What Can Spanish Cinema Teach Us?

The label ‘foreign language film’ tends to summon up images of worthy arthouse fare and the repackaging of other people’s culture under the safe prejudiced assumption that cinema is solely the preserve of the English-speaking world. This patronising label unfairly reduces great talent and innovative films to minority interest and novelty.  

Let’s pick two genres beloved in the English-language medium: the thriller and the romantic comedy. Let’s consider two of Spain’s little-seen finest: the psychological thriller Mientras Duermes (aka Sleep Tight) (2011) and the romantic comedy Ocho Apellidos Vascos (2014) (aka Eight Basque Surnames aka Spanish Affair).

Mientras Duermes (aka Sleep Tight) (2011)

Sleep Tight starts with a concierge waking up next to his girlfriend, showering and taking his station on the front desk of their building. We quickly learn she isn’t his girlfriend and wasn’t aware that he was even there; he repeatedly drugs her and takes full sexual advantage, wrecking her life in the process. Our lead is blackmailed by a schoolgirl who has worked out what is happening; the price of her silence is some pornography. There is no Hollywood happy-ending to this miserable vision of humanity; the main character gets away with his crimes.

You’ll never look at a concierge the same way again. That statement is proof of how affective the movie is, it prejudices how you see reality. Sleeptight is a great movie; bleak, without pity or remorse. The film contains no flashy gimmicks and no MTV ADHD filmmaking. There is only solid story-telling and a talented and believable cast. There is no current Hollywood equivalent to this; Sleeptight is the film Hitchcock made in his nightmares.

Ocho Apellidos Vascos (2014) (aka Eight Basque Surnames aka Spanish Affair).

In contrast to Mientras Duermes, Ocho Apellidos Vascos is a culture-clash comedy that had them rolling in the aisles in 2014. A boy from the south falls for a girl from north and journeys across country and between cultures to convince her of his love. At the beginning of the film, our hero’s bus enters a tunnel in broad sunlight and emerges in the rain-soaked dark north where he manages to set fire to a wheelie bin and is mistaken for a Basque terrorist.

As these examples show, the film is full of stereotypes of both northern and southern Spanish life and the observations are spot-on. Nor are the stereotypes biased in one direction or other; the jokes are at everyone’s expense. Furthermore, it works as a romantic comedy as the leads are likeable and the story a well-constructed farce.  Unlike equivalent American ‘comedies’, there is no face-pulling and stupid voices. The intelligence of the audience is assumed to be much higher.

Both Ocho Apellidos Vascos and Mientras Duermes are movies that could teach, or at least remind, filmmakers in the English-speaking world a great deal. Mientras Duermes is original, dark and disturbing; a film for grown-ups made on a relatively modest budget. Likewise, Ocho Apellidos Vascos, whilst made for a domestic audience, makes this monoglot’s list of favourite films from the last decade, proving good films find an audience, regardless of their language.

In a filmmaking world increasingly dominated by bad comic book movies, agenda driven woke-sploitation and bad comic book woke-sploitation movies, it seems the immediate future of cinema might lie outside of the anglophone mainstream. The recent Cannes success of Titane proves there is still vision and originality left in European cinema.

If Mientras Duermes and Ocho Apellidos Vascos are seriously considered, we are facing a potential repeat of the New Wave of the 1960s as the talent waits to find a wider audience.

Are you listening, Spain? Time again to show the world how cinema is done.

Published by Lee Russell Wilkes

Been bouncing around the world for a while taking photos. Like most people, I have gone to ground during the pandemic. Decided it was time to put some of them out in the world.

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