“The creation continues incessantly through the media of man.”-Antoni Gaudi
“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.”
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.