A middle-aged man opens his birthday gifts surrounded by his family. He receives a sports top from his adolescent daughter and a stopwatch from his mother. From his youngest son, he receives a pipe. His reaction to this last gift is one of anger. He irritably accuses his son of screwing everything up, of being an idiot: ‘¿De dónde ha salido este idiota? ¿Por qué no sabe que no fumo?’ (‘Where did you find this idiot? Why does he not know that I don’t smoke?’). His wife urges him to calm down, noting that he is upsetting his son who apologetically declares that he loves his father. ‘Pues no me lo creo’ (‘Well I don’t believe it’), he responds, adding that ‘Yo no quería un hijo gordo […] ni con gafas’ (‘I did not want a fat son […] nor one with glasses’).
The first feature-length film of Spanish socio-realist filmmaker Fernando León de Aranoa, the critically-acclaimed Familia (1996) focuses on Santiago, a middle-aged man so lonely, he hires a troupe of actors to perform the role of his family on his birthday. Like many of León de Aranoa’s subsequent works, Familia takes the heteronormative family unit as its starting point and gradually reveals its dysfunctionality over the course of the film. Performance and representation constitute key themes of this work, epitomised by the unwanted birthday gift of the pipe. Recalling Magritte’s pipe which is not a pipe, the family in Familia is not a family but rather a representation of a family. In this post, I discuss the opening credits of the film in terms of the ways that they immediately signal the relationship between reality and representation as one of the film’s central concerns.
From its opening credits, Familia addresses the relationship between reality and representation. The film begins with a series of extreme close-ups detailing the various characters upon whom the film will focus. These extreme close-ups all form part of a family photograph, which is revealed in its entirety along with the title of the film (Figure 1). The extreme close-ups concentrate primarily on the faces of the individuals as well as on their hands (Figure 2). Rather than remaining static, the camera zooms into and pans across the photograph, enacting a scrutinising gaze that is unable to penetrate – at least at this point in the film – the performance that masquerades the underlying reality of this family portrait. Transitions between shots typically take the form of dissolves, combining the distinct individuals together (Figure 3). While initially this appears to emphasise the familial union of and relations amongst the distinct generations depicted in this family photograph, these fusing dissolves read retrospectively as highly ironic. As actors performing roles, both diegetically and non-diegetically, the connections amongst these individuals are not familial but are rather wholly fictional.
A second aspect of the opening credits that highlights the relationship between reality and representation lies in the figure of the photographer responsible for creating this family portrait. As Figure 1 (above) shows, the photograph includes the photographer through the use of a mirror that incorporates the individual responsible for taking the photograph by means of their reflection. The implied presence of the photographer, of the person who facilitates photographic representation, is made manifest in this image through the mirror, which can itself be understood as a means of visual representation. Through this incorporative gesture, the family photograph in Familia recalls Diego Velázquez’s infamous royal portrait Las Meninas (1656) (Figure 4), an image which plays with perspective and representation and which exposes the gulf between representation and reality.
The pairing of image and word in the credits of Familia constitutes a third dimension of the interaction between reality and representation. Following the listing of the principal cast and the revelation of the film’s title (see Figure 1 above), the sequence proceeds with the pairing of technical credits with appropriate images. As an example, the title of ‘ayudante de producción’ (‘production assistant’), fulfilled by José Luis Gago, appears superimposed over an image of the grandmother’s hands clasped tightly together (Figure 5). The image of two hands intertwined appeals to the notion of assistance. Further examples include the superimposition of the title of ‘maquilladora’ (‘make-up artist’) (Milu Cabrer) over an image of one of the women’s lips and of ‘vestuario’ (‘wardrobe’) (Maiki Marin) over an image of one of the men’s suit jackets. In this way, Familia self-consciously draws attention to its status as a constructed image, a representation fostered by a host of individuals and not just those present in the image.
As this brief analysis demonstrates, Familia immediately foregrounds the relationship between reality and representation as one of the film’s primary concerns. This film is one I want to work on in more detail moving forward with my research and I’m still processing my thoughts and ideas on this work. I’m currently preparing a book proposal for a monograph on the films of León de Aranoa which features a chapter on this film. I’m also considering including Familia as a case study for a monograph focused on performance in contemporary Spanish cinema, which will in part be based on my doctoral research. With that in mind, any feedback on the ideas I’ve presented here would be most welcome! Please feel free to leave comments below or to contact me on Twitter (@FionaFNoble).