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.
Excerpts from Portabella in the Sixties
Finding a "lost" interview from some twenty-five years ago (and never published) is a pleasant surprise. During the first months of 1973, J.M. García and Martí Rom, members of the Engineers' Cine-club Team of Barcelona, recorded a long interview with Portabella for inclusion in a book to be published and dedicated to him.
In those final years of Francoism, the University was an important focal point of political agitation; the Engineering School of Barcelona was not in the purview of the Régime's forces of control as were other faculties. Throughout the sixties, the Engineers' Cine-club was the public platform for any number of films which reflected on the current reality: those that the censors had banned, those with difficult distribution options, those from the so-called "independent or marginal cinema" and others from overseas (La hora de los hornos [The Hour of the Furnaces], 1966–67…
In the mid-sixties, Portabella was politically involved. He was on the support committee for incarcerated students in the Capuchin convent in Sarrià (March 1966), he later played an important role in the sit-in of artists and intellectuals in the Montserrat monastery in protest of the Burgos trial of ETA members (December 1970), in which the death penalty was on the table. Starting with its formation in 1971, Portabella participated in the Catalonian Assembly, a body which gathered together the anti-Francoist forces. On October 28, when the police burst into the Santa Maria Mitjancera church on Entença street in Barcelona, they detained 113 people during one of the Assembly's meetings, among them Portabella.
During that same period, García Ferrer and Martí Rom were concluding their interview with Portabella. His entry into prison, the assassination attempt against Carrero Blanco on December of that same year (1973) and the dictator's thrombophlebitis in the summer of 1974, changed the situation. Portabella's public presence underwent a transformation. His political involvement at the time together with the attempt to shelve his bourgeois past and his "advantageous" start in the film industry, led to his believing publishing the interview's to be an unwise move.
The book dedicated to Portabella was finally published in May 1975 (the dictator would die in November). Throughout 178 pages we find a long exposition about his work that summarized the most important pieces of information contributed in that interview, some extensive analysis of his films No contéis con los dedos/No compteu amb els dits [Don't Count with Your Fingers] (1967), Nocturno 29 [Nocturne 29] (1968), and Umbracle (1972), a large bibliography on the author, and some texts in parallel with his own work, among which we highlight the "Viridiana mess" described in detail (including the publication of the condemnatory text in the Osservatore Romano). Three hundred were printed.
It has been an invaluable book, a departure point for many film writers who have delved into Portabella's work, or to acquaint themselves with the "Viridiana affair." His interview can serve as a working document useful for scholars of Spanish Cinema.
Excerpts from AN INTERVIEW WITH PERE PORTABELLA
J.M. García Ferrer and Martí Rom
QUESTION: What is your educational background?
ANSWER: I did primary school at the Hermanos de la Doctrina Cristiana and then high school at the Escolapios on Balmes street (in Barcelona).
Q: The fact that you were educated at the Escolapios presupposes a certain economic level.
A: I went to the Escolapios on Balmes because I lived across the street.
Q: Did you have any problems?
A: No. Apparently I was a good boy. Although they meted it out, they never beat me. Amidst the climate of violence unleashed in the immediate postwar period this was part of the reigning normality. We had a Father Prefect who prided himself in doling out blows at the top of his lungs be it at church or in the classroom. In this sense, they were more open and less subtle than the Jesuits. As teachers they were criminally incompetent. We had some problems with a pedophile priest, but that was also a normal part of the educational experience.
Q: What was the outlook at that time?
A: Keep in mind that my education, starting from when I was ten years old, developed in the postwar period, schools were practically without teachers, and Universities without instructors and professors. A dramatic vacuum existed in the country which has shaped our social and cultural development. Hundreds of thousands were forced into exile to escape the brutal repression which befell the country, newspapers, magazines, publishing houses and cultural centers were destroyed; primary and secondary education was restored to religious orders along with all of its rights and privileges. The land returned to the hands of the large landowners and power to the army. All basic fundamental freedoms were stripped, local freedoms and, naturally, speaking in Catalan and Euskara was banned; trade-union freedoms (the right to strike, to protest…), the freedom of assembly and association… Authors were banned, books were burned; in certain cases fear led to accusation among the defeated, their life in exchange for others. Privilege and corruption was the realm of the victorious.
Q: What did you do then?
A: During the winter we went to school, to the cinema, to the opera and to private parties. At home there was talk of hygiene, health, food, clothing, good manners; feelings, sex and politics were violently swept from our vocabulary. The problem of religion and the power of the church were definitely resolved after the victory of the Spanish Civil War.
During the summer we would go to a town where we met up with the same friends and cousins; we would create a summer colony, isolated from the rural environment and clinging to urban disposition and social class. It was the absurd image of some sad and languid summers, detached and ignorant of the outlook of terror and desolation which surrounded us.
I've said before that I was a good kid, and once I finished my degree, I thought of nothing better than to put together an amateur jazz group. At that time, jazz was like an assault on good morals and had the virtue of infuriating everyone. We even had trouble within that very environment with the establishment who were set on Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. We played Bebop in the style of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. I played the drums and the guitar… To cut a long story short, they sent me to Madrid to study chemistry.
Q: How long were you in Madrid?
A: Three or four years. I had to take some classes over again and never completed my degree.
Q: What was your relationship with the Dau al Set group?
A: I didn't even know about them when they formed and, as such, I never participated or had any type of collaboration with them. It was really when I got to Madrid that I established contact with them. Eugenio D'Ors put together an exhibition in a gallery in Madrid. Antoni Tàpies and Joan Ponç moved into the lodgings where I lived; additionally, Tàpies was a friend of my older brother, they met at the Escolapios and he lived two doors down from my house. In fact, we all lived in a section of Balmes street between Plaza Molina and the Diagonal: Joan Ponç, Antoni Tàpies, Joan Brossa, and Modest Cuixart…
Régime's cultural proposals although lacking a conscience of political action and immediate commitment. Cuixart took a break and stopped painting for some years. Ponç went to live in Brazil.
Q: What did you do when you returned?
A: Let's say that from my years in Madrid I emerged sensitized to the modes of artistic expression. At the same time, a feeling of animosity and rejection of the system, sunk into me, without a serious ideological approach.
I found the way out of my bourgeois nonconformism through the avant-garde art movement in which I had never taken up a specific practice, understanding it as an autonomous vanguard (as approached by a bourgeois concept of art), beyond the context that generates it, without an ideological articulation which engages it with and from the masses.
I was very close to sculpture. On the other hand, literature was impossible for me, due to my bilingual education I don't have complete fluency in either Catalan or Spanish; additionally, I'm left-handed and they forced me to write with my right hand and, of course, I don't know how to write … it's a miracle I'm not a stutterer!
Q: What was your first contact with the world of cinema?
A: …My own contact with cinema began in 1958, precisely with Leopoldo Pomés (currently in advertising). We tried to make a documentary on bullfighting. Briefly, I'll say that we let ourselves be led by a certain aesthetic lyricism of violence, a primary eroticism and a certain tendency for the poetics of miserabilism. We were never able to edit the footage filmed. We got many "beautiful" images, albeit with nothing to tell or pose.
After this first experience, we decided to do something on flamenco song and dance. A tablao had just opened in Barcelona and Pomés discovered the delicacies of Andalusian folklore. This was the first occasion in which I acted as producer. I negotiated the deal with Movierecord and mounted a co-production. We hired La Chunga and asked Carlos Saura to co-direct the short. Why? I knew Carlos through his brother Antonio and knew about his fondness for cinema and his experience as a student at the E.O.C. Juan Julio Baena, who worked as a manager at Movierecord came on as line producer….
Q: Then you produced Carlos Saura's Los golfos [The Delinquents] didn't you?
A: I decided to immerse myself in production with the idea of creating a group capable of reclaiming an aesthetic in harmony with a critical approach to film. Basically, what most concerned me then was that our films be recognized in reality; that they mirror aspects of our social and political environment. Of course, our discourse was determined by censorship, but we set out to push it to the limit. We got far in that sense.
In practical terms, I started my phase as producer in 1959, enrolling in the Show Business Union, in the Producers' association under the name Films 59 – Pedro Portabella. I set up an office in Madrid, on Guzmán el Bueno Street. By the way, in order to create the production company's name, I met one day with Carlos Saura; we spent the day tossing out names with transcendental words, until my wife Elena appeared and proposed the name Films 59, and that's how it transpired…
Q: Did you have many problems?
A: In 1960, the Cannes Film Festival jury invited Los golfos [The Delinquents]. It was the only Spanish film that they accepted for the official pre-selection and this presupposed the maximum economic subsidy; but in the end, the State Film Office gave it the minimum state subsidy (second B). This meant that it would only find minimal conditions of commercial distribution a year later; premiering two years later, in the worst season and at a second-rate cinema. Official critics, with very few exceptions, massacred it.
We met Buñuel at Cannes; Carlos recognized him when he was waiting for the elevator in the hotel lobby. He was very friendly. Luis, who never attends any screenings, told us he would come to Los golfos [The Delinquents], he climbed up to the balcony box where we were and hugged Carlos and me. Imagine the French critics when they saw that Buñuel was giving us his blessing. From that point on, they described us as "Le jeune cinema espagnol…" ["The young Spanish Cinema"].
Q: What about censorship?
A: We were forced to shoot two endings, almost a whole roll, to be able to show it in Spain.
Q: How was the idea of Viridiana born?
A: While in Cannes, we suggested to Buñuel that he return to Spain, something he hadn't done since the war. We went to Cuenca to Antonio Saura's house and we took an emotional tour around Toledo… That was when I suggested to him that we make a film together. I talked to him in Madrid about what it would mean for us that he return to Spain to film.
He sent me a letter from Mexico agreeing to the idea; he wrote that he had a screenplay with a "very ‘white' story" called La belleza del cuerpo [The Beauty of the Body] (it would later become Viridiana) which he felt we would have no trouble filming.
When he returned to Madrid, Buñuel put us in touch with Bardem's group (the Uninci production house). Up until then, we had been two quite estranged groups. They were a very homogenous ideological team, whereas we represented… a mess. We met on a Sunday at a country house owned by the Dominguín family in Toledo (La Companza). It's paradoxical that the film gathering between two film groups took place at a bullfighter's country home; that's the way this country is. There were hugs… There was nothing between us, we were all in this together. In the end, Viridiana (1961) was a co-production of Films 59 and Uninci.
… The screenplay passed the censors, and the only thing that is true is that in one of the interviews given by Buñuel to Muñoz Fontán (at the time General Director of Film) before filming, the latter insinuated that the end put in doubt the chastity and purity of a nun, adding that "no one will believe that Viridiana is on her way to her cousin's room to play cards." Buñuel hesitated a few moments and then replied: "very well, so there is no doubt about it, I will add a scene at the end in which Viridiana plays cards with her cousin and the maid." And that's how the film ends, with a splendid ménage à trois, not originally planned and thanks to the General Director.
Once the film had been edited, we took it to Paris to do the sound design and mix. We didn't have the final version until two days before the end of the Cannes Film Festival (it was scheduled to screen on the final day). We warned the State Office that the print wasn't ready yet … "it's in Paris, you have to watch it first and then take it to Cannes…" but they replied that there was no time. Facing the prospect of losing the Buñuel-Cannes-Spain opportunity, they decided they would watch it there, even if it was the day before… "Viridiana would officially represent Spain." Because of all this, the film avoided an anticipated censorship screening.
They gave us the Palme d'Or in Cannes and, taking advantage of the fact that Buñuel was in Paris, Bardem had the felicitous idea that neither he nor I, nor even Silvia Pinal, the actress who was dying to do it, pick up the award; Muñoz Fontán, the General Director of Film, would do it. The latter, scared after the official screening, had taken refuge in his hotel. The right-wing newspapers already spoke of Viridiana as a "sacrilegious film", but he never received word because he had locked himself up in his room. We told him about the Palme d'Or and for him, who for more than fourteen years as General Director had only received a special mention for ¡Bienvenido Mr. Marshall! [Welcome Mr. Marshall!], it was as though he were moving up from Director General to Minister. Additionally, we told him that "since he was the best film representative of Spanish cinema", it should be he who should pick up the prize… "no, no, that's an honor that belongs to you, to Buñuel…". We insisted again and the second time he, very emotionally said "yes" and ordered champagne to be brought up. He must have thought that despite the fuss, the Palme d'Or would solve everything. Domestically, this is what they called "a triumph for Spain."
The next day, upon returning to Madrid, Montán went to his department and they asked him to first go to the Minister's office… from there, he went to a dark corner of the Ministry. He hasn't been seen again.
On the very same day, Arias Salgado, at the time the Minister of Information and Tourism, received the Palme d'Or and the demand for excommunication that L'Osservatore Romano asked for all of us. The torment lasted two years. Arias Salgado died of a heart attack six months later as he was descending the stairs of his house to go to daily communion.
Q: What were some of the problems you faced?
A: The Government deemed the situation unacceptable. The Spanish press silenced everything, they eliminated all documents pertaining to the film. In other words, from a legal standpoint, the film ceased to exist.
However, thanks to the Mexican producer Gustavo Alatriste (husband of Silvia Pinal), the film was able to be screened overseas. He wasn't one of the film's producers, as the film was legally Spanish, but he had invested money and so had rights to the film's exploitation. Alatriste got what in Mexico is known as a kick-back, made a negative and sold it as he could and as a Mexican film.
Q: This new development must have increased your problems.
A: A series of crazy situations followed one another because, while the Ministry of Industry and Commerce sued us for the illegal exploitation of a negative and a judge of monetary crimes asked for our legal heads, the Ministry of Information and Tourism claimed that no such "merchandise" (the film) existed. Anyway, chaos and threats… As a result, Uninci went bankrupt and I was expelled from Unispaña. So I returned to Barcelona.
Q: What can you tell us about the direction, production and distribution of No compteu… [Don't count…]? (Portabella's first film as director)
A: The film was made with a very small crew, four people, and with "domestic" (money from friends) financing; following all legal requirements.
We shot it in nine days with actors and models from advertisements, without the State subsidies (a concession of "national interest" for the screenplay), or any distribution guarantee. In the end, it was distributed through a chain of Art house cinemas, created soon after its completion.
The critics panned it; although, a year later, a special jury of critics gave it one of those prizes for "artistic merit", which are awarded annually and saved it from financial ruin.
Q: After that you did Nocturn 29 [Nocturne 29] (1968), a film that is consistent with the approach begun with No compteu… [Don't Count…]
A: Nocturn 29 [Nocturne 29] starts from the previous experience. Beginning with an appeal to advertising in No compteu… [Don't Count…], in Nocturn 29 [Nocturne 29] we reached the synthesis of a narrative structure unbound from the advertising connotations, which retained a lack of an anecdotal story-line.
At all times, viewers were forced to confront the fact that they were attending a screening and putting forth a specifically filmic reading. In Nocturn 29 [Nocturne 29] there was a connecting thread among all the sequences: all the characters were the same.
Q: What was the basic idea of the film?
A: A determined woman (Lucía Bosé) was the starting point towards achieving a more general context. Beginning there, a process occurs whereby elements from an actual reality are developed and added.
In Nocturn 29 [Nocturne 29] I knew I had to dispense with the mechanical ruptures of No compteu… [Don't Count…] and maintain that obvious distance between situations and, in fact, further stretch the internal links between them. Also in play is the way in which they are linked in relation to the image.
Q: The cinematography of Nocturn 29 [Nocturne 29] acquires a very important role in the film…
A: Yes, I am always very careful with the elements that intervene in the image. It plays as fundamental a role in any shot or sequence as anything else. From this vantage point, Vampir-Cuadecuc [Vampire-Short Ends] could even be said to suffer from a decadent refinement given that the idea of this film demanded we go to that limit where the image disintegrates, destroys itself. In Nocturne 29 [Nocturne 29] the cinematography fits with what is usually understood as "high quality cinematography", necessary for the film's discourse.
Q: Do you get upset if someone says that it turned out "very pretty"?
A: Yes, it really pisses me off.
Q: Given that these films "work" through the use of a variety of sequences each (a priori) independent from the other when you go to edit them, do you ever change the possible structure of the screenplay?
A: I never alter the order of the sequences. I only shoot the shots that I "see" I need, although later on, when editing, there may be optional shots that are left over. I'm interested in the tone and mood of the sequence in relation to the film. And then in the freedom of linking shots through subtle references in content, rhythm, at the margins of a naturalist description or in continuity… what we could call a putting in motion.
I only go out and shoot when I fully know the point of view, the rhythm and the tone of each sequence in the movie. When I'm shooting I enrich it or modify it according to the geography of the location and the presence of the actors. It is useless to try to extract an image from reality if you don't have it in mind before shooting. In truth, every possibility always exists. It's necessary to empty it of its usual content and give it a new meaning.
Q: What cinematographers did you work with?
A: On No compteu… [Don't Count…] and Nocturn 29 [Nocturne 29] with Luis Cuadrado, and on the remaining films with Manuel Esteban.
Q: Could you tell us who have been the collaborators on your scores?
A: On No compteu… [Don't Count…] the score was by Josep Maria Mestres Quadreny, but Carles Santos also contributed. On Nocturn 29 [Nocturne 29] both of them collaborated, and on the following films the score has been the exclusive work of Carles Santos. His collaboration with me is broad and affects the entire process of creation. Our responsibilities are different only when it materializes; while I take the lead in terms of the images, he does so with the score.
Currently, Carles Santos is my chief collaborator and I have a communication level with him that facilitates our work. An artist shouldn't take an individualist approach to film practice the way he does toward other traditional artistic practices (painting, sculpture…).
Q: It was after Nocturn 29 [Nocturne 29] (in 35mm) that you moved toward 16mm as a format, with three short films about Joan Miró. Tell us how they originated.
A: I was asked to collaborate on an exhibition (Miró-Otro [Miró-Other]) organized by the College of Architects. The idea was to give a panorama of Miró's work before, during and after the war (1936–1939). Denouncing the manipulation Miró was subjected to by the Régime during the "Miró Year" proclaimed by the Ministry of Information and Tourism in 1969 (murals everywhere, they wanted to nominate him to the Academy…). That's how Aidez L'Espagne [Help Spain] (Miró 1937), Premios Nacionales [National Prizewinners] and Miró l'Altre [Miró, the Other], all 1969, were born.
The first was a purposeful edit mixing archival material of the war with the work of Miró ("Serie Barcelona" ["Barcelona Series"], those prints he made in 1940).
Q: Where did you get the documentary material?
A: From an hour-long screening of material I was provided by a French film archive. It was relatively little footage.
Q: Did you select Miró's images?
A: Yes, of course. I had the entire "Serie de Barcelona" ["Barcelona Series"] photographed, then I shot the photographs introducing movements that I later related within the editing process.
Q: And the final poster, the Aidez L'Espagne [Help Spain] frame?
A: That was the stamp made in 1937 to collect funds for the Republic. It is one of the most beautiful things he has done, he presented it at the Paris Exhibition of 1937.
Q: And Miró l'Altre [Miró the Other]?
A: It is a portrait of the worker, the painter, the man. Because of his name and his presence, Miró, like it or not, immediately shoots off an image of a traditional artist as inaccessible creator and genius: what the film seeks to do is act as a contact point with the man and his work. The soundtrack promotes that ironic distancing effect which constantly breaks with the other image.
I was very precise in shooting the creation of the mural (on the glass doors of the College of Architects in Barcelona) because I was interested in the fact that he himself would then destroy it.
Q: What happened to these films later?
A: Well, they encountered some problems. None of them were screened because the Board of the Committee for Culture at the College of Architects felt that the Miró from the war in Aidez L'Espagne [Help Spain] (Miró 1937) endangered the opening and celebration of that exhibition. They asked me to soften it. I refused and withdrew the films.
During the course of two years (1969 and 1970) I made four critical film portraits of different artsd: painting , dance, poetry and music. All that remained was a "portrait" of film, and that's how Vampir-Cuadecuc [Vampire-Short Ends] (1970) was born.
I had the idea of commissioning a screenplay from the screenwriter of Pedro Lazaga's or José Luis Dibildos' films. Instead, an opportunity arose when I found out that a horror film was to be shot in Barcelona and I got in touch with the director Jesús (Jess) Franco, whom I had met in Madrid. I got the permit to shoot while they were shooting. Jesús treated me very well and gave me all sorts of facilities. That film was El conde Drácula [Count Dracula].
I shot and edited with no advance screenplay; Brossa watched it later and we discussed the footage. I chose Vampir as an homage to Vampyr by C. Th. Dreyer, and Brossa added the Cuadecuc [Short Ends].
Q: What's your opinion on Franco's film?
A: I think it's his worst film. It's empty, cold and doesn't even have any scary moments. It seems shot in the forties. Jesús has made better films.
In terms of my film, I was specifically interested in the fact that the film we were shooting was horror film because it is a genre that is very popular in consumer cinema and because the actor (Christopher Lee) is a specialist. He was immediately willing to work with me; besides, fantasy films are among the most interesting to me. The results were surprising. It is far more fantastical, more unusual, to see a hand onscreen, aided by a fan, building a spider web around a gothic door, rather than later on, in the commercial film, to see how the vampire on duty goes through that door.
Within a fantasy atmosphere, Vampir-Cuadecuc mixes the everyday of a film shoot with the result of the fiction that it is trying to achieve. There is no separation between one reality and the other.
It is a film within a film, a discourse within a discourse; in other words, a "bloodsucking film" of another.
A: In Vampir-Cuadecuc all of these elements form a part of the "story", they are the film's axis, what is posed is the presence of cinema, of a film (El conde Drácula [Count Dracula]) displaying all its means and the people that it carries with it.
I was interested in the breaking point in terms of the quality of the image for many reasons. I have said it before, it's a way of never losing sight of the genre in which one works.
Vampir-Cuadecuc has no other connotations beyond the meditation on language, in this case film language, making the elements of filming clear, for example, in order to recover them at another level. The novel, the actor/character, the film and the shooting all form, to a certain extent, a Brechtian structure.
Another important factor in Vampir-Cuadecuc is the presence of Christopher Lee who, alone, almost fills the emptiness of Franco's film.
Q: How would you define the role of Christopher Lee in Umbracle (1972)?
A: He is a man who walks calmly around Barcelona (Spain)…
Don't Count on Your Fingers. 1967. Spain. Directed by Pere Portabella
The Silence before Bach. 2007. Spain. Directed by Pere Portabella
Joan Pere Viladecans. Poster for Noctunro 29. 1968. Spain
Antoni Tapies. Poster for No compteu amb els dits. 1967.
Joan Miró. Poster for Umbracle. 1972. Spain