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Directors, Spanish Cinema

Alejandro Amenábar: An Introduction

Given there has been a fair amount of interest in our earlier post on Mar Adentro (The Sea Inside), I thought I’d post this complementary intro to that film’s director:

Every few years, a young filmmaker emerges with a film that even the most jaded critics recognise as a sign of a new talent with the possibility to revitalise cinema. Jean-Luc Godard was eager to release his first film before he was 30 in order to stand a chance of emulating figures like Sergei Eisenstein and Orson Welles who both managed it by age 26. Steven Speilberg was another 26 year-old debutant. More recently Mathieu Kassovitz (26) and John Singleton (23) announced themselves with La Haine and Boyz ’n the Hood respectively, only to stumble with follow-up films. All of this puts in perspective the incredible career of Alejandro Amenábar.

Born in Santiago, Chile in 1972, Amenábar was brought back to Spain, in the face of Pinochet’s 1973 fascist coup, by his Spanish mother. A not very academic scholar, Amenábar was very focused on making his own films and left a film theory course to become a practitioner. His first commercial feature, Tesis, appeared in 1996 when he was still only 23. Abre los ojos came out a year later and his third feature, in English, The Others, became a worldwide hit after its release in the US in 2001.

The three films all display fresh story ideas, innovative use of film language and an appeal to popular audiences which places Amenábar firmly in the tradition of a filmmaker like Alfred Hitchcock. What is remarkable is that it took Hitchcock several films to develop the kind of facility with the medium that Amenábar has shown in just four.

Tesis (1996)
One of the keys to Amenábar’s work is that he has always managed to get the cream of acting talent into his confections. Tesis is said to have been written for Penélope Cruz, but the role of Ángela was eventually played by Ana Torrent, an icon of Spanish Cinema who played the young girl at the centre of The Spirit of the Beehive in 1973 and Raise Ravens in 1975, two films which use the innocence of the child to explore the dark legacy of Franco. Amenábar’s work is absolutely not about exploring the politics of the past and Tesis is a film featuring two major new young actors in Fele Martínez and Eduardo Noriega, both of whom have gone on to work with other major directors. However, Ana Torrent’s iconic presence is well used. Ángela is a postgraduate media student who begins a dissertation on violence in the media. She goes to Chema (Fele Martínez) to look at his collection of ‘hardcore’, but then stumbles across her professor who has died whilst watching a grizzly tape, which Ángela steals. Chema recognises the girl being tortured as an ex-student. Ángela then finds herself being drawn into a relationship with the attractive, confident, but rather disturbing Bosco (Eduardo Noriega). The resourceful female hero is pitted against snuff-movie monsters in the university.

Tesis might seem to be Amenábar’s riposte to his own professors, but as Rob Stone points out:

. . . the potential for in-jokery was dismissed by the brashness of Amenábar’s technique, the mastery of his ambition and the scope of his cine-literacy. (Stone, 2002: 201)

Tesis found a big audience amongst younger cinemagoers attracted by the young stars and the genre material and amongst older cinephiles attracted by Torrent.

Abre los ojos (Open Your Eyes) (1997)
For his second feature, Amenábar was able to cast Penélope Cruz alongside Martínez and Noriega. Abre los ojos is a delirious mix of a romantic melodrama featuring four young stars (Najwa Nimri plays the ‘other’ woman) and a ‘speculative fiction’ which could easily have been written by Philip K. Dick. César (Noriega) is a rich young man who steals the beautiful Sofia (Cruz) from his friend Pelayo. When his former lover, Nuria (Nimri) gets jealous, it leads to a car crash in which César is badly disfigured. All this is told in flashback to a psychiatrist, assigned by the court after César is arrested. But did any of it really happen? What is memory, what is simulated reality?

The film was again a box office champion in Spain and was also widely seen overseas. Amenábar, his co-writer Mateo Gil and the four young stars were all born within three years of each other and all still under 25 when they made the film. This was a new generation of Spanish film talent coming to the fore in a country where for so long film culture seemed to be if not ‘backward-looking’, at least always conscious of a political and cultural history. Abre los ojos could in one sense be a film about any contemporary society. Which is not to say that it is a bland ‘mid-Atlantic’ film, but rather a confident film set in a modern Spain that is very much part of the EU and contemporary global culture.

Rob Stone again invokes Hitchcock when he states that Cruz was asked to watch Vertigo several times in her preparations for the role. In dealing with the charge that the film may be proof of the new generation’s ease with losing its Spanish identity, he refers to Cruz as “ . . . not just a sex symbol, but a hard-working young woman from Madrid, whose cosmopolitan education and background makes her . . . at home in Hollywood”. Much the same could be said of Amenábar and for some the confirmation of this would come with the development of a working relationship with Tom Cruise which saw the re-make of Abre los ojos, Vanilla Sky, eventually appear in 2001 with Cruise in the Noriega role and Cruz again cast as Sofia.

The Others (Los otros) 1999
Before Vanilla Sky appeared, Amenábar had already released his most ambitious project, The Others, produced by Cruise for Miramax and starring his by now ex-partner Nicole Kidman. For the 26 year-old Amenábar, the film must have been a daunting prospect, not least because he chose to write a script and to shoot in English in order to utilise the talents of Kidman and a supporting cast of strong British/Irish players. Not only that, but the writer-director again scored his own production of a story, which is heavily dependent on the use of sound.

The Others
is a ‘period’ film – a gothic ghost story – set in the Channel Islands in 1945 (but shot in Cantabria in Spain). Hitchcock never made a ghost story as such, but ‘Grace’ the Kidman character could be a Hitchcockian woman. The name refers both to the Catholic teachings about the ‘grace of God’ or the ‘state of grace’, but also directly to Grace Kelly, the perfect Hitchcock woman. Once again, Amenábar explores genre pleasures, setting himself a kind of exercise in using lighting and sound through his decision to make the children victims of ‘light sensitivity’.

The film was an international box office hit with a worldwide take of over $200 million. Amenábar had ‘proved’ himself in the commercial marketplace and had exhilarated cinephiles. He still had to face veiled criticism that he had abandoned Spanish film culture. In her discussion of The Others in the closing section of her book on Spanish National Cinema (2003), Núria Triana-Toribio begins by announcing “ . . . it is almost impossible to know what to do with Chilean-born Alejandro Amenábar’s The Others . . .” She goes on to discuss Paul Julian Smith’s defence of the film in which he argues that despite the British and American/Australian influences, Amenábar “brings a distinctly Spanish sensibility to its material” (Sight and Sound, November 2001, p.54). Triana-Toribio’s closing sentence of the whole book is:

“. . . perhaps The Others is a wake-up call to the future, to indicate that national cinemas should be prepared to be challenged about the national mindset in which they have been immersed and accept that, in order to make films that are relevant to a large number of people it is necessary to pool resources and think globally.” (Triana-Toribio, 2003: 163)

So what does Amenábar do next? He embarks on another challenging production, but one which takes a very specific Spanish subject, albeit a story which has many ‘universal’ appeals

Mar adentro (The Sea Inside) 2004
At first sight, Mar adentro seems like a turn away from his first two cosmopolitan youth orientated films and also from the re-imagined genre study that is The Others. Yet, closer examination reveals another genre exploration (the melodrama) and if the setting is not cosmopolitan, the narrative drive is surely to question the ‘old ways’ in Spain, partly in relation to the established church and partly in terms of the autonomy of Galicia and Catalunya.

Javier Bardem’s central performance continues Amenábar’s work with the best acting talent and there is continuity in both the writing partnership with Mateo Gil and the cinematography of Javier Aguirresarobe. This time Amenábar ‘ups the ante’ by adding film editing to his other talents.

The authorship debate
If you believe in the film authorship approach to reading films, Amenábar is clearly an auteur. He contributes so much to the films and works with regular collaborators. Does he have a ‘personal vision’ or a set of themes to which he returns? Four films is a small selection on which to base any such such analysis, but it is possible to discern links between what appear on the surface as four very different kinds of films. The linking factor appears to be a fascination with the transition between ‘life’ and ‘death’ between ‘representation’ and ‘reality’, between ‘dreams’ and ‘rationality’. This hazy boundary forms the basis for four very different narratives, but provides us with four central characters who must in some way negotiate it (Ángela, César, Grace and Ramon). In the first two films, Amenábar consciously addressed films and filmmaking as complicit in teasing us with this question, in the latter two he is more indirect in exploring narrative through sound and light – the fundamentals of cinema.

Paul Julian Smith once described Amenábar as “. . . a plausible model outside Spain for a European Cinema that bridges the gap between arthouse and mainstream” (Sight and Sound 2000, March p. 50). So far, Mar adentro has not proved to be the hit outside Spain that it has been at home (where it soundly trounced Almodóvar’s Bad Education at the box office to become the biggest Spanish film of the year, reversing the experience of the two films outside Spain). But, Amenábar really has nothing to prove. Whatever he makes next, he has already made a major contribution to world cinema.

References

Rob Stone (2002) Spanish Cinema, Harlow: Longman Pearson Education

Núria Triana-Toribio (2003) Spanish National Cinema, London: Routledge

Roy Stafford, 21 February 2005

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