Spotlight on Contemporary Spanish Cinema: Pablo Berger’s Notes on Transnational Cinephilia

By Rowena Santos Aquino


Though Spanish writer-director Pablo Berger has only two feature films under his belt (and made nearly a decade apart), his two films Torremolinos 73 (2003) and Blancanieves (2012) present a  confluence of details and characteristics that make of him an adventurous cinematic spirit and an exciting filmmaker to watch and develop in the coming years. Put bluntly, his two features are marked by a rather ambitious auteur vision marked by strong cinephilia and transnational savvy; a sense of the humourous and carnivalesque that at times borders on the grotesque; and a propensity (thus far) to recapture the atmosphere of past eras. In the process, he puts in dynamic dialogue Spanish and transnational influences, histories, and cultures.

Consider Berger’s debut feature, Torremolinos 73, a Spanish-Danish co-production. The film tells the tale of a Spanish married couple in the early 1970s, Alfredo and Carmen. At the behest of his boss, Alfredo (Javier Cámara) moves from unsuccessfully peddling History of the Spanish Civil War encyclopedias to successfully making “educational” films on Spanish sexual habits, starring his wife Carmen (Candela Peña), for Scandinavian audiences. While the couple balks at the idea in the beginning, they agree to take part in making this new product—equipped with a Super-8 camera—and as time progresses, they get used to the routine. In fact, they are so consistent with their endeavours that they even become underground stars (especially Carmen) in the low-budget, amateur porn film industry. When Alfredo is struck with cinephilia upon watching Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957), he sets out to create a Bergman-like torrid love affair starring Carmen, with a Danish-Swedish crew and actor (Mads Mikkelsen). Towards the end, the production turns out to be an unexpected, bittersweet way to resolve the couple’s tensions of being childless.

Screen Shot 2013-03-15 at 9.33.08 AMAs is evident, Berger echoes the transnational nature of his film’s production in the film’s narrative by bringing together Spaniards Alfredo and Carmen and Scandinavians via a filmmaking crew and cast. Furthermore, the title actually refers to Alfredo’s Bergman-inspired and transnational feature film production, shot in the southern Spanish and popular tourist area named Torremolinos. The sequences detailing the film’s shoot during the last third of the film certainly speak to cinephilia and transnational filmmaking—not to mention awkward comedic moments. Alfredo makes no effort to hide the source of his inspiration for the film: he makes the film’s Scandinavian lead actor Magnus (Mikkelsen) dress in black, including a cape, and he includes several scenes that reenact moments from The Seventh Seal, such as its famous game of chess. Less overtly comedic but more interesting are the quieter sequences of collaboration between Alfredo, Carmen, Magnus, and the Danish-Swedish crew, which represent the (multilingual) complexities of a transnational production in the most banal way.

At a visual level, the film Torremolinos 73 and Alfredo’s own film of the same title within the narrative also betray Berger’s transnational cinephilia and attention to period detail. On the one hand, Alfredo and Carmen’s everyday lives and porn films are characterised by washed-out colours and Super-8 film, respectively, to give the images a retro, sitcom-like 1970s look. On the other hand, Alfredo’s film is shot in high contrasting black-and-white film, which not only reflects The Seventh Seal but also anticipates the gorgeous black-and-white cinematography that will characterise Berger’s second film, Blancanieves.

But Torremolinos 73 is not all simply cinephilic, transnational fun and games and looking outward beyond Spain. It also looks inwardly. The ‘73’ in the film’s title refers to the year in which the narrative takes place, yes, but in an historical sense 1973 was a significant year during the late period of Francoist Spain. The film’s banal domesticity-turned-adventurous-porn-filmmaking-couple can be read as a reference (however flimsy) to Spain’s democratising and increasingly open society, accompanied by an economic miracle all its own, with ruler General Francisco Franco two years close to his death bed and ceding his post of prime minister to one of his longtime confidantes precisely that year. In addition, that Alfredo sells encyclopedias detailing the Spanish Civil War at the beginning, only to discard it because it is dated and unprofitable, is a subtle yet telling detail, and elaborates somewhat the strength of the first third of the film in its portrayal of everyday, stagnating Francoism.

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Sr. Staff Film Critic: Recently obtained my doctoral degree in Cinema and Media studies at UCLA. Linguaphile and cinephile, and therefore multingual in my cinephilia. Asian cinemas, Spanish language filmmaking, Middle Eastern cinemas, and documentary film.