A history of Spanish cinema

A history of Spanish cinema

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Los años desnudos looks back at the 1970s when nudity started appearing on the big screen in Spain.

When dictator Francisco Franco died, he took censorship with him to his grave and the Spanish film industry swiftly led the way down to the depths of what some saw as moral "hell".

The film, Los años desnudos (The naked years), released October 2008 takes a look back at the cinema of the late 1970s and its penchant for onscreen nudity, and how it changed Spanish society.

 Trailer of Los años desnudos

The story of Spanish cinema is the story of survival. Thirty years ago, the industry was still under attack from several fronts and was scarcely appreciated by the intelligentsia. Film experts in 1955 stated: "Modern Spanish cinema is politically ineffectual, socially phony, intellectually poor, aesthetically hopeless and industrially stunted."

A little over 50 years ago, Information and Tourism Minister Gabriel Arias Salgado, Franco's appointed guardian of moral and patriotic rectitude, was convinced that the relentless censorship applied to information in general and art in particular had vastly increased the number of Spaniards who were going straight to heaven.

But just two decades later, with the dictator's demise, censorship was quickly abandoned, and films with titles such as Thou Shalt Not Covet Thy Fifth Floor Neighbour and Smut Starts at the Pyrenees began to make the first dents in the existing sexual mores.

Actor Patxi Andión showed cinema's first male backside in The Book of Good Love, while Mariano Ozores became a one-man film factory with a unique production technique.

"I knew that five pages of a script meant a day's work, so I didn't shoot any scenes that were longer than that. If they were eight pages long, for instance, that meant a day and a half of work and I would lose money," he once said.


The hunger for a less puritanical cinema was already there before Franco died, however. When Bernardo Bertolucci's highly erotic Last Tango in Paris was released in 1972, Spaniards began flocking to the southern French cities of Perpignan and Biarritz just to watch it. The writer Manuel Vázquez Montalbán quipped that when the movie came out in France, butter consumption in Spain soared.

The release of Erich F. Bender's Helga in 1967, caused a similar stampede, albeit within this country. The film was allowed to be screened in art cinema houses across Spain because censors viewed it as an educational movie depicting the creation of human life, from intercourse to childbirth. Spaniards' fantasies did the rest.

In 1975, the actress María José Goyanes was the first to shed her clothes in a play, Peter Shaffer's. In an interview, the actress explained that the production was seen by five censors who approved the nudity scene. However, all five were later fired, and the actress was then forced to wear underwear.

Jorge Grau's Back of the Store, shot in 1976, managed to get posters of actress María José Cantudo inside the cabins of nearly every truck driver in Spain, following the scene where she is seen naked for a full three seconds. The plot description in the TV guide read:

"Jaime has serious problems with his conscience. He is a doctor and a member of Opus Dei, but feels increasingly attracted to Juana, a young nurse who has just joined his team. Juana is in love with him and is not making things easier. Jaime is also feeling bad about his wife, Lourdes, although she is busy with her lover Fernando, who is her best friend's husband."

Soon afterwards, movies started getting increasingly less subtle, as their titles might suggest: The Orgy, Susana quiere perder eso (Susana wants to lose it) and Aberraciones sexuales de una mujer casada (Sexual aberrations of a married woman).

Whatever remaining restraint was left was blown away in 1981 with Carlos Aured's El fontanero, su mujer... y otras cosas de meter (The plumber, his wife...and other things to stick in), which left hardly anything to the imagination.

In 1976 the "S" rating was created for softcore films. This is reflected in Luis García Berlanga's Nacional III, shot six years later, in which the main characters walk into a movie theatre showing S-rated films, only to be kicked out by a vigilant priest.

Pornography became legal in 1986, giving rise to X-rated movies and cinemas. This marked the end of the "destape", as the relaxation of sexual censorship after Francoism is referred to.

Why show a lady in underwear when it was now possible to begin a film with oral sex? Most porn fans would rather dispense with the preliminaries and move right on to the action, with dialogue no more complex than that of Rambo movies.

Pedro Almodóvar once said that Spanish cinema conceals a whole series of subgenres that deserve to be explored. For instance, the often-used shot of Cibeles square in Madrid with cars going around it. It would be possible to make a montage with scenes extracted from many movies, and compare the different makes of car, the pedestrians, the soundtracks and the voices.

It would also be something of a social study to compare the different types of underwear worn by popular male leads of the day such as Alfredo Landa, Andrés Pajares, Fernando Esteso or José Sacristán, from austere white underpants and garter socks to slips featuring little hearts and bunnies.

The sexually explicit cinema of the 1970s was looked down upon by the educated elites, who simply saw it as the result of decades of sexual repression, and accused it of sexism and misogyny. It was probably all of those things, but it also marked a golden age of cinema because of its enormous popularity.

Those films are now also an invaluable source of information about the social mores of a country just emerging from a long dictatorship that rewarded mediocrity and corruption, and watched over our souls without asking us our opinion.

El Pais / Angel Sanchez Harguindey / Expatica
photo credits: Tomás Fano

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