08.11.16 – Gaudi Go to Barcelona

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“The creation continues incessantly through the media of man.”
-Antoni Gaudi
On the morning of September 11, 1714, French and Spanish forces under the command of King Philip V successfully overpowered the last pockets of resistance from Barcelona’s urban militia. The Catalan leadership, abandoned by their British and Dutch allies, and in the face of an overwhelming occupying force, formally surrendered to Phillip’s army. This defeat represents the end of the Principality of Catalonia as a political entity, as its independent institutions and legislation were suppressed and replaced by Castilian ones in order to establish an absolutist government. This event is  commemorated today as the National Day of Catalonia, known in Catalan as the Diada Nacional de Catalunya.
The notion of Catalonia as being an entity separate from Spain neither begins nor ends with the events surrounding the War of Spanish Succession. With the exception of a handful of government buildings, any presence of Spanish identity is essentially non-existent. Moreover, the pivotal role Barcelona played in resisting the Franco regime, along with the countless blights and blemishes that have taken place Catalan and Spanish relations over the past three hundred years, has led to the Catalan people to form a fascinating sense of cultural autonomy. Although I could immediately perceive the people as being naturally warm, outgoing, and friendly, there is an insularity that can be quite difficult for an outsider to grasp. As I immersed myself in the city’s sprawling, tragic, and beautiful history, a tapestry of incredible tales of heroism, cowardice, betrayal, creation, and resistance unfurled before me. Whether it was looking over the ramparts of Montjuïc Castle (where Lluís Companys bravely declined a blindfold and cried ‘Per Catalunya’ as he stood before a firing squad from Franco’s Civil Guards), discovering the genius of the art and architecture of Antoni Gaudi while wandering through Parc Guell and the Sagrada Familia, learning Catalan heritage in the El Born district, getting lost in the Gothic quarter, and taking in all the incredible street art found on the doors and windows of so many buildings, the story of Barcelona is one with many layers, with an essence that is seldom captured to the fullest extent by filmmakers.

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Ironically it has been Spanish language filmmakers such as Pedro Almodóvar (a Castilian) and Alejandro Iñárritu (a Mexican), who have in my opinion directed the two films that have come the closest to touching on the complicated insular identity most Catalans are reluctant to share with outsiders. Almodóvar’s Todo Sobre Mi Madre (All About my Mother) (1999) is at one end a complicated homage to Hollywood filmmakers and American playwrights. He relies on numerous inter-textual references ranging from the films of Joseph L. Mankiewicz and Alfred Hitchcok, to the plays of Tennessee Williams, and the writings of Truman Capote. He also incorporates the poetry of the Republican poet and freedom fighter Federico García Lorca (a Granadan), all the while making explicit use of Barcelona’s endless array of jaw-dropping facades. Almodóvar imbues his Harlequin-novel-meets-Marvel-comic-book melodramas with something more than a wink and a smile, and it is beguiling. A.O. Scott’s overview of the film (see below) best encapsulates the dynamics of beauty and pain that the film addresses, as well as how a combination of approbation and cultural determinism can combine into compelling capture of Catalan identity on the screen.

Iñárritu’s Biutiful (2010)  is by no means an easy film to get through. Movieseum’s list of 18 Films You Would Never Want to Watch Again,  summarizes the polarizing response to the film.

“The combination of the dark and disturbing world matched with [Javier] Bardem’s ever-worsening situation marks this as one of the finest films you’ll never, ever want to see again.”

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While Almodóvar ulitilizes imagery from Barcelona’s vibrant surface to further accentuate the tragedy of his story, Iñárritu pulls no punches in showing the desperate, unclean, ugly, mundane, and perilous aspects that can be found in the city as soon as you step away from the sanitized tourist strip.I came across this piece of artwork while I was browsing through the Gothic Quarter with friends, and feel that it best represents Barcelona’s dual nature. “La Calma” is the tourist-friendly, musically inclined, outgoing, and marvelous facade the Catalan people are able to put forth in an effort to make visitors feel welcome and connected to their home. “El Caos” is seldom shown in any explicit way to outsiders. It takes a filmmaker such as Iñárritu and an actor of the caliber of Javier Bardem, with their innate humanist sensitivity to actively explore the chaos within. In the interview below you can see Iñárritu explains how these factors that influenced the decision to set his film in Barcelona.

There is of course a third Barcelona, which is closer to the one I experienced and likely most visitors will: the escapist Barcelona. Woody Allen’s Vicky Christina Barcelona (2008) (another Javier Bardem vehicle) and Cédric Klapisch’s L’Auberge Espagnole (2002) are films made by non-Spanish speakers, with English and French spoken respectively as the dominant language in each movie. A controversy arose with Vicky Christina Barcelona when the the Barcelona City Hall and the Catalan Regional government each contributed half a million Euros to the film’s production. The use of public funding on Allen’s self-described “love letter to Barcelona and from Barcelona to the world,” frustrated many citizens who felt that their tax dollars could have been better spent elsewhere. Woody Allen’s self-obsession is no secret and it is the narcissism of his films which make his great ones great, and his not so great ones teeth gratingly unbearable. For the record, I would place Vicky Cristina Barcelona . That being said, the narcissism demonstrated in the film is quite insightful of the city’s visitors who only tend to experience the “La Calma” and not the “El Caos,” since they tend to view the city only by way of their own reflection. The film’s photography scene is a superb example of how Scarlett Johanson’s Cristina entirely disregards the surrounding landscape, architecture, or street art, as a subject in favor of her companion Penelope Cruz’s Maria Elena.

Another example of a self-obsessed visitor to Barcelona is Romain Duris’ Xavier in L’Auberge Espangole. Xavier comes to the city to study on the Erasmus program and his story incorporates the romantic elements of living in “Spain” (the emphasis on Xavier living in a ‘Spanish Apartment’ is itself problematic for reasons mentioned earlier), while coping with the calm and chaos of sharing a crowded apartment with other international students. It is a fun escapist film and the sequels that followed, Russian Dolls and Chinese Puzzle, remind me of a more sprawling version of Richard Linklater’s Before Trilogy. On the other hand, despite the cultural experiences Xavier undergoes during his year-long stay in Barcelona leaves him with very minimal opportunities to directly connect to the city. As the film’s trailer demonstrates, Barcelona serves as a magnificent backdrop for the film’s romantic comedy element, yet a disconnect is immediately apparent  when several ‘Spaniards’ ask the French speaking Xavier if he speaks Spanish (he doesn’t and does not learn much as the film progresses). This exists not only in terms of Xavier’s lack of cultural immersion, but also because he  is too focused on his studies and love quintangle, to see Barcelona as anything more than a place to escape the everydayness of his life back home. Furthermore the fact that Xavier is not spoken to in Catalan, and the fact that the language is sparingly used throughout the film, demonstrates the wider outsider perspective that Barcelona and Spain are in fact one in the same.

Considering I was only able to spend three days exploring this fascinating city and indulging in its many offerings, I write this with the knowledge that the three different Barcelona’s I discovered are just the tip of the iceberg. I could very well imagine there being a different Barcelona for every day of the year, each one having its own insights and aspects of struggle, success, romance, pride, and subjugation. As the political situation in the region continues to develop and the cries for separatism become even louder, perhaps more filmmakers will eventually take heed of the city’s multifaceted identity.

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