Tag Archives: Biutiful

Immigrants, Emigrants and Exiles: Un franco, 14 pesetas

As I’ve already mentioned elsewhere on this blog (see here and here), part of my PhD thesis focuses on the representation of immigrants and immigration in contemporary Spanish cinema.  A crucial counterpoint to this figure is the Spanish exile or emigrant, a figure relatively neglected in contemporary scholarship on Spanish migratory cinema.  In this context, Spanish exiles and emigrants are of both historical and contemporary relevance.  As an example, Biutiful (Iñárritu, 2010), which I analyse in my thesis, juxtaposes the Spaniard exiled from Francoist Spain with contemporary immigrants.[i]  The father of protagonist Uxbal, who appears as a ghost in the film, indexes historical patterns of migration that predate Spain’s contemporary status as a host country. Such patterns are often overlooked in discussions of the contemporary phenomenon of immigration to Spain.

While Biutiful proffers a somewhat gritty portrait of the harsh realities of immigration, emigration and exile, the subject of this post – Un franco, 14 pesetas (Iglesias, 2006) – provides a more light-hearted depiction of these issues.  Unlike Biutiful, which straddles two temporal moments, Un franco, 14 pesetas focuses solely on Spanish emigrants in the context of Francoist Spain.  The film is one of several in director Iglesias’ filmography that deals with the theme of emigration from Francoist Spain: Ispansi (2010) is set during the Second World War and concerns the transportation of Spaniards out of Spain at this time, while 2 francos, 40 pesetas (2014) is the sequel to Un franco, 14 pesetas.

Set in Madrid in 1960, Un franco, 14 pesetas narrates the story of Martín, a middle-aged Spaniard living in his parents’ basement with his wife Pilar and their son Pablo.  Surplus to requirements at his place of work, Martín loses his job.  When Martín’s friend Marcos suggests they emigrate to Switzerland in search of work, Pilar – who is desperate for her family to have a home of their own – encourages him to do so.  The film recounts the trials and tribulations of Martín and Marcos as they travel to Switzerland in search of a better future for them and their families.  Focused on the bromance between Martín and Marcos, Un franco, 14 pesetas is thus a road movie of sorts, set in the historical context of Spanish emigration.

While Un franco, 14 pesetas is not without its problems – it is, at least in some ways, akin to the nostalgic revisioning of the past as seen in films such as Belle époque and La lengua de las mariposas – the visual vocabulary deployed in the film resonates not only with other Spanish films that deal with immigration, emigration and exile, but, also beyond the Spanish context, with diasporic or ‘accented’ cinema, to use Hamid Naficy’s term, and with the Hollywood road movie.  The most obvious motif in this regard is vehicles and transportation.  For Naficy, the vehicle constitutes one of several ‘important transitional and transnational places and spaces’ in accented works.[ii]  He considers vehicles ‘privileged sites’ in terms of ‘journeys of and struggles over identity’, given that makers of accented cinema ‘engage in many deterritorializing and reterritorializing journeys […] including home-seeking journeys, journeys of homelessness, and homecoming journeys’.[iii]

In Un franco, 14 pesetas, the protagonists travel by train from Spain to Switzerland.  A frantic sequence on the platform of the railway station shows the emotional farewells of Martín and Marcos to their respective loved ones, before the film depicts in considerable detail their transit across Europe.  They are shown sleeping in their compartment alongside several other men when officials enter and demand identification from all the passengers (Figure 1).  Martín is depicted contemplating the passing landscape from the window of the train (Figure 2).  They are shown befriending another Spaniard who shares his chorizo with them (Figure 3).  The use of dissolves to transition between images (Figure 4) echoes both the passing of time and the passing landscapes, visible from the train carriage window.

Asleep on the train (Un franco, 14 pesetas)
Figure 1: Sleeping (Un franco, 14 pesetas)
Figure 2: Contemplating the view (Un franco, 14 pesetas)
Figure 2: Contemplating the view (Un franco, 14 pesetas)
Figure 3: Sharing chorizo (Un franco, 14 pesetas)
Figure 3: Sharing chorizo (Un franco, 14 pesetas)
Figure 4: Passing time/space (Un franco, 14 pesetas)
Figure 4: Passing time/space (Un franco, 14 pesetas)

The aforementioned bromance between Martín and Marcos is another trope that links Un franco, 14 pesetas to cinematic works of migration, movement and mobility.  Indeed, the film resonates, in some ways, with the Hollywood road movie, so many of which are, as Julian Stringer observes, ‘same-sex buddy films’.[iv]  Having arrived in Switzerland, Martín and Marcos initially share a hotel room.  The film emphasises their blossoming bromance by frequently depicting them in their adjoining beds (Figure 5).  At one point, they even snuggle closer together so as to keep warm in Switzerland’s frosty climate, to which they are unaccustomed (Figure 6).  When Marcos is invited to spend Christmas with one of the Swiss girls they have befriended, leaving Martín alone, their reunion is depicted as a pseudo-romantic encounter.  Marcos hurls snowballs at the window of Martín’s hotel room, leading to the resolution of their earlier conflict.  Reminiscent of the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet, Martín appears at the window (Figure 7), addressed by Marcos below (Figure 8), as the pair resolve their differences.

Figure 5: Adjoining beds (Un franco, 14 pesetas)
Figure 5: Adjoining beds (Un franco, 14 pesetas)
Figure 6: Snuggling (Un franco, 14 pesetas)
Figure 6: Snuggling (Un franco, 14 pesetas)
Figure 7: At the window (Un franco, 14 pesetas)
Figure 7: At the window (Un franco, 14 pesetas)
Figure 8: Below the window (Un franco, 14 pesetas)
Figure 8: Below the window (Un franco, 14 pesetas)

The window constitutes a key visual motif in Un franco, 14 pesetas.  The characters are frequently framed by windows within the filmic frame, as in Figures 2 and 7 above.  This gesture carries several symbolic resonances.  While many of Naficy’s examples describe scenes that feature windows, he does not expand upon the potential symbolic significance of this icon.[v]  Here, the window functions as a reminder of these characters’ liminality, evidencing their status as outsiders looking in on a society of which they are, at least initially, not a part.  This sentiment applies not just to their status in Swiss society but also in Spanish society upon their return to Madrid, a sentiment echoed by Marcos’ wife Maricarmen who declares, towards the end of the film, that ‘Ya no somos de ninguna parte’ (‘We are now from nowhere’).

The window as a visual symbol is something I’m only just beginning to think through in my research.  Having recently completed my doctoral thesis, I am beginning to work on a post-doctoral project that examines the concepts of (in)visibility and (dis)location in visual representations of Ceuta, Melilla and Gibraltar.  In the very early research I’ve conducted for this project, I’ve noticed that the symbol of the window is visually significant within these contentious border sites, a figure for the physical flimsiness of the border and a counterpoint to the lack of transparency at work within such liminal border spaces.  A case in point is the Telecinco television series El Príncipe (Figure 9).  Any thoughts on this would be very much appreciated, so please feel free to comment below.

Figure 9: Moray at the window (El Principe)
Figure 9: Moray at the window (El Principe)

To conclude, while Un franco, 14 pesetas is perhaps not the most imaginative or visually striking depiction of Spanish emigration, the film engages with other works pertinent to this topic through its network of visual symbols, such as train travel and windows, as well as through narrative tropes, such as the bromance or buddy relationship often at the core of the road movie.  I hope to post on Iglesias’ other works in the near future as his work is exemplary of the cinematic swing towards migratory patterns away from Spain.  While immigration from other countries to Spain represents one of the most dominant political themes of Spanish cinematic production from the 1990s until the early 2010s, the current economic crisis and its provocation of a shift in migratory patterns have diminished the prevalence and significance of this topic in the context of the most contemporary releases of Spanish cinema.  A quick glance at the subject matter of recent works reveals that Spanish cinema is turning its attention to another crucial migratory flow relevant to contemporary Spain: the rising number of individuals leaving Spain, whether these are immigrants returning home due to the lack of opportunities resulting from the aforementioned economic crisis, or Spanish professionals unable to find employment in their own country.  This trend is inspiring filmmakers across diverse genres.  Recent releases include: Perdiendo el norte (Velilla, 2015), a comedy which focuses on two young men with degrees who cannot find work in Spain and so emigrate to Germany; En tierra extraña (Bollaín, 2014), a documentary which follows young Spaniards abroad in search of a better future and El rayo (Araújo, 2013), a road movie which follows Hassan, a Moroccan immigrant who, unable to find work, decides to return home after thirteen years in Spain.  What this emerging cinematic trend reveals is the need for further examination of the migratory dynamics explored in contemporary cultural production in Spain, an example of which is Iglesias’ filmography.


[i] Biutiful also engages with the dynamics of internal migration.  Protagonist Uxbal (Javier Bardem) is a xarnego/charnego, a term used in Catalonia to refer to migrants from other areas of Spain.  Director Iñárritu discusses this aspect of the film in the notes accompanying the film at the Cannes Film Festival, available here.

[ii] Naficy, Hamid. An Accented Cinema: Exilic and Diasporic Filmmaking. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2001, 4-5.

[iii] Naficy, Hamid. An Accented Cinema: Exilic and Diasporic Filmmaking. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2001, 5-6.

[iv] Stringer, Julian. “Exposing Intimacy in Russ Meyer’s Motorpsycho! and Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!The Road Movie Book. Eds. Steven Cohan and Ina Rae Hark. London; New York: Routledge, 1997. 165-178, 172.

[v] Naficy, Hamid. An Accented Cinema: Exilic and Diasporic Filmmaking. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2001, 48, 116, 144, 165, 177, 180, 198, 203, 231, 235.

Thoughts on Cinema and Death: Part Two

Back in October, I wrote a blog post entitled ‘Thoughts on Cinema and Death: Part One’.  I expected to return to the topic in my subsequent post; however, that was not the case.  Finally, I revisit this theme – a mere three months later!  I have no idea as to where the time has gone.  But I do think that the PhD path never turns out quite as one may expect.  And no matter how well or how much you plan things, there are always interruptions, distractions, and unexpected twists in the road that end up leading you down a different route.  The last few months have seen me alter my working methods dramatically (see my previous post ‘On Working Methods’), and this has entailed a shift in focus.  Throughout my PhD, I’ve tended to work on one particular topic/chapter at a time, concentrating on the reading, watching, and thinking associated with that aspect of the thesis before moving on to the next section.  In the last few months, I’ve begun to move between and across the three chapters as I tie up the loose ends of research I have to complete for each chapter.  This is at once a deliberate move to keep my interest alive, as well as part and parcel of approaching the final stages of the project.  The reason I return to my work on cinema and death now is because I have to submit words shortly to one of my supervisors, and so I’ve chosen to rework that particular section of my thesis.

In my last post on cinema and death, I offered a very broad overview of the history of death in theoretical meditations on the medium of photography and cinema, summarising the stances of Walter Benjamin, André Bazin, and Roland Barthes.  I then briefly described the conceptualisation of early cinema as both a storage vessel that protected against death, and as a medium that had the ability to capture the moment of death; this line of argumentation has been extensively explored by film scholar Mary Ann Doane, in her book The Emergence of Cinematic Time.  In this post, I reflect on the status of cinema as a spectral medium, utilising Jacques Derrida’s conceptualisation of the spectre as a framework.  This is still something I’m working through in my thesis so I appreciate any comments, feedback, ideas, and suggestions.

My research on the significance of death in the context of film theory has revealed an interesting trend.  From a chronological perspective, there are two key moments in which death emerges as a theoretical concern: the first is in the late 1970s, evidenced by Barthes and Susan Sontag; and the second is at the turn of the millennium, exemplified by the work of Doane, but also D. N. Rodowick and Laura Mulvey.  Of these two moments, the latter is of the most importance for me, given that the films I analyse in my chapter on the immigrant – of which this section on cinema and death is a part – were all produced in the last ten to fifteen years.  Death thus emerges as a theoretical concern in connection with technological change: the late 1970s brought the shift to video and the inauguration of a new generation of special effects, while the 2000s bore witness to the widespread employment of digital filmmaking.  In each case, these changes specifically concern the materiality of the medium, a topic which is further emphasised by contemporary digital culture and its increasing immateriality.

The question of (im)materiality in relation to cinema invites, for me at least, a reading through the lens of spectrality.  I’ve already detailed my struggles with Jacques Derrida (read my post entitled ‘Digesting Derrida’ here).  However, in reworking my ideas on cinema and death, I’ve begun to see his usefulness in terms of cinema, spectrality, and the immigrant.  To summarise, the concepts of spectrality and hauntology constitute the framework of Derrida’s seminal text Spectres of Marx[1].  In the book’s preface, Derrida outlines four key aspects of his analysis: presence, justice and the other, and time.  With regards presence, Derrida details the curious status of the spectre that is at once both present and absent.  In this way, the spectre defies the framework of ontology, and exposes its limitations.  Because of this problematic, Derrida coins the term ‘hauntology’ as a means of discussing the extraordinary existence of the spectre.  The spectre’s paradoxical state of being chimes with the medium of film – if we reach back beyond the digital culture of our contemporary age – insofar as what it produced were not actual, material bodies, but were rather, images, projections, shadows of human figures on screen.  The shift from film to digital does not, however, alter the medium’s spectral quality.  If anything, it increases the spectrality of the cinematic image, given that images are no longer dependent on an indexical trace, but rather can be created digitally from a string of numbers.  Further enhancing the spectral aspect of the cinematic image is its potential for repetition and reiteration.  The distribution, circulation, and screening of films are even more widespread nowadays due to the global networks within which films are produced.  To relate it to the films I analyse, the immigrant character may die but he or she is immortalised through the film image, and can be brought back to life through rescreening the film.  In this way, the cinematic medium underscores Derrida’s conceptualisation of the spectre as ‘A question of repetition: a specter [sic] is always a revenant.  One cannot control its comings and goings because it begins by coming back’ (Spectres of Marx, p.11).

Returning to Derrida’s conceptualisation of the spectre, and to the themes of justice and the other, he remarks that his meditation on ‘ghosts, inheritance, and generations of ghosts’ is in other words a means of speaking about ‘certain others who are not present, nor presently living, either to us, in us, or outside us’ and that this is conducted ‘in the name of justice’ (Spectres of Marx, xviii).  The idea of the spectre who returns because of unfinished business has become a common trope in popular culture – examples include The Others, El Orfanato, or The Sixth Sense.  However, Derrida’s linking of justice and the other is of particular significance for my work on the immigrant, given that the majority films I consider are by Spanish, rather than migrant, filmmakers.  They thus do not just speak of the immigrant, but inevitably speak for the immigrant.  I am still thinking through what this means in the context of cinema as medium.  Does the alignment of immigrant with spectre in contemporary Spanish immigration cinema evidence a call for justice?  Does this line of argumentation risk falling into the trap, so beautifully outlined by Sara Ahmed in her book Strange Encounters, of universalisation and/or romanticisation of the immigrant other?

Finally, Derrida’s text centres on the question of time, circling around the idea, in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, of the time being ‘out of joint’.  For Derrida, the spectre’s relationship to time is epitomised by this idea: ‘Furtive and untimely, the apparition of the specter [sic] does not belong to that time, it does not give time’ (Spectres of Marx, xix).  Again, I’m still thinking through the significance of this both for the immigrant, and for the medium of cinema.  However, I have noticed that this idea is indeed dealt with in one of the films I work on: Biutiful.  The film begins and ends with an encounter between protagonist Uxbal and his dead father, who fled Franco’s Spain and went into exile in Mexico only to die two weeks later of pneumonia.  In this encounter between father and son the time is most certainly out of joint, given that the father is in his twenties and the son in his fifties.  In addition, it is spectral, insofar as both characters are dead.

To conclude, and as I said above, I’m very much still working through these ideas concerning the link between cinema and death, and in terms of cinema as a spectral medium.  Derrida’s conceptualisations of spectrality and hauntology should prove useful as a means of interpreting this link with respect to the representation of death in Spanish immigration films.  Any comments, questions, feedback welcome!

[1] DERRIDA, J., 2006. Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International. New York; Oxon: Routledge Classics.

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.

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!