Introduction An Interview with Portabella
Extraterritorial Portabella Vampir at MoMA, 1972

 

Portabella


Excerpted from the Pere Portabella catalogue prepared by MACBA, Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona, 2001. Marcelo Esposito and Jorge Ribalta. Translated in New York by David Barba.

Extraterritorial Portabella

Santos Zunzunegui

In order to consider the place of Pere Portabella within this half-explored continent known as Spanish Cinema, we are obliged to pose two initial questions. The first refers to the need to examine the possible creative veins which, if they exist, would allow us to speak of Spanish Cinema beyond that of a mere reference designed to ease the administrative appointment of a series of films belonging to a particular market. In this sense, Portabella's work (in his twin roles as producer and director) offers more than sufficient elements to illuminate some of the aspects which, tentatively, could be identified as formative of the richest and most suggestive produced by Spanish Cinema in its history.

The second refers to the evident fact that work like Portabella's cannot be approached in all of its complexity without taking it out of the narrow framework of film and placing it in the double background of dialogue with other artistic practices and with the society in which it inserts itself. It would be precisely this double bond which would help us to better situate the problem raised in the previous paragraph, because if something distinguishes the cinema of Portabella, it is that stylistic choices are not distinguished from political options. In fact, his extraterritoriality emerges from the precise way in which both dimensions become one through films conceived as objects of intervention in the social reality. If the works that appear more directly political do not relinquish their desire to be construed as artistic objects (see, for example, the case of Informe general [General Report], 1976), the more obviously "artistic" works (such as Umbracle, 1972) present a notable political edge.


With this turn, Portabella's cinema decidedly situates itself at the beginning of the seventies in the open field of extraterritoriality, bringing together in one single gesture political and aesthetic radicality, experimentation and denunciation. A film like Umbracle is a model of both viewpoints: a challenge to the Aristotelian narrative canon by scrapping the plot and going "directly to the theme" (Portabella's words in describing his strategy), the use of motifs, rhythmic compositions made up of echoes and reverberations between different parts of the film and certain moments in film history. But, at the same time, face-to-face dialogue with Francoism through the insertion of a fragment of one of those films in which the imaginary of Francoism is openly expressed, a stance regarding militant and underground cinema and the insertion of a film practice less on the trail of a generically understood avant-garde than in the line of work of those artists (not only filmmakers) for whom the priority is to draw up a formal statement on the hidden side of things, inquiring into the geology of the imaginary that can only be revealed (I use this term in its strictly photographic sense) after a patient and methodical process of reconditioning the stereotypes that define the most banal everyday. [Editor’s note: Zunzunegui has developed this reading of Umbracle in his analysis included in the Antología crítica del cine español [Critical anthology of Spanish Cinema], edited by Julio Pérez Perucha, Madrid, Cátedra/Filmoteca Española, 1997.]

As a logical extension of these positions, Portabella's cinema from here on establishes itself as a way to move through the margins of the system (Advocats laboralistes [Labor Advocates], 1973; El Sopar, 1974) until it flows into that film with a programmatic title (that is rarely quoted in its entirety) Informe general sobre algunas cuestiones de interés para una proyección pública [General Report on Some Questions of Interest for a Public Projection] (1976), in which the filmmaker describes, in the same gesture, the public emergence of the democratic will in Spain, the survival, in the shape of an actual black hole, of the old régime, but also it's monarchical future. Set between an initial trip by the camera to the grave of the dictator in Cuelgamuros and a concert by Monserrat Caballé at the Barcelona Palace of Music (it's important to recall that Antonio de Senillosa's ardent defense of the monarchy brings the lengthy film to a close) the film combines images of popular uprisings from 1965 and 66, gives a voice to trade unions which prior to this were clandestine, to political parties squarely in the process of entering the public domain, reconstructs the imaginary of exile, fictionalizes one of the most sinister incarnations of Francoism (detentions, torture) and retells some dramatic moments in recent Spanish history with the help of some of the very protagonists involved (the execution of Juan Paredes Manot "Txiki," an ETA militant). All this free from any "emotional hint," untying itself from the "dictatorship of the reality effect" [Ibid.] that tends to pollute documentaries, in the style—through the use of a rhetorical structure punctuated by the adjournment to places emblematic of ruin, real and imaginary—of Francoism: that trip, mentioned earlier, to the Valle de los Caidos [Valley of the Fallen]; the visit to the Pardo palace whose rooms we survey led by the hand of a guide who shows us the private quarters, now empty, in which the dictatorship was lived day in and day out; a fragment of Raza [The Spirit of a Race] (1941), a banner film with certain view of the world and of things; the Parliament of Catalonia, now abandoned; the ruins of Belchite, "whose desolation once more becomes the cradle of the sinister (a lost historical past)." [Ibid.]


Following Informe general [General Report] were twelve years of filmic silence (during which Portabella developed an intense activity in the political arena), then "a return to persevere." This is the perspective from which to contemplate a work as risky as Pont de Varsòvia/Puente de Varsovia [Warsaw Bridge], premiered in 1989. At the time, Vicente Ponce layed out the background over which the film's image stood out: the avant-garde dreams of the seventies firmly shelved, drowned forever (some hoped) in the filmic tide that victoriously greets the continued production of true zombie-films; the spurious motives that made a certain anti-Francoist militancy sympathize with products rendered inactive (products that, if they appeared eccentric, were not directly opposed for the sake of a certain opportunistic accumulation of forces).
           
"Puente de Varsovia [Warsaw Bridge] proceeds through the exclusion of obvious political references and mixes with the declining experimentalism as a project and the subsequent discrediting of such adventures by a circle of film critics which reacts viscerally when eccentricity threatens to abound. This displacement, this current withdrawal towards the most tepid and reassuring margins of ‘respectable' cinema turn Puente de Varsovia into a troublesome model. And this is so because it does not articulate itself around a "promise of understandability." [Vicente Ponce, “Puente de Varsovia” [“Warsaw Bridge”], NosferatuEscuela de Barcelona journal, number 9, pp. 103–105.]
           
An authentic asteroid amidst the coarse Spanish Cinema of the eighties (try searching for any exceptions to this rule), Pont de Varsòvia/Puente de Varsovia [Warsaw Bridge] recaptures the expressive radicality of its author's previous films. Although it's true here that "the plot does not get the cold shoulder" (in Portabella's own words), it is no less certain that the film structure selected continues to be healthily provocative: starting from a fait divers (small news item) pushing the limits of credibility, introducing a flash-back that barely reveals itself as such, adopting a tree-shaped form which turns many sequences into authentic narrative cul-de-sacs, making use of masks of certain genres in which one doesn't believe, emphasizing the purely plastic dimension of the film image (the beautiful opening sequence, the credit sequence).

In a certain sense, Pont de Varsòvia/Puente de Varsovia [Warsaw Bridge] occupies the same space in Portabella's work (barring the distances of time, place and historical context) that a film like Tout va bien [All's Well] (1972) occupied in its day in Godard's work, where the filmmaker's return to the confines of the industrial film institution was not done to strengthen his foundations but, rather, to broaden his operational margins by exploring the limits of the expressible. In this way, the artist evaluates and actively intervenes in a historical situation where the passion for television coexists with frenzied visits to museums where the most ostensibly avant-garde art is exhibited, where cultural consumerism is deliberately mistaken for the accessibility of the art work and where everything that questions the commonplace habits that guarantee an orderly access to meaning is pursued.


Through more than forty years of film practice (as a producer, as a director), Pere Portabella's work stands sharply (in his own words, quoted earlier) as a way of persevering in an environment at the margins of a system of institutional representation. That this occurred within Spanish Cinema where he has, moreover, ploughed certain fields relatively uncultivated before his contribution, stands as a fruitful paradox: fortunately, we are forced to take note of it. For more than one reason, extraterritorial Portabella.

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Above:
General Report on Some Interesting Facts for a Public Showing. 1976. Spain. Directed by Pere Portabella
Umbracle. 1972. Spain. Directed by Pere Portabella


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