Spaniards, Immigrants, and Tourists in Contemporary “Spanish” Cinema

As promised in my previous post, this post details my recent research on Spanish actor Javier Bardem.  At the beginning of November, I attended the Hispanic Cinemas: En Transición conference at the Universidad Carlos III, Madrid.  The paper I presented there was entitled ‘Tourists and Immigrants on the Spanish Cinematic Screen: Vicky Cristina Barcelona (Woody Allen, 2008) and Biutiful (Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu, 2009)’.  The subject matter is only tangentially related to my PhD research, and so felt like somewhat of an experiment.  I am still trying to work through these ideas and their correlations, and so I am hopeful that in this post, I will be able to articulate my thoughts in a coherent manner.  Here, I conjoin some of the key ideas of my paper with more recent thoughts I have had on the subject.

The theme of the conference was transitions.  This concept has a very particular, concrete meaning in the context of twentieth-century Spain; specifically it has become synonymous with the political transition from dictatorship to democracy following the death of dictator Francisco Franco in 1975.  However, in my abstract (read it here), I had outlined my intention to focus not on the political transition, but rather on two interrelated transitions which emerged in part due to this political shift: firstly, Spain’s transition from a country of emigration to a country of immigration; and secondly, Spain’s positioning as the exotic Other of Europe to its expression of a consolidated Europeanised identity.  Crucially, I problematised the concept of transition as a finite process from one ontological state to another.  Instead, I focused on the figures of the tourist and the immigrant as resonances of these former states – that is Spain as a country of emigration, and as the exotic Other of Europe.

While the paper was initially motivated by the figures of the tourist and the immigrant, I quickly realised that their significance lay in their couplings with Spanish characters, and in particular those embodied by Javier Bardem.  In Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Bardem plays Juan Antonio, an attractive, mysterious, passionate painter, who swiftly elicits the interest of North American tourists, Cristina (played by Scarlett Johansson) and Vicky (Rebecca Hall).  Following a brief and unexpected sexual encounter with strait-laced Vicky, Juan Antonio becomes romantically involved with free-wheeling Cristina, who quickly moves in with her new beau.  Their domestic bliss is short-lived however, interrupted by Juan Antonio’s ex-wife, María Elena.  That María Elena is played by Bardem’s real-life partner, Penélope Cruz, indicates both the commercial appeal of Allen’s casting, as well as an underlying desire to ground the film and its Spanish characters in the terrain of authenticity.  In Biutiful, Bardem plays Uxbal, a middle-aged father of two, who is diagnosed early on in the film with terminal cancer.  Like Juan Antonio, he too has an ex-wife suffering psychologically; however, the emotive characterisation of Maramba (played by Maricel Alvarez) is far removed from the quasi comical treatment of María Elena’s neurosis.  Uxbal is deeply embedded within a diffuse web of corruption and lies in which the film’s many immigrant characters are also implicated.  Both films meditate then, in distinct ways, on the construction of Otherness.

In my abstract, I had suggested that both the immigrant and the tourist were individuals in transit(ion), figures of Otherness engaging with, and exposing, the constructedness of any (projection of) Spanish national identity.  However, when preparing my paper, I reconsidered this perspective, arguing instead that the tourist (at least as far as Vicky Cristina Barcelona is concerned) functions conversely to position the Spaniard as a figure of Otherness.  Reading Bardem’s performance across the two films reveals precisely how Spanish subjectivity depends both upon its conceptualisation as that which is Other in the context of the Western world, but also upon its construction in relation to a plethora of other Others.

This duality is underscored by the film objects I analysed in the paper, neither of which sits unproblematically under the rubric of ‘Spanish cinema’.  I categorised the films themselves as ‘migrant’, insofar as while both films are set and filmed on Spanish soil, they are also both directed by filmmakers who are not of Spanish origins (Allen is North American; Iñárritu is Mexican); and they are both co-productions (the BFI list them as follows: Vicky Cristina Barcelona – Spain-US; Biutiful – Spain, UK, Mexico).  The films’ conceptualisation of Spanish subjectivity is therefore presented, at least partially, from an external perspective.  In this way, they recall the Anglo- and Francophone nineteenth-century Romantic tradition of representing Spain as Europe’s exotic counterpart, the most renowned examples of which are Alexandre Dumas’ remark that ‘Africa begins at the Pyrenees’ and Prosper Mérimée’s novella Carmen.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona underscores its exteriority from the outset.  Take the lyrics of the song accompanying the opening credits – ‘Barcelona’ (lyrics in Spanish/English here) by Giulia y Los Tellarini – which highlight the strangeness of the Catalan capital (‘Barcelona, mi mente está llena de cara de gente extranjera: conocida, desconocida y vuelta a ser transparente’), and the lack of certitude it produces in the visitor (‘No existo más Barcelona, siendo
esposa de tus ruidos, tu laberinto extrovertido’).  The same process is applied to Bardem’s character Juan Antonio, whose charm and good looks spark the rapid disintegration of Vicky’s respect for fidelity and tradition.  Like the city of Barcelona then, Juan Antonio’s strangeness inspires ontological uncertainty in tourist Vicky – an idea demonstrated by the use of the dissolve to transition between shots as they share their first kiss.  If the function of the tourist is to conduct a process of Othering on the Spaniard, then this process is most likely driven by a fear of ontological uncertainty when faced with the strangeness of the Other.  The film thus evidences Homi K. Bhabha’s conceptualisation of the stereotype as ‘a complex, ambivalent, contradictory mode of representation as anxious as it is assertive’ that requires compulsive repetition, so that ‘the same old stories […] are differently gratifying and terrifying each time’ (see his book The Location of Culture, p.70 and p.76).  And within this framework, Vicky Cristina Barcelona reveals the extent to which Spanish subjectivity remains concordant with its historical status as the exotic Other against which the Western world measures itself.

The matter of exteriority is equally present in Biutiful.  As stated above, it is not the Spaniard who figures as the Other in this film; rather, the film renders Otherness multiple and diffuse, demonstrated by the array of immigrant characters, most notably of Asian and African origins, but also by the interrogation of diverse states of Otherness, such as the Otherness of the father, unknown to his son; the Otherness of the body as it submits to cancer; and spiritual Otherness, symbolised by the visual doubling of the dead throughout the film.  In spite of, and partly because of, this, Biutiful treats Otherness in a similar manner to Vicky Cristina Barcelona.  That is, Otherness is projected outward onto another being (or, in this case, multiple beings).  Despite the lack of attention paid to the film’s migrant characters, the focus on Uxbal and his relationship with his late father, Mateo, yields an intriguing aspect of the film’s depiction of Spanish subjectivity.  Exiled to Mexico during the Franco regime, Mateo’s presence in the film is threefold: he appears as a ghost in the opening and closing sequences; he materialises as a dead body, exhumed following the sale of his niche; and finally, he emerges as a photographic presence, studied by Uxbal and his two children.  This gesture towards Mexico-Spain relations, by means of the father’s ghost, thus characterises Spanish subjectivity as spectrally uncertain, haunted by its past.

To conclude, I return to Bardem, who plays a key role in the contemporary cinematic construction of Spanish subjectivity, precisely due to his work across various national cinemas and cinematic industries.  His performance in distinct roles – such as the seductive Juan Antonio or the corrupt Uxbal – evidences the ambiguity attached to national identity in postmodern, globalised society.  Moreover, the roles he plays frequently rely on certain Hispanic stereotypes; for example the exotic, desirable Spanish Other – a role he has embodied not just in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, but also in Eat Pray Love; or the Hispanic villain – as in No Country for Old Men and, most recently, Skyfall.  By drawing upon these clichés of Spanish subjectivity, the Spanish actor – in this case Bardem – demonstrates the extent to which national identity necessarily involves a mutual contract between inside and outside – an idea compounded by the portrayal of relations between Spaniards, immigrants, and tourists in contemporary “Spanish” cinema.

Advertisements

All About Javier

As a brief update  – and taking a momentary pause from cinema and death – I’ve spent the last few weeks preoccupied with just one man: Javier Bardem.  Work-wise, I’ve been preparing a conference paper – which will be the subject of my next post – on two of Bardem’s recent films: Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Biutiful.

Outside of research, I went to see the new Bond film Skyfall in which Bardem plays camp villain Silva.  Though I may be slightly
biased, I thought Bardem’s performance was brilliant.

The sinister Silva is far removed from the exotic Spanish Other played by Bardem in Vicky Cristina Barcelona (or in Eat Pray Love for that matter), and conjoined with his previous appearance in No Country for Old Men, the film opens up a particular set of questions concerning the significance of Hispanic villains in mainstream/North American cinema.

More on Bardem to follow in my next post!