I always enjoy watching films as a way of understanding Spain and Spanish popular culture. Here is a list some of my favorites:
Blood and Sand (1941) Language: English
The film is based on the 1908 Spanish novel about bullfighting, Sangre y Arena by Valencia’s most famous writer, Vicente Blasco Ibáñez. There are two earlier versions of Blood and Sand, a 1922 version starring Rudolph Valentino, and a 1916 version filmed by Blasco Ibáñez himself. The story follows the fate of impetuous young Spaniard Juan Gallardo (played by Tyrone Power) who aspires to become a famous matador, following his dead father’s footsteps into the bullring.
Why I like it: A superbly entertaining Hollywood production depicting the world of Spanish bullfighting culture with accuracy.
Note: “Blood and Sand” is one of the few classic cocktails that includes Scotch. It was named for the 1922 version of the film that starred Rudolph Valentino. The red juice of the blood orange in the drink helped link it to the film. The recipe is first known to have appeared in the 1930 Savoy Cocktail Book. Here’s the recipe:
Main alcohol: Scotch whisky, Vermouth Ingredients: 3/4 oz Blood orange juice, 3/4 oz Sweet Vermouth, 3/4 oz Cherry Heering, 3/4 oz Blended Scotch Preparation: Combine all ingredients in a Collins glass, add another splash of orange juice then flame the zest over it.Served: Straight up; without ice Standard garnish: Maraschino cherry, Flamed orange zest Drinkware: Collins glass, Cocktail glass
Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (1951) Language: English
Pandora and the Flying Dutchman is a British film, directed by Albert Lewin, based on the legend of the Flying Dutchman. The film stars Ava Gardner, James Mason, and bullfighter Mario Cabré. It was filmed mainly on the Costa Brava. A Dutchman, living in the 17th century, is not permitted to rest until he finds a woman who loves him enough to die for him. He meets and falls in love with the reincarnation of a woman from his past.
Why I like it: It is an opulent mix of myth and Spanish culture, with gorgeous cinematography and well-crafted dialogue.
Note: Most of the movie was shot on location in Tossa de Mar, Catalonia, where a statue of Gardner has been erected on the hill overlooking the town’s main beach. Here is a photo I took of the statue:
¡Bienvenido Mister Marshall!/ “Welcome Mr. Marshall!” (1953) Language: Spanish/ Subtitles: English
Welcome Mr. Marshall! is a comedy film directed by Luis García Berlanga. It considered one of the masterpieces of Spanish cinema. After finding out that North Americans are visiting Spanish villages, the citizens of Villar del Río start preparing themselves to welcome them when they arrive, with the hope of making a profit.
Why I like it: A well-crafted classic comedy about the stereotypes held by both the Spanish and Americans regarding their cultures, with social criticism of 1950s Spain.
Muerte de un ciclista/ “Death of a Cyclist” (1955) Language: Spanish/ Subtitles: English
Death of a Cyclist is a Neorealist drama directed by Juan Antonio Bardem, starring Italian actress Lucia Bosè. While returning to Madrid after an illicit encounter, a wealthy socialite housewife and a university professor accidentally hit a bicyclist with their car. Although they see that he is still alive after the accident, they decide not to send for help, as their affair would be revealed. They drive away and leave him to die. After the bicyclist’s death is reported in the newspaper, tension keeps rising out of fear they will be exposed.
Why I like it: The film takes the theme of selfishness and uses it as a metaphor of the Franco regime which ruled Spain at the time: the worst government is only concerned with its own interests, not those of the people.
Note: Director Juan Antonio Bardem is the uncle of actor Javier Bardem. Lucia Bosè is the mother of singer Miguel Bosé, who stars in another film on this list, Tacones Lejanos.
El Cid (1961) Language: English
El Cid is a epic historical drama about the life of the Castilian knight Don Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, called “El Cid” (from the Arabic as-sidi, meaning “The Lord”), who, in the 11th century, fought the North African Moors and contributed to the unification of Spain. The film stars Charlton Heston in the title role and was shot mostly on location in the beautiful city of Peñíscola, Spain.
Why I like it: Based on the oldest preserved Spanish epic poem El Poema de mio Cid (“The Song of my Cid”), it is ambitious and very entertaining. Arguably the best of the classic Hollywood historic epics.
El Espíritu de la Colmena/”The Spirit of the Beehive” (1973) Spanish/ Subtitles: English
Set in the 1940s, eight-year-old Ana lives in a small village with her mother Teresa, older sister Isabel and father Fernando, who is a beekeeper. After watching the film Frankenstein starring Boris Karloff, Ana becomes convinced that the monster in living in one of the nearby, rundown houses. When an escaped convict seeks refuge in a house, Ana believes she has finally met the monster of her nightmares.
Why I like it: The Spirit of the Beehive is an engaging study of a child’s inner life having just experienced the traumatic violence Spanish Civil War.
El Amor Brujo/”Love, the Magician” (1986) Language: Spanish/ Subtitles: English
Directed by Carlos Saura, it is the third (and I think best) film in his Flamenco trilogy. El Amor Brujo is a ghostly love story, told as a Flamenco ballet. The ballet was composed in 1914-1915 by Manuel de Falla with a libretto by Gregorio Martínez Sierra. At the center of the story is a young Andalusian gypsy girl, Candela, married to a man she does not love — he dies, but continues to haunt her.
Why I like it: The work is distinctively Andalusian in character with the songs in the Andalusian Spanish dialect of the Gypsies. Manuel de Falla’s beautiful El Amor Brujo celebrates Andalusia in an unforgettable way.
¡Ay Carmela! (1990) Language: Spanish/ Subtitles: English
A comedy-drama directed by Carlos Saura. Carmela and Paulino are entertainers during the Spanish Civil War. They travel the country with their mute sidekick, Gustavete, performing for the Republican troops. They’re proud Republicans themselves, which puts them in danger when they are captured by Franco’s soldiers during their tour. But instead of death, they’re sentenced to perform for their enemy, pitting their loyalty against their survival.
Why I like it: The performance of Carmen Maura as Carmela is incredible. The film is unique in its ability to successfully treat the Spanish Civil War with some humor — to quote director Carlos Saura,”I would have been incapable a few years ago of treating our war with humor… but now it is different, for sufficient time has passed to adopt a broader perspective, and here there is no doubt that by employing humor it is possible to say things that it would be more difficult, if not impossible, to say in another way”. (Edwards, Gwynne, Indecent Exposures, PMarion Boyars, 1995.)
Note: The film takes its title from the song Ay Carmela, which begins and ends the film. Originally a song from the War of Independence against Napoleon, it was adapted and became the favourite song of the Republican soldiers and of the International Brigade during the Spanish Civil War.
Tacones Lejanos /”High Heels” Language: Spanish/ Subtitles: English
Quirky Spanish melodrama written and directed by Pedro Almodóvar and starring Marisa Paredes, Victoria Abril and Miguel Bosé. The film is a murder mystery that follows the broken relationship between a narcissistic mother, Becky, who is a famous singer and the grown daughter she abandoned as a child. Spanish singer Miguel Bosé plays Letal, a female impersonator whose drag act is based on Becky — and he is also the investigating magistrate in the murder case. It’s Almodóvar, it’s complicated — and more than a little convoluted.
Why I like it: I agree with what critic Roger Ebert wrote “Pedro Almodóvar’s films are an acquired taste, and with High Heels I am at last beginning to acquire it”. A good introduction to the work of Almodóvar, an icon of contemporary Spanish cinema.
Libertarias/”Freedom Fighters” (1996) Language: Spanish/ Subtitles: English
An epic drama, directed by Vicente Aranda, with an ensemble cast that depicts the role played by anarchist women during the Spanish Civil War. It is set in Barcelona at the outbreak of the war. A young nun, Maria, is forced to flee her convent. She takes refuge in a brothel, soon liberated by a woman’s anarchist group. Maria joins the group and eventually goes to fight at the front. She is exposed to the realities of war and revolution, and comes to question her former, sheltered life. In the end, her idealistic dreams are brutally crushed.
Why I like it: It offers a rare cinematic glimpse into the role of women soldiers in the Spanish Civil war. Highly recommended for anyone interested in modern Spanish history and/or the Civil War.
El espinazo del diablo /”The Devil’s Backbone” (2001) Language: Spanish/ Subtitles: English
A ghost story and murder mystery directed by Guillermo del Toro. The film is set in 1939, during the final days of the Spanish Civil War. A twelve-year-old boy, after his Republican father is killed, is sent to a haunted rural orphanage full of terrible secrets.
Why I like it: The Devil’s Backbone is frightening and emotionally complex— a powerful, unique film.
El Laberinto del Fauno/Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) Language: Spanish/ Subtitles: English
A dark fantasy film directed by Guillermo del Toro that takes place in 1944, during the early years of Franco’s dictatorship. The horrors of the real world and fantasy are perfectly mixed in this story of the strange journeys of an imaginative young girl who may be the mythical princess of an underground kingdom.
Why I like it: In my opinion, a cinema masterpiece. Artistically and technically ambitious, Del Toro creates a world in which fantasy collides with the horrors of war – and the result is an astonishingly beautiful film.
El Orfanato/ “The Orphanage” (2007) Language: Spanish/ Subtitles: English
El Orfanato centers on Laura, who returns to her childhood home, an orphanage. She plans to turn the orphanage into a home for disabled children. One day, her adopted son Simón disappears. Simón is critically ill, and as the months go by with no trace of him, he is presumed dead. Laura believes she hears spirits, who may or may not be trying to help her find Simón.
Why I like it: Full of atmosphere with no cheap thrills, this is a brooding, intense film. The performances are outstanding and I especially enjoyed Geraldine Chaplin in the role of Aurora, the medium.
Garbo: The Spy (2009) Language: Spanish/ Subtitles: English
An engrossing documentary that reconstructs the career of “Garbo”, Juan Pujol García, a Spanish citizen who formed the centerpiece of Allied deception and counter-information to have the Nazis believe that D-Day landing would occur in Pas-de-Calais and not in Normandy.
Why I like it: Few true stories of World War II are more fascinating than that of Garbo the spy.
Ocho apellidos vascos/”Spanish Affair” (2014) Language: Spanish/ Subtitles: English
A blockbuster Spanish comedy film directed by Emilio Martínez-Lázaro. Rafael has never left Andalucia, dislikes the Basque country, imagining Basques to be cold and unpatriotic. His opinions are challenged, however, when he falls in love with a Basque woman, Amaia, and follows her to her native region. The story plays on stereotypes to produce a very funny film.
Why I like it: This home-grown comedy gives some keen insight into the diversity of Spain and its people — with their own prejudices — that many non-Spaniards are not aware of.
Note: It is the highest-grossing Spanish film ever produced to date.