Thursday, April 07, 2011

Pere Portabella Spotlight

I had never heard of Pere Portabella until I came across Jonathan Rosenbaum’s wonderful book Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia in which Rosenbaum has two essays discussing Portabella’s films. In the first essay, published in 2006, Rosenbaum talks about the joy of discovering Portabella’s film Cuadecuc, Vampir at Cannes in 1971. Jonathan also talks about the lack of availability of Portabella’s films on DVD which is a reason why his films never got much attention in North America. Thankfully, a DVD set was available by 2009 for which Jonathan wrote his second essay. Pere Portabella’s films are even more accessible now thanks to who have almost all the director’s shorts and films available for online viewing. Certainly, all the films that Jonathan talks about in his essays are available on So Jonathan’s essays are a direct reason for selecting films as part of this spotlight:

Nocturne 29 (1968)
Aidez l'Espagne (1969, short 5 min)
Miró l'altre (1969, short 15 min)
Vampir (1970)
Umbracle (1972)
Informe general (1976)
Warsaw Bridge (1989)
The Silence Before Bach (2007)

Starting point

It is always a pleasure to dive into a director’s work without having read much about their films. This allows a person to navigate through the work on their own terms without any context or history getting in the way. Of course, there is always the danger that one can go off course in interpreting the films but the pure unfiltered joy in discovering the films surely overrides the risk. Although when it came to Pere Portabella, it was hard to approach his work without any filters. He is a Catalan filmmaker and my first instinct was to wonder whether his Catalan identity would have any political attachments associated. The only reason I would consider that is because my first introduction to Catalan identity was via FC Barcelona, Catalunya’s most visible global symbol. Barcelona are one of the best footballing teams in the world but the roots of their bitter rivalry with Real Madrid is dipped in political fire. Francisco Franco did his utmost to suppress Catalan identity which included Barcelona football club. The Barca fans could not criticize Franco without suffering any backlash but they could direct their hatred towards the team that Franco supported, which was Real Madrid. In fact, Franco used to attend matches between the two teams in Barcelona’s stadium, Nou Camp, where Barca’s fans could openly shout at Real Madrid without any consequences. The origin of Barcelona's rivalry does not mean that all Catalan film directors depict political topics. For example, no political trace exists in director José Luis Guerín’s In the City of Sylvia or Guest. As it turns out, in the case of Pere Portabella the political tag sticks not only because Portabella made films that were brave enough to deal with nationalistic questions head-on but because he was selected as a Senator in 1977. From his official website,

”Since the 1960s, Portabella always maintained a political commitment with all those movements against the Franco dictatorship that supported individual and collective democratic liberties.

In 1977, he was elected Senator in the first democratic elections and he participated in the writing of the present day Spanish Constitution.”

Informe General is an almost three hour documentary that looks at events after Franco’s death. The opening five minutes contain ominous music as the camera hovers around the structure that contains Franco’s tomb. The music ends when the camera focuses on his tomb and the name "Francisco Franco". Immediately after that shot, the music is upbeat and positive as if a cloud of darkness has finally been lifted. However, that music quickly gives way to tones emphasizing urgency before police sirens are added to the mix. The scenes that follow show violent clashes between police and protesters, scenes which in recent months have been all over the news, ranging from Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain and other Middle-East countries. In the film, the scenes emphasize the clashes that took place between the state, Franco loyalists and citizens aching for freedom.

The film then does something remarkable which is hardly ever seen in political films. It gives all the relevant parties a voice. So we hear from heads of political parties, unions and ordinary citizens whose lives were altered under Franco. In a remarkable sequence, near the end of the film, the heads of all five political parties discuss what the future holds for Spain.

The five parties, liberals, social-democrats, socialists, communists and christian-democrats, were never united prior to Franco’s death but they were all able to put aside their differences after his death. Their discussions helped usher in a new democratic phase in Spanish life.

A trio of black and white films, with a pinch of color

Cuadacuc, Vampir is a black and white documentary about the making of Jesus Franco’s Count Dracula. Portabella’s feature provides a fascinating look into the filmmaking process in general as we get to see various challenges and hurdles involved in making a feature film. The rich photography gives the work a 1930’s feel even though the documentary is about a modern day color feature. Reading in between the lines, it feels like the fake vampire in the film is a loose representation of Francisco Franco & his brutal blood sucking dictatorship.

Jonanthan Rosenbaum explains the film’s name change and the underground nature of the film:

It’s worth adding that the name of the filmmaker and the title of his film were both slightly different from the way we know them today, for reasons that are historically significant. The name of this Barcelona-based filmmaker was listed as Pedro Portabella and his film was called simply Vampir. Why? Because he was Catalan, a language forbidden in Franco’s Spain, making both the name “Pere” and the word "Cuadacuc" (which I’m told is an obscure Catalan term meaning both a worm’s tail and the end of a reel of unexposed film stock) equally impermissible. Furthermore, Portabella wasn’t present at the screening because, as I later discovered, he was one of the two Spanish producers of Luis Buñuel’s Viridiana one decade earlier, and the Franco government was punishing him for having helped to engineer this subterfuge by confiscating his passport, making it impossible for him to travel outside of Spain. And for those like myself who wondered how a film as unorthodox as this could play in Franco Spain at all, it eventually became clear that it survived, like the Catalan language itself (not to mention Dracula), clandestinely, via secret nourishment.

Umbracle highlights the kidnappings, torture and censorship that existed in Franco’s regime. The film starts off harmlessly with a man looking around in a shop. The ominous music indicates something is wrong but the images show nothing out of the ordinary. A phone starts ringing but no one picks it up nor can we see where the phone is located. Instead, the man walks out of the shop and stands at a corner, trying to light his cigar.

The street is empty except for one passerby. Suddenly a car comes around the corner and a few men jump out and grab the passerby and put him in the car. The phone continues ringing in the background. The man with the shades looks on. The same pattern is repeated on another day leading to another kidnapping. The phone assists in the flow of information while the ringing phone that is never picked up represents the citizen who has disappeared without a trace. By imposing a kidnapping with the sound of a ringing phone, Portabella is able to convey the ruthless and spy like nature of a cruel regime without using any dialogues.

The first words that are spoken in the film are around the fourteen minute mark when the rules of censorship in Spanish Cinema under Franco are outlined. The extensive rules were applied not only to a finished film but also to a film script in progress. As the commentator notes that such strict rules meant that some filmmakers started to self censor themselves in order to ensure their film was made. It is eye-opening to see such revelations about cinematic censorship in 1970’s Spanish society as one would not normally associate such strict rules with a Western European nation. When a government prevents freedom of expression and identity, then making a film can be an act of revolution and a film camera becomes a great political weapon.

Nocturno 29 is the most experimental of the three black and white Portabella films but it also manages to command the most visual attention due to the presence of Italian actress Lucia Bosé who is a pleasure to look at. The fragmented manner of presenting a love affair recalls Antonioni’s L'Eclisse.

The camera keeps a close watch on Bosé’s character and lovingly follows her, allowing the audience to observe her getting dressed, undressing, walking around gardens and smiling.

Lucia Bosé Pere Portabelloa Film
Lucia Bosé

When her character goes to take a shower, the glass door disperses her image into a lovely mosaic which gives a sense of her figure but manages to hide her body.

A little bit of color makes its way near the end of the film.

The film does not contain any political elements but the title does not hide its implications as it refers to 29 “black years” of the Franco dictatorship.

Musical connections

Warsaw Bridge and The Silence Before Bach are joined by a love of classical music and manage to portray their stories with plenty of enjoyable musical pieces.

"What’s wrong with music?

No great composer has appeared in years and why is that?

Because silence no longer exists."

The following exchange at a party in Warsaw Bridge can also be used to highlight the importance of silence in films. Modern day commercial cinema is afraid to use silence and it seems that many directors are afraid of even having few seconds pass by without a dialogue, explosion or background music. Maybe it has something to do with the disappearance of silence from most major cities around the world? Whatever the case, silence is a key component of a film. It used to be and it should always be. Pere Portabella understood this which is why silence is present in most of his films.

The story of Warsaw Bridge is inspired from a real life incident when a scuba diver’s body was discovered in a burning forest. The rest of the film manages to put forth a possible theory about how the diver ended up meeting his death in that manner by incorporating loosely tied segments of a love triangle, engaging conversations about art, musical segments and intriguing visuals. One worthy visual sequence takes place in a fish market and manages to make a trio of dead sharks look terrifying and captivating at the same time. Another pleasing segment features a conductor who is standing in the middle of a market, with his orchestra located on individual apartment balconies and building roofs around him. His instructions are conveyed to the orchestra via television sets.

The Silence Before Bach appropriately starts off in silence as a camera moves around empty halls of a gallery. Suddenly music fills the screen and we quickly encounter the source -- a mechanical piano.

Then more music is played in the form of slow notes as a man fine tunes a piano while his dog quietly sits on the floor, absorbed in the music as well. There are multiple stories in The Silence Before Bach which take place in between various musical sessions. The stories range from the past to the present and tackle a variety of topics such as observations about Germans and their love for soccer and music, truckers talking about their lives and an enthusiastic butcher expressing delight about adding rosemary when cooking meat. As soon as one story ends, music comes on in the form of an unrelated segment, followed by another tale without music. This pattern of alternating dialogue and music makes for an absorbing experience. If there was ever a film to lose one self in, this would be it.


Pere Portabella’s films do not follow a conventional narrative but if one lets the images wash over them, then there is a chance to derive a pleasure from his films. Overall, a truly worthy discovery, all thanks to Jonathan Rosenbaum who is an amazing critic and a pure cinephile. Unlike most critics who are busy reviewing the latest Hollywood blockbuster, Rosenbaum uses his writing to talk about discovering new foreign/independent films and hunting down older films.

As a major aside: I am probably the only person to think this but I might as well say it. The camera angles which capture Lucia Bosé’s smile and beauty in Nocturno 29 made her look like Aishwarya Rai. Just saying...
Lucia Bosé


Pacze Moj said...

And I'd never heard of Pere Portabella until I came across your post. One on hand, it's a horribly obvious observation, but: since a filmmaker usually makes quite a few films, discovering a new filmmaker means discovering quite a few things to want to watch!

And you're right about the Aishwarya Rai similarity.


Sachin said...

This was a rare case where I discovered a filmmaker and then found his films were readily available as well. I started watching his films and was about to post my comments when mubi put up Warsaw Bridge and The Silence Before Bach, so that meant I could finish watching all the films that Jonathan mentioned. Usually I end up reading about a director and then have to wait months or years to see anything. Such was my case with both Pedro Costa and Wang Bing's films but thankfully I got to see them. Now I am waiting to see anything by Lav Diaz.

I am glad you see the similarity. I have been told by others that they didn't see it. Unfortunately, I did not grab the pics when her smile and side profile matched quite a bit with Aishwariya's so this one pic I have is the closest example.