Brief Encounter in Madrid: Films and Streets

Luis Deltell

When tourists arrive in New York or Los Angeles for the first time, they experience a strange feeling. They feel puzzled and even if they know the answer, they still ask themselves: have I been here? When have I visited NY or LA? They know the answer:  they have never been there; however, films and TV series have filmed them so many times that it is easy to feel that one has walked their streets. American cinema has transformed these cities into ideal cities.

This does not happen with the city of Madrid. Tourists that arrive in Madrid, even those who might have a passion for Spanish cinema, will never feel they have been there or lived there before. At most, a cinephile might remember some film or other while walking up Gran Vía, or a character in a Neville film, or an Azcona dialogue or one of Almodóvar’s transvestites. Madrid is not an ideal city when it comes to cinema. Not in the way New York is, or Los Angeles, or San Francisco, not even in the way Paris or Rome might be.

However, it is true that Madrid is the most depicted, filmed and studied city within Spanish cinema. Its streets have always been full of characters and stories. From the cinema of the Spanish Republic until that of more recent times, the capital of Spain has been the most representative image of Spanish cinema. This is not because Madrid is the most beautiful, industrial or attractive city in Spain. On the contrary, it does not possess the beauty of Granada or Barcelona; it is not as charming or popular as Seville or Cadiz, not even as historical as Toledo or Valladolid or as industrial as Bilbao or Valencia. However, unlike all of these, Madrid poses two clear advantages: it is, on the one hand, the most cosmopolitan of these cities and, on the other, it is the seat of the Spanish government.

Madrid is the most cosmopolitan and open city in Spain. Anybody who arrives in Madrid becomes Madrilean just by the simple fact of wishing it. Thus, many films from the fifties and the sixties showed “inexperienced” Spaniards that went to Madrid and became great Madrileans and citizens. This is the case, for instance, of Recluta con niño (Pedro Luis Ramírez, 1955) or La ciudad no es para mí (Pedro Lazaga, 1965). Also, that which is purely Madrilean, authentic, farcical is, without a doubt, also open, tolerant and welcoming. Anything can happen in a city like that.

Nevertheless, the main reason is, undoubtedly, the dependence of Spanish cinema on politics. No industry amongst the film industries of the democratic world depends so much on governments and ruling classes as the Spanish one. Politicians, general managers, MPs and even Spanish TV chief executives have determined the history of Spanish cinema in such a way that whole historical periods or laws are known by the name of a politician – like the García-Escudero period or the Miró law. This is why it isn’t strange that Spanish cinema made the capital of Spain its centre: Madrid was the place closest to politicians.

However, Madrid was not always the most important and depicted city of Spanish cinema. During the first years of the twentieth century, when Spanish cinema was slowly emerging, Valencia and Barcelona were its two great cities. The first Spanish cinema entrepreneurs were from Catalonia and Valencia, and by being much closer to Europe and the industrial culture, they understood before anyone else that cinema was both an industry and a business. Spanish mute cinema is, above everything else, a cinema of folklore removed to a great extent from the city Madrid.

One of the first films to present the city in a complex way is La aldea maldita by Florián Rey in 1930. This mute feature film tells the story of a group of peasants who, after suffering the hardships of life in the village, decide to travel to the big city in order to survive. Madrid, however, will not be the place for them either.

Spanish voiced cinema transformed the view of the city. Not so much because voiced films by Florián Rey, Luis Marquina or the first comedies by José Luis Sáenz de Heredia portrayed the city wisely but because Gran Vía became the great axis of cinematographic shows. From the time of the Republic until the first years of the twenty-first century, Gran Vía has been the main street and the showcase for Spanish cinema and foreign cinema shown in Spain. Films that succeed in any of the screens on this street will invariably be a success in the rest of the country.

During the Spanish Civil War, Madrid was transformed into one of the symbols of the Republican Resistance. The “they shall not pass” cry was repeated by all antifascists in the world. Thus, during this period a great number of Republican documentary films about the defense of the city appear, the best amongst them being Mourir à Madrid (1961) by Frédéric Rosiff.

Once the Civil War was over, Franco’s regime tried to create a film industry. The dictator dreamt of creating a cinema as magnificent as the German or the Italian one and with this in mind a small Madrid film industry was encouraged and supported. Undoubtedly, the funding depended on the director being loyal to the regime and, therefore, a firm control and censorship on films was established.

One way to avoid censorship was to turn to those elements which were more farcical, popular, and typical of Madrid. Thus, Edgard Neville, who had fought for Franco’s army, uses the city of Madrid as a magical, endearing and social universe. Almost all his films are located and set in the city which becomes an essential element in many of them. In La torre de los siete jorobados (1943), the protagonist uncovers a terrible conspiracy that a group of hunchbacks are preparing hidden down in the sewers; La vida en un hilo (1945) narrates the story of a young widow who travels to the capital and whose life could have been different if she had fallen in love with a young artist from Madrid. Domingo de Carnaval (1945) and El crimen de la calle Bordadores (1946) talk about Spanish customs and traditions, black press and typical Castilian society.

However, without a doubt, Neville’s most perfect tribute to Madrid is El último caballo (1950). The film narrates the adventures of the “last horse” in the city. Its protagonist is a young man just discharged from the cavalry military service who wanders around the streets without knowing what do with his horse. Neville, who was aware of the importance of advertising, lost no time in promoting his film as the first Spanish Neorealist film.  The truth is his work is not Neorealist and only recalls that movement in that it was filmed on natural locations.

At the end of the forties and beginning of the fifties a number of films emerge which are inspired by a return to Realism. Several fascinating films appear under the influence of the popularity experienced by Neorealism, poetic French Realism and American film noir. An example of this is Surcos (1951), directed by José Antonio Nieves Conde. Here, we once again watch the arrival of a group of peasants to Madrid; in this case, however, the director is not so accommodating and presents the city as a dangerous and corrupting place. The family of peasants is completely desperate and Madrid is not only not at all welcoming but a fatal trap for them.

Also under the influence of Realism, we find the first film directed by Luis García Berlanga and Juan Antonio Bardem: Esa pareja feliz (1951). This film shows the life of a young couple from Madrid who win a radio contest and who will be, for one day, “the city happy couple”. However, the directors do not make a romantic comedy but a scathing critique of society and a poverty-striken Spain. Years later, Juan Antonio Bardem filmed one of his greatest films, Muerte de un ciclista (1955), which portrays Madrid as a grey, melancholic and dismal place.

A completely different vision is that of the well-meaning, humorous and nostalgic popular cinema of the fifties and the sixties, where the city of Madrid is pleasant, approachable and attractive. In these films, the protagonists meet with the affection of the people of the city. Madrileans are so welcoming that, even if they are pickpockets or criminals, they repent and show themselves as generous people. This happens, for instance, in one of the chapters of Historia de la radio (José Luis Sáenz de Heredia, 1955) or in the sixties funny rascal comedies such as Los tramposos (Pedro Lazaga, 1962) and Atraco a las tres (José María Forqué, 1962).

But if there is one film that clearly shows the sweet vision that Franco’s regime wanted to give of the city, that would be, without a doubt, Las chicas de la Cruz Roja (Rafael J. Salvia, 1958) where all the elements of the farcical and the authentic are present: from the “chulapa” to the “chulapo”, the statue of the goddess Cybele, the Prado, Real Madrid football team, Gran Vía… Everything in this musical praises the joy of the “modern” Madrid of the fifties.

Nevertheless, while this happy vision of the city was being reinforced, Rafael Azcona, one of the scriptwriters who would portray the city more harshly, was getting ready. Three of his first scripts are essential films about the city of Madrid: El pisito (Marco Ferreri, 1958), El cochecito (Marco Ferreri, 1960) and El verdugo (Luis García Berlanga, 1962). All three examine the social reality in such a thorough and detailed way that they end up distorting it, exaggerating it. Thus, in El pisito a young man who is desperate to find a house where to live with his girlfriend ends up marrying an old lady with the intention of awaiting her death and inheriting her rented flat. In El cochecito an old paralytic man dreams of buying a wheelchair so that he can go for walks, and in El verdugo, the one with the darkest humour, a young man becomes an executioner so as not to lose his subsidized house.

The censorship made sure that this vision of Spain was as little critical as possible, and in the censorship archives one can still find advice and comments given by readers on these films. They recommended removing or cutting out sequences and they even forbade projects and finished works.

Another director who will encounter the problems of censorship is Carlos Saura. His first film, Los golfos (1959) is one of the most heartrending films about poverty and misery in the streets of the capital of Spain. Filmed in the suburbs and with the appearance of a documentary film it is one of the most forgotten works of Spanish cinema. It would not be until the arrival of democracy that Carlos Saura would film another masterpiece on the life of criminals in the outlying areas of the city: Deprisa, deprisa (1980).

The arrival of the Transition and the establishment of democracy coincide with one of the moments of greater cultural and social activity in the capital of Spain. Madrid is transformed into a free place where young people give up fighting for a democracy that has already been attained in favour of partying, drugs, music and art. This is the so-called “movida madrileña”. Very close to this social feeling is the appearance of the new Madrilean comedy.

This new cinema is based on a reinvention of some of the most authentic and popular elements. Now, the protagonists are not “chulapos” or “organilleros” but young university students, musicians or artists. Within these, are films by Fernando Colomo y Fernando Trueba. The former is responsible of Tigres de papel (1977) and ¿Qué hace una chica como tú en un lugar como éste? (1978); the latter, of Ópera Prima (1980) and Sé infiel y no mires con quién (1985).

However, the king of Spanish cinema and especially of the city of Madrid is Pedro Almodóvar. His vision of the world, his iconography, his characters, and his stories could not be understood without the city of Madrid. Almodóvar started to make underground cinema in the environment of “la movida”. The joy and happiness brought by the transition not only provoked a freer and more sexual new comedy, but also a completely revolutionary and juvenile movement. “La movida” must be understood as an opposition to the previous state of society and culture.

The cinema of Almodóvar is very melodramatic and close to popular elements. It is an exaggeration of everything Spanish and amongst its strategies we find an unbounded love for the city of Madrid, its streets, its buildings, but, amongst everything else, its people, its youngsters, its transvestites, criminals, prostitutes, porters… Starting with his first films in the eighties until his last works, the capital of Spain has always been present, one way or the other.

Gran Vía, the Austrias area, but also the poor and the working-class areas have been portrayed by this director who shows himself to be very close to the city. Almodóvar does neither pretend nor try to be realistic, what he intends to do is talk about cinema and show in his films a very cinematographic city. Madrid as created by Almodóvar is not real but cinematographic. And so, ¿Qué he hecho yo para merecer esto? (1984), Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios (1987), La flor de mi secreto (1995) etc. are the construction of an ideal city, a magical city as dreamt by Almodóvar.

However, the love for the city of Madrid has yet not been exhausted. Quite the opposite: from the end of the nineties and during the first years of the twenty-first century several young directors have appeared who show their admiration for the city of Madrid. Many of the best films released every year are set in this city. This is the case, for instance, with Alejandro Amenábar’s first two works: Tesis (1996) and Abre los ojos (1997).

One of the greatest icons of the relationship between cinema and the city of Madrid was Alex de la Iglesia’s El día de la Bestia (1995) where Madrid is the place chosen by the devil to start the Apocalypses. The buildings, the streets and its types were portrayed with incredible perfection, creating a mysterious and sinister atmosphere. The actor of El día de la Bestia, Santiago Segura, turned into a director himself with Torrente, el brazo tonto de la ley (1998), a film that shows the city with sarcasm. Torrente became the protagonist of the saga with the most viewers in the history of Spanish cinema.

However, without a doubt, the latest great vision of the city of Madrid is that of León de Aranoa. His cinema is a return to Realism, he loves to deal with the human factor and listen to the disadvantaged. Two of his greatest films, Barrio (1998) and Princesas (2005), show the working-class neighbourhoods of Campamento and Carabanchel in the south of the city.

Madrid is not the most beautiful city in Spain, nor the most industrial or most touristic, not even the most popular; however, Spanish directors and scriptwriters have chosen it and still choose it as their city. It seems natural to suppose that, for many years to come, Madrid will be the city of Spanish cinema.

Luis Deltell.

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