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Festivals and Conferences, Spanish Cinema

La caza (The Hunt, Spain 1966)

José (Ismael Merlo), Paco (Alfredo Mayo), Luis (José María Prada) and Enrique (Emilio Gutiérrez Caba) pose with their 'kill' in La caza.

The 1960s and 1970s were frustrating times for many Spanish filmmakers. Although there had been the possibilities of a ‘New Wave’ in Spanish Cinema, the censorship of the Franco regime made it impossible to make any kind of direct comment on Spanish society and especially any critical comments about the state or the church. What this situation produced was a number of oblique commentaries employing metaphor and allegory to represent the disastrous consequences of the Fascist control of Spain after 1939. Some of these films turned out to be masterpieces of cinematic art as well as fascinating commentaries. But of course many of them did fall foul of the Spanish censor and were not seen in Spain until after Franco’s death.

Perhaps the best known film of this kind (barring Luis Buñuel‘s return to Spain with Viridiana in 1961) was The Spirit of the Beehive (1973). Around the same time, right at the end of Franco’s dictatorship in 1975, Carlos Saura made Cria Cuervos (Raise Ravens), one of my favourite films. I’d read about Saura’s earlier film La caza but I hadn’t realised that a UK film print still existed. So kudos again to !Viva¡ for finding – and screening – the print in this year’s festival. The screening took place in the cinema’s weekly ‘classics matinee’ slot so we were also promised the chance to discuss the film afterwards. Watching a film print was a rare pleasure. This vintage print dated from the 1970s (with an ‘X’ Certificate). It did break at one point but overall it looked fine. One advantage of the black and white prints of the 1960s is that they haven’t suffered like the cheap colour processes of the period.

La caza has a simple narrative. A group of four men drive into a valley in Central Spain where one of them has hunting rights. A gamekeeper and his aged mother and young teenage daughter are the only other characters. They live in a shack locally and eke out an existence in the unforgiving terrain. For the shoot they are expected to cook the food and find the prey – in this case rabbits. The four hunters comprise three older men who know each other through work and what we assume were prior relationships in wartime. The younger man, Enrique, is the brother-in-law of one of the older men. The day is very hot, some of the rabbits have myxomatosis, there are tensions between the men and drink is taken – we know that violence will break out.

In the discussion that followed we were lucky to have Núria Triana-Toribio as our leader. Dr Triana-Toribio is the author of  Spanish National Cinema (Routledge 2003) and she teaches La caza regularly on her Spanish Screen Studies course at the University of Manchester. She’s also a regular contributor to the support programme for Spanish Cinema at Cornerhouse and the Cervantes Institute in Manchester. She listened patiently to what everyone in the small group (there were about 8 or 9 of us out of quite a good audience who transferred to the education room for the discussion) had to say and then provided us with information that we mostly didn’t know. I was surprised that some of the younger people in the group found the film very violent. Violent it is, but not gratuitously so as in many contemporary films. The violence has an impact because of the realist style, the taut direction and the excellent performances all round. I’d read beforehand that Sam Peckinpah had been very taken with the film and that it had influenced his preparation for The Wild Bunch (US 1968). I could certainly see what Peckinpah might have admired (and there is a scorpion sequence, which may have prompted the opening shot of The Wild Bunch). What was most evident in the discussion was that younger people for whom the Civil War is a dusty historical event were not particularly aware of the metaphors and allegorical force of the piece – but still found the narrative gripping. The mid 1960s was a period when gritty masculine action pictures, including war combat films, westerns and crime dramas, were still a staple of Hollywood and much of European Cinema. I was reminded not just of Peckinpah but also of Robert Aldrich, Don Siegel, Sam Fuller etc. A particular title that sprang to mind as I watched the film was Sidney Lumet’s British film The Hill (UK 1965), in which British Army prisoners are pushed to their physical limits by sadistic warders in a North African camp. The Hill was actually shot in Almería according to IMDB and like many of these mid 1960s dramas was shot in black and white – a straight commercial decision about the costs of filmstock I think, rather than an artistic decision. I’m tempted to take Saura’s black and white shoot as a similar decision based on economics – even though as an artistic decision it would seem to be the right one.

The allegorical force of the film is evident at even a surface level. The actual shooting of the rabbits is brutal, violent and clumsy. Some are already diseased and can barely run away. A ferret is used to drive them out of their warrens. At another point in the narrative, the camera enters a cave in the hillside in which the remains of a soldier are still visible – killed presumably in his hiding place. Two of the older men are portrayed like ageing bulls in a herd of cows – displaying their prowess, asserting their masculinity. José owns the land but Paco has become the successful businessman. I was most interested in the third character, Luis. He has turned to drink and he reveals himself as (almost literally) a ‘loose cannon’ – dangerous because he has ‘lost control’. Yet in some ways he is the most ‘modern’. He is shown reading a science fiction novel and discussing SF authors with Enrique. He mentions Ray Bradbury, whose 1953 novel Fahrenheit 451 would presumably be a controversial narrative in Fascist Spain? (Its story about book-burning in a future fascist society was being adapted for a film by Francois Truffaut in London at more or less the same time that La caza was being made.) Enrique clearly represents the ‘new Spain’. He seems eager and inquisitive and he doesn’t know about all the dark deeds of the 1930s and 1940s. The film ends with a freeze frame which Rob Stone in his Spanish Cinema book (Longman 2002) equates to both the famous still photograph of a Spanish Civil War soldier by Robert Capa and the final image of Truffaut’s Les quatre cents coups. Allegories like this don’t work by direct correspondence but I take from the film ideas about violent macho men out of control and uncaring, who treat the gamekeeper and his family with disdain. They are turning in on themselves and eventually their society will collapse.

Núria told us that the film’s location was in reality a famous Civil War battleground that the Spanish audience would have recognised. She also explained that the actors were very well-known figures in Spain at the time. She explained that Saura was relatively well off himself and that with Buñuel as a supporter he found it possible to get his films accepted for major film festivals – and subsequently foreign distribution deals. However, the film was banned in Spain and the audience who might have read the references didn’t see it until after 1975. She suggested that the Spanish authorities were pleased with this situation. Saura’s enhanced status at festivals reflected well on Spain (La caza won the Silver Bear at Berlin) but they were able to ‘protect’ Spanish audiences from critical comments. Saura’s producer Elías Querejeta  carried on making similar films with Saura and others like Victor Erice (The Spirit of the Beehive).

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