films from the Golden Age
Despite the many lacks along the way, Spanish cinema managed to produce some masterpieces that truly deserve to be seen at least once. Coming up next, we highlight some of the best Spanish films from the golden age.
La Aldea Maldita (The Cursed Village) by Florián Rey (1930)
Widely considered the best Spanish feature film of the silent era, it is only fair that we start our list with this gem. This rural drama tells a story of heartbreak, poverty and superstition set in a village struck by drought, forcing its people to leave it and go to the city for a better life. However, one man decides to stay behind, and we follow his life in the village. The film had a remake in 1942, again with Rey at the helm, but it did not achieve the silent magic of the original.
Las Hurdes (Land Without Bread) by Luis Buñuel (1933)
Las Hurdes is one of the best documentaries in the history of Spanish cinema. Luis Buñuel, one of the most brilliant talents of Spanish cinema, captured the conditions and extreme poverty of the Las Hurdes region in this documentary.
La Torre De Los Siete Jorobados (The Tower of the Seven Hunchbacks) by Edgar Neville (1944)
In the dark post-war Franco era, the masterful filmmaker Edgar Neville, a man ahead of his time, emerged as a great light in the darkness. The liveliness and originality of his films were unique and still are.
In this film, Edgar presented a story about hypnotism, secret societies and romance through the story of a roulette player whose life took a hazardous turn after meeting a mysterious man. The film was based on writer Emilio Carrere’s 1920s novel of the same name.
El Verdugo (The Executioner) by Luis García Berlanga (1963)
Considered one of the best films in the history of Spanish cinema, El Verdugo has lost none of its mordacity and freshness.
Set in Franco’s Spain in the 1960s, José Luis Rodríguez is asked by his father-in-law to accept a rather peculiar job, that of an executioner, a profession that only exists where there is a death penalty. In exchange for accepting the job, the whole family will be able to enjoy a state-subsidised flat.
José Luis’s nightmare, however, will be the real possibility of having to execute a condemned man, something his father-in-law says is unlikely, as a pardon always arrives even at the last minute. With a script by Rafael Azcona and directed by Luis García Berlanga, El Verdugo is not only an undeniable plea against the death penalty but also a priceless portrait of Spain in the 1960s.
Viridiana by Luis Buñuel (1961)
It is hard to find a list of the best films in Spanish cinema history without filmmaker Luis Buñuel’s masterpiece Viridiana in it! The Franco regime, interested in giving an image of openness to the outside, invited Luis Buñuel, exiled in Mexico after the Civil War, to return to Spain and shoot a film with a technical team and national actors. Buñuel gambled on the dictatorship with brilliant work. Buñuel, through the story of a nun and her relatives, portrayed humanity in general and in detail.
Before professing in a convent as a nun, Viridiana goes to say goodbye to her uncle and guardian, Don Jaime and stays for a few days at his estate. But this widowed man, who leads a sad and routine life with the arrival of his niece, believes he has discovered the living portrait of his deceased wife.
This discovery has a great sentimental effect on him, and Don Jaime tries to get Viridiana to prolong her visit. When he is unsuccessful, he asks her a very special favour, and things take a bizarre and unexpected turn!
Starring Silvia Pinal, Fernando Rey, Margarita Lozano, Francisco Rabal, and Victoria Zinny, Viridiana is a Spanish Mexican feature film directed by filmmaker Luis Buñuel based on the novel Halma by Benito Pérez Galdós. The film received the Cannes Film Festival’s top prise, the Palme d’Or, jointly with the French film Une aussi longue Absence.
When the film was screened, it caused a shocking stir back then due to its controversial themes that were considered taboo at the time. The scene where the cast re-enact Leonardo Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper.” led to a scandal, and it even angered the Vatican! Some argue that this was exactly what Buñuel wanted to do, to anger the audience and break free from all rules and old themes, and he sure did!
Spanish cinema has a very complex history, full of disasters but also of wonders to be discovered, vindicated and remembered. Leaving the past behind, the Spanish cinema is a totally different case nowadays, dazzling us with masterpieces and making us keep wanting more.