Dante no es únicamente severo


The 1960s avant-garde known as the Barcelona School has often been seen as a cul-de-sac of European film history, a brief flourishing of radical form under Generalissimo Francisco Franco that, like Samuel Johnson’s woman preaching, one is surprised to find done at all. In large part, the School’s obscurity is produced by the common belief that the films speak only to local interests and that, even then, they do so imperfectly. Lacking either the militant Catalan nationalism that became ascendant in the following decade or the social realism characteristic of the New Spanish Cinema (NCE), the Barcelona School could not be placed in either of the region’s two main oppositional camps. This article aims to open up alternative routes, in which the Barcelona School becomes a central port of call on the itineraries of engaged cinema, European art film and leftist intellectual currents during the global upheavals of the 1960s. By tracing the forms, histories and interconnections travelled by the School, we can re-locate it within a network of political film cultures and reassess its place in international film history.

To re-imagine the cultural space of the Barcelona School involves mapping a series of places – multiple connected locations that trace its cinematic footprint. There is both a temporal and a spatial logic at work here. The spaces centre on Barcelona, but they move quite far afield. Just as the Barcelona directors refused to be limited by Catalan nationalism or by Francoist repression, so the terrain of the School encompasses Catalonia, Europe and South America. Likewise, we centre this map on 1967, a key year in which several Barcelona School films were released: Dante no es únicamente severo (Jacinto Esteva and Joachín Jordà), Cada vez que … estoy enamorada creo que es para siempre (Carlos Durán), Biotaxia (José María Nunes), No contéis con los dedos (Pere Portabella) and Ditirambo (Gonzalo Suárez). But here, too, the influences and references spread out from the beginning of the 1960s into the ’70s. The aim of this article is not to develop a historical chronology, but to map a cinematic ambit, a territory in which borders and exchanges can open up a global conversation.


During 1-6 October 1967, the Catalan beach town of Sitges hosted the “Primeras Jornadas Internacionales de Escuelas de Cinematografía”, a conference on Spanish cinema that Virginia Higginbotham calls the “only public discussion of film at a national level held in twelve years” (1). Organized in part by director Jordà, and attended by students, critics and young filmmakers, the Sitges conference provided a unique space for anti-Franco dissidents, leftists and proponents of experimental film. There, Jordà presented a manifesto for the Barcelona School that became widely known as the Sitges Manifesto. The manifesto provided a focus for debates on questions of film æsthetics and politics, as well as ideas for production and exhibition of work outside the restrictive Francoist infrastructure. This debate was quickly closed down: police interrupted the end of the event and arrested participants. Less than a month later, the relatively liberal Director General of Cinema and Theatre, José María García Escudero, was sacked, the Barcelona Filmoteca was closed and classes were briefly suspended at the National Film School. The Sitges conference, then, names not only the launching of the Barcelona School’s manifesto, but situates precisely the cinematic, historical and coercive conditions of its existence.

The School is often understood – indeed, it cheerfully represented itself – in terms both geographical and binary: Barcelona vs. Madrid. In defining what the School was, it was always of primary importance to state what it was not, with the Madrid-based New Spanish Cinema as the negative term. Another way to represent this binary is: Sitges vs. Salamanca. The Salamanca talks of 1955 are the previous instance of a national film debate to which Higginbotham is referring, during which Juan Antonio Bardem complained that there was no national cinema and that Spanish films failed to represent social reality in any meaningful way. The NCE developed largely in response to Salamanca, with Bardem and others taking advantage of a liberalizing cultural climate to develop a ‘possiblist’ approach to political representation. Taking neorealism as a model, the NCE attempted to witness the contemporary situation, nonetheless always remaining within the rules of Francoist censorship. It was this compromise of possibilism that the Barcelona School most vehemently rejected: if the Salamanca talks formed the critical basis for the New Spanish Cinema, then the Sitges conference claimed a radical refusal of all that Salamanca represented.

We can see this refusal in the terms of the Sitges manifesto, which included, most obviously, a direct call to create different representations from those of Madrid. But throughout the document we find a systematic rejection of the ideas of Salamanca. Instead of operating within the Francoist industry, Jordà calls for self-financing, cast and crew educated outside the official film schools, and alternative distribution methods. In place of the political compromise of social realism, he demands a formal and experimental critique of representation. (2) In a 1969 interview, Jordà outright rejected the Salamanca talks, arguing that that avant-garde movements can engage social ideologies more effectively than the self-destructive evolutionary approach of the NCE. (3)

We might discern in the Sitges-Salamanca binary a regional conflict between Catalonia and Castilian Spain, or between the margin and the centre. Catalan identity is always at play for the School. However, this is not only an internal debate on national cinema(s).

Sitges vs. Salamanca also describes two very different interpretations of how cinema under Franco could and should engage with the outside world. The liberalization, or apertura, that enabled the NCE was motivated by Franco’s attempts, beginning in 1962, to enter the European Common Market. Cinema was one area in which the regime wished to demonstrate its cultural modernity, and John Hopewell describes “Europeanising tendencies” as central to Franco’s policies in the1960s. (4) Thus, new subsidies for domestic film production and exhibition supported the development of the NCE, who were able to critique the same régime that, through their films, was advertising itself abroad. For critics like Vicente Molina-Foix, as for Jordà, this was a political move that gave the Franco régime prestige while making dupes of directors like Carlos Saura and Luis Garcia Berlanga. (5) While the NCE aimed to enter into the European art cinema canon alongside Franco’s Europeanisation of Spain, the Barcelona School imagined a different relationship to the continent.

The catalogue to a Barcelona museum retrospective of the period exhorts:

Let us remember with ruthless clarity how, in October 1967 in Sitges, Catalonia, an assembly of (practising or potential) film-makers laid bare the imposed political, expressive and democratic shortcomings of the cinema of the time – even when it was most committed to the struggle for democracy; how, in 1968, the Anti-Franco struggles intensified among us: and how 1969 began with a state of emergency. (6)

In the Sitges conference, and in the government’s rapid response to its threat, we can see the seeds of 1968, and a politicisation that transformed European cinema. For Higginbotham, as for many historians of Spanish cinema, the Sitges conference and the Barcelona School represent a momentary outcropping of cinematic difference that serve best to exemplify the impossibility of resistance during Franco. (7) I want to suggest, however, that this map of Barcelona extends much farther than down the coast to Sitges, that it opens onto global debates on cinema, representation and politics. The Barcelona School is less isolated than it may appear.


In their history of the Barcelona School, Esteve Riambau and Casimiro Torreiro cite the influence of European new waves, pointing to British, French, Italian and Polish filmmakers whose work the Barcelona directors were able to view. Indeed, they argue that the School can be understood as one of these new waves, conceptually linked to Free Cinema, the Nouvelle Vague, the Czech New Wave and so on. (8) Certainly, the stylistic and thematic overlaps are profuse. The use of natural lighting and non-professional actors, the lack of complete scripts and oblique narrational strategies all figure prominently across the Barcelona films. Critics have compared the films to those of Michelangelo Antonioni, Vera Chytilova and Jean-Luc Godard, and, in case we miss the connection, both Dante and Cada vez que … feature references to Pierrot le fou (Godard, 1965). (9)

However, these connections are not mere cinematic name-dropping. As Riambau and Torreiro point out, the engagement with French cinema is particularly close because the border, only a few hundred kilometres away, functions as a potent symbol of political freedom. With its title quoting Brigitte Bardot, prominently featured French posters (“L’amour est …”) and a Belmondoesque male lead, Cada vez que … co-opts the most populist signifiers of French film culture into a political æsthetic. More pointed is the use of East European references: in addition to the Czech and Polish new waves, Dante’s scenarios are often reminiscent of the Dušan Makavejev and the Yugoslav Black Wave (Ljubavni slucaj ili tragedija sluzbenice P.T.T (The Tragedy of a Switchboard Operator)) was also made in 1967). For example, towards the end of the film, the central couple find an office desk set up in an unfinished building. Jackhammer noises provide a grating backdrop as the couple cook eggs, have sex and debate how to pass the time until the end of the film. In its blunt absurdism, the scene reminds us of how political censorship both constrained and produced many European New Wave sensibilities.

Fata Morgana

This referentiality is itself a signifier of European art cinemas, in which a self-conscious manipulation of cinematic language often indicates a modernist politics of form. For Riambau and Torreiro, the Barcelona School represents, “the eruption of a linguistic consciousness of their medium”, and we can see this refusal of transparency across the School’s films. (10) Pere Portabella’s Cuadecuc, vampir (1970) is named in part for the tail end of film reels, although the literal translation of “cuadecuc” (“wormtail”) also puns on the film’s Gothic vampire theme. Fata Morgana (Vicente Aranda, 1965) and Cada vez que … use intertitles and graphic art to break apart diegetic transparency, and in Dante the narrative is interrupted in a more threatening manner by a sign on a noticeboard reading,

The projection of the film is suspended until full order has been restored. The authorities trust that the good sense of the majority will soon prevail over the subversive and shameful intentions of the few.

Here, formal disruption is never far from a critique of authoritarian logic.

As this concatenation of political critique and linguistic reflexivity suggests, the New Wave connection subtends a corresponding intellectual history, and, once again, the School engaged directly with continental thought. Jordà compared the recursive narration of Dante to Roland Barthes, stating, “It was an idea very much of its time, to do with the texts by French structuralist semioticians like Roland Barthes, which I felt very close to: the impossibility of telling a story.” (11) As Dante progresses, the heroine tells story after story to amuse her boyfriend, but she repeatedly evokes the wrong images to illustrate them, and their conclusions, like the relationship, are fatally deferred. Jean-Paul Aubert elaborates on the connection: he cites Barthes’ S/Z: An Essay and Umberto Eco’s ‘open work’ to evidence the ethical imperative at work in such breaking up of classical narrative. (12) To locate political radicality in modernist film technique is a well-worn path in post-’68 film theory, but the connection between the Barcelona School and European critical theory predates these ideology critiques.

In February 1967, the Barcelona School of Communication and Design (EINA) held a conference on the topic of avant-garde art and engaged art, to which several members of the Italian Gruppo 63 including Umberto Eco were invited. Barcelona School associates Richard Bofill and Roman Gubern both participated in this event. The relevance of Gruppo 63 could not be missed: in addition to their connections to Tel Quel, Eco, Nanni Balestrini and the other writers combined avant-gardist fiction with a critical interest in media power and popular culture. For a movement like the Barcelona School, engaged at once in modernist fragmentation, sub-generic collage and political dissent, the Palermo group could hardly have been better interlocutors. Gubern articulates the importance of this event, claiming that soon after the Gruppo 63 came to Barcelona, books on semiotics began to be published. For the School, he says, “The doors open[ed] to contemporary European culture.” (13) From Paris through Milano, Prague and Beograd to Palermo, the European left also travelled through Barcelona.


In an article published shortly after Franco’s death, Marcel Oms argued that neorealism had been a crucial model for Spanish cinema because it came from the fight against fascism. (14) This idea marks a key political difficulty for the Barcelona School in the Spanish historical context: debates on the politics of film form centred on a binary of reality versus propaganda. The anti-fascist example of Italian neorealism provided the impetus to cast anti-Francoist filmmaking in similar terms. For the Barcelona filmmakers, however, such direct witnessing was exactly what Francoism made impossible. As their connections to the European New Waves suggest, the School found it pressing instead to demonstrate the impossibility of representing the truth of Spain, or even of telling a story about it. (15) What is striking is how often this problem is staged exactly on the terrain of propaganda – as a confusion between reality and fiction.

We see this play in the reflexivity of the fiction films: for example, in the opening sequence of Dante, the filmmakers and actors prepare to shoot the credits. But beyond this formal exposure of the profilmic, there is a more extensive engagement with the extra-cinematic real. Although best known for their fiction films, the Barcelona School directors also made experimental documentaries. Jordà’s first film was the short documentary, Día de muertos (1960), and Dante co-director Jacinto Esteva spent years battling censorship to complete Lejos de los árboles (1972). Portabella’s Cuadecuc and Umbracle (1970) are both non-fiction films, as is his series of short pieces on Joan Miró. Thus, while for the most part, the School is contextualised in terms of the history of fiction art cinema, it might be more useful to locate it in terms of an experimental cinema that assumes neither fiction nor documentary.

Alrededor de las Salinas, directed by Esteva in 1962, is an early example that perfectly outlines the formal terms and political implications of this engagement. Ostensibly a documentary on the salt-workers of Ibiza, Salinas evokes Jean Rouch and Luis Buñuel in its ambiguous and fictionalising ethnography. The film begins in traditional vein, with a male voice-over explicating the history of the island, emphasizing the importance of salt from the conquistadors to the current economy. The image track moves from scenes of rural life (the village, a religious procession) to a stark and beautiful tracking shot of the salt-flats themselves. The images are affective, particularly the silent scenes of the salt-flats, with workers shovelling, ankle-deep in the snowy expanse. But they cannot remain unmarked, ironised like the voiceover to the extent that they, too, self-consciously cite the conventions of the genre. And if the form reflects documentary clichés, then the subject matter – rural backwardness, religious fervour, olive and almond groves – similarly overstates a traditional portrait of Spanishness. From the beginning, Salinas evokes Buñuel’s Las Hurdes (1933), juxtaposing an over-determined representation of rural Spain with a framing narrative that too glibly interprets its images.

Alrededor de las Salinas

Soon, these representations are further unbalanced. The voice-over explains that the filmmakers plan to fake the death of a worker, a fiction that will enable us to observe the men’s genuine reactions. The image track of salt extractors talking appears to correlate with these events, and the voice-over analyses the workers’ emotional responses, ending with a discussion of one man who doesn’t believe the story. As the story unfolds, the film reveals clues that it is not its subjects who are being duped, but the audience. The next scene is the man’s funeral and the supposed doubter is leading the procession. The sequence is clearly set up, with cross-cutting from interior to exterior shots of the church. Finally, a carefully composed shot frames a woman watching the coffin in the churchyard, only to pan right and reveal two more elegantly arranged female mourners. This shot, obviously staged and reminiscent in style of L’Avventura (Antonioni, 1960), tips the film precipitously towards fiction.

After this point, there is no more voice-over, and the film abandons the salt workers for a cockfight in the village. This sequence is lengthy, containing a few cutaways to spectators, but composed mostly of long takes of the birds, one eventually bloody and dying. When the fight ends, two children grab the winning cock and run through the village with it. There is a nod here to neorealism’s witnessing of rural conditions, but what is striking is how the children’s run is increasingly fictionalised. As soon as they take off with the bird, music returns to the soundtrack, and, in many shots, the camera is placed ahead of the boys. On a beach, the boys let go of the bird, and there is a freeze-frame on a blurry shot of it flying away. By this point, Salinas looks completely fictional, far removed from the duplicitous exposition of its opening scenes.

We might, therefore, locate Salinas within another historical nexus of European cinema: encompassing Buñuel’s interwar provocations as well as Rouch’s contemporary layering of fiction, ethnography and cinéma vérité. But there is also something specifically Catalan about the Barcelona School’s experimental documentaries, as the choice of Ibiza as a location implies. In place of Buñuel’s exotic Hurdeños – perhaps more akin to Rouch and Edgar Morin’s Parisians in Chronique d’un été (1961) – Salinas is set in an internal, Catalan community, and its tongue-in-cheek opening voice-over makes plain how Ibizan salt underpinned the most triumphalist period in Spanish colonial history. This difference in location enables us to read, also, a difference in representation.

The play of documentary and fiction is not random, but always resolves around violent death (the salt worker, the fighting cock). Of course, the death of animals, violence and poverty are highly codified discourses in ethnographic documentary, and Salinas surely plays on this generic knowledge. But eruptions of violence recur throughout the School’s films, and this violence both breaks through the text’s epistemological uncertainty and is irresistibly linked to it. We do not move past surface textual play to gain access to an unmediated truth of Spain: the NCE’s claims of neorealist witnessing are already undone by Salinas’ refusal to play its funeral straight. But neither can we understand narrative duplicity as a politics only of the signifier. Death and violence haunt the scenes of ambivalence, and they are consistently connected with Catalan spaces. Like the later films, Salinas ensures that enunciative ambivalence is always at the same time an echo of political violence.


In June 1967, Dante played at the Pesaro Film Festival in Italy, and directors Jordà and Esteva were given permission by the government to attend. This was one of the few occasions in which a Barcelona School film was screened outside of Spain, and it was even more unusual that the filmmakers were allowed to travel. Despite its influence by international cinemas, Pesaro marked a rare opportunity for the School to engage directly with contemporary intellectual and artistic debates. Always an experimental and left-leaning festival, Pesaro in 1967 turned out to be an unprecedented collision of theorists and practitioners of radical film language, and Dante became one of its lightning rods for conflict.

The big draw at Pesaro was the New American Cinema: the festival boasted the first major European retrospective of the American avant-garde, including films by Jonas Mekas, Kenneth Anger, Stan Brakhage, Gregory Markopolous and Andy Warhol. At the same time, roundtable discussions on language and ideology in cinema included participants such as Christian Metz, Umberto Eco and Pier Paolo Pasolini. Clearly, the politics of film form was at issue, and a materialist understanding of radical cinema was in the ascendant. In this context, Dante split its largely Marxist audience down the middle. Makavejev applauded the film enthusiastically, and the Swiss critics compared the directors to Dziga Vertov, but, according to Jordà, critics from the traditional leftist parties hated it, reading it as mere escapism. (16)

Jordà describes the film’s reception thus:

We gave a hectic press conference in which we said that given the impossibility of describing, due to the censors, the true situation in Spain, we preferred to deal with its ‘social imagination’. These were, more or less, the postulates of the School of Barcelona. We also said that we refused to continue to be the handkerchief of the ‘bad conscience’ of European intelligentsia, the expression of Lorca-esque mourning and sadness, etcetera […] concepts that altered the routine of the left, which were not always properly understood. (17)

Dante did not fit in well with the dominant modes of leftist thought in Europe in 1967, or with the style of the New American Cinema. The radicalisation of cinematic Marxism around May ’68 had not yet occurred, although those who would be aligned with its changes were most supportive of the film. In Pesaro, Dante ruffled the feathers of the traditional left, challenging received ideas on aesthetics and politics. Alongside Pasolini, Metz and Makavejev, Jordà and Esteva situated the Barcelona School firmly within the emerging revolution in cinema and ideology.

It is worth noting that Pesaro marked a turning point for Jordà, also. Upon his return to Spain, he was fined by the government for claiming Catalan as his language at that press conference. In 1968, after many years of involvement with the Catalan Socialist Unity Party (PSUC), he moved to Italy, where he first made films supported by the Italian Communist Party (PCI) and then left filmmaking altogether in favour of full-time radical activism. Pesaro, meanwhile, did not forget its connection to the Barcelona School. In 2006, the festival honoured director Pere Portabella with a retrospective, during which he reiterated the avant-gardist claims of the School: “The fact that the codes of the dominant ideology are subverted in cinema through a critique of the language is not elitist. It is absolutely revolutionary.” (18)

Park Güell

One of the critiques levelled at the Barcelona School is that it lacks depth, that its avant-gardism is merely a surface style reflecting a banal consumer culture. (19) Marvin D’Lugo foregrounds the group’s, “glossy, fashion magazine style and chic television advertising techniques”, and indeed Jaime Camino and Esteva worked in advertising. (20) However, this style is neither neutral nor transparent. Catalonia underwent a dramatic modernization process in the 1960s, characterized by the opening up of international tourism to the Costa Brava, a massive influx of internal migrants from poorer parts of Spain and a rapid rise in consumer durables. (21) Consumerism transformed the economic and cultural life of Catalonia, and to engage with it was to consider Barcelona’s relation both to Madrid and to the flows of global modernity.

Cada vez que …

Perhaps the strongest example of fashion magazine style is Carlos Durán’s Cada vez que …, which includes a sequence set in Antoni Gaudí’s Park Güell. The scene is a montage, set to rock music, of various groups of pretty young people, including female models in Twiggy-like styles, a male rock group and a mixed crowd on a beach. The models strike poses in iconic parts of the park, while the band play on its main promenade, singing in English a song called “The Cover Girls Have Gone Away.” This exuberant scene feels far from the experimental seriousness of the Sitges conference, and yet it, too, centres a complex network of cultural spaces.

First, we might consider the use of Park Güell, a highly recognizable reference to the last Barcelona School, modernismo, with architect Antoni Gaudí as its most famous proponent. In fact, Cada vez que … repeats this reference, in one scene where characters discuss Gaudí, and in another where a couple kiss on the distinctive roof of Gaudí’s La Pedrera. The latter is also shot in a glossy style, over-exposed with a pale blue filter, creating a commercial-ready vision of young love. But in using Gaudí for these scenes, the film evokes another decorative and æstheticized style, and one that created Barcelona as one centre of a cosmopolitan European art movement. Related to art nouveau, jugendstil and related groups across the continent, this historical Barcelona School demands a transnational reading.

Second, the park scene makes obvious reference to contemporary European cultures. The kids running around doing wacky things is reminiscent of Richard Lester and the style of Swinging London. The centrality of fashion models here, and in Fata Morgana, reminds us of Antonioni’s Blowup (1966). In all of these cases, countries that experienced an ‘economic miracle’ explore image culture through a discourse on fashion, modernity and femininity.

Last, we must take into account the influence of pop art on this international scene. From the mid-1960s, pop art had a huge impact in Europe, and the intersection of advertising and high art characterized by Andy Warhol would not have been lost on the former commercial directors of the Barcelona School. The language of advertising and fashion magazines may have seemed debased to many critics, but it unarguably located the School within a global artistic conversation on modernity.

As these references demonstrate, the School’s deployment of signifiers of consumer culture is anything but unreflective. Park Güell opens out a complex set of relationships to a local, national and global modernity. At the local level, there is, again, an opposition between Barcelona and Madrid. When asked about the prevalence of fashion models in the films, Jacinto Esteva replied, “In Elche de la Sierra there are no models but there are bulls. Besides, it is cheaper to hire a model in Barcelona than a bull in Elche.” (22) In other words, while Castilian Spain might be languishing in the folklorist cliché of bulls, Barcelona has become a modern, fashionable milieu. Spain’s modernization drive disproportionately affected Catalonia and representations of this new wealth could serve various ends. It could distinguish Catalonia as a region from the backward areas of Spain; it could underscore nationalist discourses of cosmopolitanism; and it could insert Catalonia into global artistic and economic trends that were outside of the ambit of Francoism.

Both Catalan cosmopolitanism and global artistic references provide a counter to a hidebound Spanish traditionalism and yet consumer culture is not unequivocally celebrated. Even Cada vez que …, arguably the least political film of the group, pokes fun at modernity as much as it fetishises it. In one scene, a line of women swans across an airport tarmac, posing individually in a pink mise en scène that evokes all the glamour of 1960s air travel. Each woman is described in voice-over and then speaks a line about herself. As the scene progresses, the vapidity of these descriptions becomes increasingly comedic. For example, Laura is a Spanish model who has lived in New York and says, “I don’t believe in anything.” Next is Elsa, who likes dogs and whose only comment is “Me, neither.” By the time we get to Eve, the voice-over opines that she likes gin and tonics, and she says “gin and tonic”. The emptiness of these ‘characterizations’ is plainly satirical and, by the end of the film, the characters are gleefully mocking advertising language, including that of the film industry.

The Barcelona School are surely drawn to the surface skin of Catalan modernity but, as with the scene in Dante in which a fire burns layers of graphics from a wall of advertising posters, the consumption of images is never painless.


There was one place in which Spanish cinema was Europeanising in the mid-1960s, albeit in an area that failed to give the cultural prestige that Franco desired. Genre films, and particularly B-movies, were flourishing, and were increasingly co-produced with partners in Italy, France and West Germany. Like the Barcelona School, these low-budget horror and exploitation films engaged with contemporary European cinematic trends – in this case, Britain’s Hammer horror cycle and the Italian giallo. And, also like the School, the genre pictures used the material available to them to speak the unspeakable. Oms explains that allusion became a central mode of signification under Franco, with lonely cowboys and murderous vampires always figuring the political to the local audience. (23) It is thus not surprising that the Barcelona School should have engaged with popular horror, as Aranda did with La Novia ensangrentada (The Blood-Spattered Bride, 1972), and Portabella with Cuadecuc, vampir.

Cuadecuc, vampir

Cuadecuc is in many ways a perfect example of the heterogeneity that marks the School for Aubert. Structured as a ‘making-of’ documentary, the film incorporates scenes and on-set footage from the production of horror-master Jesús Franco’s 1970 Count Dracula, starring Christopher Lee. Shot on 16mm and mostly without a dialogue track, it juxtaposes diegetic images of Dracula with shots of the cast and crew, and a dissonant soundtrack. At the same time as dislocating sound from image, it refuses to separate fiction and documentary. We repeatedly cut from shots within the story of Dracula to shots of the actors as themselves, most radically in a shot-reverse structure in which characters seem to be responding to Dracula removing his prosthetic eyes and teeth. (24) Cuadecuc collages popular horror into the School’s art cinematic fragmentation. Indeed, when it played at Cannes in 1971, critic Jonathan Rosenbaum called it “the most sophisticated [film at the festival] in its audacious modernism” (25). But however attenuated Count Dracula is within Cuadecuc, it is the mixing of Franco’s film with Portabella’s that enables its most sophisticated layering of signification.

As Oms points out, the vampire film already opens up the possibility of an anti-Franco reading to contemporary Spanish audiences. No matter what the film looks like, the blood-sucking Count will always have a whiff of political violence about him. But the figure of Franco ensures that Count Dracula is not simply as one vampire film among many. By 1970, Franco was one of the best-known horror directors in Spain and a model for the Europeanisation of Spanish genre cinema. (26) However, he began his career as an assistant to Juan Antonio Bardem, in a history that parallels that of the Barcelona School, abandoning the NCE for a filmmaking practice that ran into constant problems with censorship. In 1971, the Vatican named Franco and Buñuel as the two most dangerous filmmakers in Spain. Moreover, Franco was no stranger to the avant-garde himself: his frequent collaborator, Jean-Claude Carrière, co-wrote the screenplays for many of Buñuel’s films, including Le Journal d’une femme de chambre (Diary of a Chambermaid, 1964) and Le Charme discret de la bourgeoisie (The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, 1972). To cannibalise Franco’s Dracula, therefore, was more of a collaboration than a collage.

Cuadecuc mobilizes all of these resonances in creating an uncanny image of the Count. For Marcelo Exposito, Dracula is self-evidently a figuration of General Franco (27), and we can read the imbrication of political and cinematic language in each layer of the film’s fictions. In the scenes from Franco’s film, Dracula the character – shorn of sound and removed from a narrative context – mimes an allegorical dictator, stripping bare the hints of authoritarianism and seductive evil that underlie the generic figure. When Christopher Lee, as Dracula, removes his make-up, the unpleasant effect of eye-removal also quotes Buñuel, and the surrealist critique of vision and violence. When, in the film’s only instance of synch sound, Lee reads the passage of Dracula’s death from Bram Stoker’s novel, the sudden and bathetic end to a long-standing evil looks forward (only five years!) to the hoped-for death of the Generalissimo. And yet the film’s most uncanny account of Franco comes in the brief scenes of Lee on-set as himself, laughing and waving for the camera. Like incongruous newsreels of dictators relaxing at home, Lee’s off-camera presence implies political violence all the more powerfully for rendering it entirely invisible.

New York

Like Barcelona, New York is a city whose urban identity can outweigh that of its nationality. It is perhaps for this reason that Ramon Gubern described the name ‘Barcelona School’ as a reference to the New York School, stating, “New York was modernity, it was a cosmopolitan world, a reference like Paris was.” (28) The screening of films by Jonas Mekas et al at Pesaro exposed Jordà and Esteva to the New American Cinema, but, even before this, the urban, cross-pollinating atmosphere of 1960s New York struck a chord with the Barcelona avant-garde. Much in the same way as the New York School signifies Jackson Pollock, John Cage and John Ashbery as much as Shirley Clarke, so Gubern and the others envisaged an avant-garde that spanned media. Jordà was friends with the writer Juan Goytisolo, while Vicente Aranda spent time as a photographer in Paris. Pere Portabella made films about Miró, and, as we have seen, all of the directors incorporated a collage style that took in comic books, architecture, photography and more.

Furthermore, American art in the 1960s offered a particularly appealing connection for the Barcelona School: its engagement with consumer culture. From Kenneth Anger to Andy Warhol, the American film and art movements drew from popular images, courting allegations of superficiality at the same time that they re-imagined the relationship of avant-garde to mass cultures. These, of course, were the exact critiques levelled against the Barcelona directors, when Vicente Aranda cast model and Alfred Hitchcock heroine look-alike Teresa Gimpera as the lead in Fata Morgana, or when John Hopewell claimed that Cada vez que … had “the winning morality of a Martini commercial” (29). Thus, the Barcelona School conjured American art, and the New York scene in particular, as a potent figure of a cosmopolitan avant-garde, productively sullied by commerce and consumerism.

And if the Barcelona School was enamoured with New York, then New York returned the favour. When Portabella’s Cuadecuc was banned in Spain, the Museum of Modern Art arranged for the film to travel to New York with the director for a special screening. Franco refused Portabella a passport, so Portabella sent a letter to New York with the film, to be read at the screening. In it, he stated that the film was made not despite Francoism but as a consequence of it. More than a hundred filmmakers and intellectuals present at the screening signed the letter, and sent it to the Spanish ambassador in Washington. (30) New York represents an artistic influence that the filmmakers could not reach in person, but which nonetheless became a material factor in the history of the School.


“From a cinematic point of view, there is a void in our tradition, some links in the evolutionary chain are missing: in my opinion, the only starting point is Buñuel.” (31) Here, Pere Portabella asserts the influence of Buñuel on Spanish cinema, but, more important, he describes this historical trajectory as incomplete or broken. During much of the Franco period, Buñuel’s films were banned in Spain and his name was left out of books on the history of Spanish cinema. For those who knew his work, Buñuel stood as a reminder of pre-Civil War artistic freedoms, as well as illustrating the exilic, fragmented nature of postwar cultural identities. For the Barcelona School, Buñuel’s avant-gardism provided a crucial model for radical cinema, but, more than this, their careers intersected quite directly. By examining this relationship, we find not only a textual engagement with surrealism, but another route intersecting the Catalan avant-garde, global cinematic flows and the Spanish dictatorship.

Aidez l’Espagne

The Barcelona School had always forged connections with avant-garde artists. Portabella, for example, was friends with the Catalan painter Antoni Tapies, and made a series of documentaries on Joan Miró. One of these, Aidez l’Espagne (1969), intercuts Civil War newsreel footage with details from Miró’s 1940 ‘Serie Barcelone’ paintings. Iconic documentary images of the Republican cause from the return of Lluís Companys to a Republican funeral are juxtaposed with details of the paintings’ distinctive figures. Ending with Miró’s poster, “Aidez l’Espagne”, the film explicitly politicizes the Barcelona School’s interest in Catalan art. The School’s connection to Buñuel, although less widely known, proved to have substantial consequences.

In 1960, Buñuel returned to Spain from Mexico, following an invitation from the Spanish government to make a film there. In fact, it was Portabella who persuaded the exiled director to come back, convincing him that they would be able to make a film subversive enough to counter Franco’s intended publicity coup. Through 1960, Buñuel spent time with Portabella, Jordà and other filmmakers, and, in 1961, Portabella and Ricardo Muñoz Suay produced Viridiana. The film went on to win the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and immediately provoked a political storm. The Osservatore Romano called for the Spanish government to punish all who worked on it, and Franco duly sacked both the Minister of Information and the Director General of Cinema for having allowed such a film to be made. Buñuel, of course, was once again persona non grata in Spain, but the producers suffered the consequences more directly. For the next fifteen years, Portabella found it impossible to get work within the state system, or indeed to live normally, a condition that Lorenza Pignatti describes as an “inner exile” (32).

The Viridiana experience was a turning point in Buñuel’s career, leading to the major European films of the 1960s. It was no less influential for the Barcelona directors, who returned again and again to Buñuel as they developed an avant-garde from the inner exile of Francoism. We have seen the early influence of Las Hurdes on Salinas, and Fata Morgana developed a form of narrative surrealism similar to the direction taken by Buñuel’s post-Viridiana works, such as Belle de Jour (1967). Even a later film like Cuadecuc includes a wink to Un Chien Andalou (1929) in the shot of Dracula (Christopher Lee) removing his eyes. However, the most extensive exploration of Buñuelian surrealism is to be found in Dante, which is framed by a representation of eye surgery that far surpasses Un Chien Andalou in its visceral shock effect. Eyes frame the narrative, which begins with a model applying make-up and ends with her make-up being removed and the eye cleaned for surgery. Interspersed throughout the film are brief and intense shots of the eye being stitched open and cut with a scalpel.

The references are clear, but they serve as more than an homage. When asked about the eye scenes in Dante, Jordà replied that the film aimed to recuperate a tradition of avant-gardism that, for Spanish cinema, had begun and ended with Buñuel. He added that what he admired most about Buñuel was his moral integrity. (33) In Dante, allusions to the historic avant-garde invoke a political history that is reworked into a discourse on contemporary conditions of representation.

In the eye scenes, for example, it becomes as important to consider the beautiful image of the model at the beginning as the horrific ones of surgery that follow. In the opening sequence, actress Serena Vergana centres the film’s self-reflexivity, as the crew prepare to film her. In one shot, she looks in a broken car mirror, her face distorted in reflection, while one man takes her photograph and another films her. Meanwhile, she makes up one eye completely with heavy 1960s-style shadow, eyeliner and false eyelashes, while leaving the other eye bare. Reflexivity here extends beyond laying bare the filmic apparatus and locates meaning production on the body, the surface of the skin and its decoration. This cosmetic surface is from the beginning constructed as uncanny and Vergana’s face renders visible a distortion at the heart of 1960s modernity. The disturbing quality of this image culture is emphasized in scenes of advertising posters on fire, but, with the surgery shots, the film reveals the political logic connecting the decorative surface of the image with the unwatchable violence beneath.

Like Un Chien Andalou, Dante locates women as a site of vision, violence and modernity. But while Buñuel and his films we banned from Spain, the Barcelona School elaborated new meanings for Buñuel’s Andalusia in Franco’s Catalonia.


Jordà was not the only filmmaker to find in Buñuel’s Spanish films a political inspiration. Glauber Rocha (whose Terra em Transe helped define Third Cinema in 1967) came to Catalonia in 1970 to film Cabezas cortadas. Rocha describes the film thus:

Cabezas Cortadas

It is a film against the dictatorships, it is the funeral of the dictatorships. I deal with a character who might be the apocalyptic encounter of [Juan] Perón and Franco in the ruins of the Latin-American civilization. I filmed it at the rocks of Cadaqués, where Buñuel filmed L’Age d’Or. Spain is Europe’s Bahia. Cabezas Cortadas dismounts all the dramatic schemes of the theatre and the cinema. The future of the cinema will be sound, light, delirium, that line interrupted since L’Age d’Or. (34)

Rocha speaks in the same terms as Jordà, of a line that has been interrupted. In Spain – and particularly in Cadaqués, where Salvador Dalí, Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray and John Cage all worked – the political impetus of the historic avant-garde might be redeemed by those currently suffering oppression.

For Rocha, as for Buñuel, the Barcelona School was part of what drew him to Franco’s Spain. He encountered the group in Barcelona, and Ricardo Muñoz Suay became both executive producer and assistant director on Cabezas Cortadas. Thus, while Spain was a seemingly unlikely destination for the Marxist director, Rocha found in Cadaqués both a past and present significance. The desolate landscape of Cap de Creus evokes L’Age d’Or, but, for Rocha, it also spoke of Brazil and Brazzaville, of anti-colonialism, exile and displacement. Cabezas Cortadas links the Barcelona School, Third Cinema and the historic avant-garde, locating the School firmly within a network of global cinematic engagement, a history of radical response to the violent injustices of the 20th century. While most critics, even those in Catalonia, tended to see their political situation as cordoned off from the world and the Barcelona School as marginal even to Catalan cinema, Cadaqués demonstrates the global centrality of this limit point of Spain.

De-territorializing Catalonia

Catalan culture is often defined in terms of internationalism, an openness to cultural mixing that distinguishes it from more conservative Spain. For many critics, this cosmopolitanism is what makes the Barcelona School distinctively Catalan, despite its opposition to political nationalism. Thus, Josep María Forn states:

There is something we always say here, that Barcelona is more apt to look toward Paris than toward Madrid. This has always been the case. Catalan culture has always done this, and it was the same with cinema, which had its eyes on Europe and not on the centre of the Peninsula. (35)

This look toward Europe has often expressed a political claim on Catalan difference, and recent scholars of Spanish cinema have read the Barcelona School in such terms. For Marvin D’Lugo,

The conceptual gesture most common to the young Catalanist filmmakers was their subtle exploitation of the old Manicheanism that pitted Europeanized and culturally developed Catalonia against provincial and backward Castile. (36)

Here again we have Barcelona vs. Madrid, or Sitges vs. Salamanca. And, for Marsha Kinder, this Europeanism is explicitly a political tactic, a claim on a non-Spanish identity for Catalonia. (37)

These ideas are certainly at play in the School, in its staging of Barcelona as the signifier of a cosmopolitan culture, and in its self-conscious reference to international film and art movements. But there is something else at stake in this iterative discourse on location, an insistence on Catalan space as uncanny rather than simply expansive. We may think of the uncertain status of the image in Salinas, the real-and-fictional vampire in Cuadecuc, or the empty city in Fata Morgana that Aubert describes in terms of “non-places” (38). For the Barcelona School, Catalan identity in Franco’s Spain names not only an international exchange but an impossible nonspace. We find a hint of this nonspace in the very inception of the School. The name “Barcelona School” was first used in print in an article by Richard Bofill, which was supposed to be entitled “Birth of a School without a nation”. A typo turned it into “Birth of a School that wasn’t born”. (39) The more mysterious title caught on, but the error neatly illustrates how in the rhetoric of the School, a national problem always turns into a problem of being (is it ever really born?). With surrealist illogic, the question of Catalanism is overwritten with an impossibly doubled existence.

The politics of such doubling are not only a Catalan question. The Barcelona School understands transnational spaces as mobilizing not only political subversion at home, but also the possibility of solidarity with Third Cinema, European Marxisms, the American avant-garde and other movements worldwide. But in drawing this network of cinematic interlocutors, the School engages them from a specifically Catalan position: European yet isolated, modern yet backward, a stateless nation in a Fascist dictatorship. Santos Zunzungeui has described Pere Portabella as an extra-territorial filmmaker, and we can read this deterritorialization both in terms of filmmaking practice and the off-the-map qualities of internal exile. (40) For Portabella, this is a positive status, enabling him to exist “at the crossroads between the artistic avant-garde, the practice of film, and political activism: three inseparable paths” (41). We might say the same of the Barcelona School’s work of global mapping. In demanding that their historical conditions intersect with others, they locate an exilic, de-territorialized Catalonia firmly on the map of global political cinema.


  1. Virginia Higginbotham, Spanish Film Under Franco (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1988), p. 66.
  2. Joachín Jordà, “La Escuela de Barcelona a través de Carlos Durán”, Nuestro Cine, No. 61, April 1967, p. 36. The manifesto is translated in English in Vicente Molina-Foix, New Cinema in Spain (London: BFI, 1977), p. 23.
  3. Josep Planas Gifreu, “El cine de Barcelona visto desde Gerona”, Imagen y Sonido, No. 69, March 1969, p. 21.
  4. John Hopewell, Out of the Past: Spanish Cinema After Franco (London: BFI, 1986), p. 65.
  5. Molina-Foix, p. 18.
  6. Available at www.macba.es/controller.php?p_action=show_page&pagina_id=33&inst_id=20249, June 2006.
  7. Higginbotham, p. 67.
  8. Esteve Riambau and Casimiro Torreiro, La Escuela de Barcelona: el cine de la “gauche divine” (Barcelona: Editorial Anagrama, 1999), pp. 199, 239.
  9. Riambau and Torreiro, pp. 252-5; Peter Besas, Behind the Spanish Lens: Spanish cinema under fascism and democracy (Denver: Arden Press, 1985), p. 86.
  10. Riambau and Torreiro, p. 240 (my translation).
  11. Quoted in Laia Manresa, Joachín Jordà: La mirada lluire, translated by Andrew Stacey (Barcelona: Filmoteca de Catalunya, 2006), p. 152.
  12. Jean-Paul Aubert, “Vers le néant? L’Ecole de Barcelone et l’esthetique du vide”, Cahiers de Narratologie, No. 12, July 2005, p. 8.
  13. Ibid, p. 9 (my translation).
  14. Marcel Oms, “Pour une approche du nouveau cinéma espagnol”, Cinema 77, No. 223, 1977, pp. 8-19.
  15. Joachín Jordà argues that, in 1967, it would have been better to make a film about a billiard ball than about the Spanish Civil War, since one could say more about a white ball than one could speak the truth about the Civil War. Jesús Angulo, Quim Casas and Sara Torres, “Entrevista: Garay, Guerín, Jordà y Portabella”, Nosferatu: Revista de Cine, No. 9, June 1992, pp. 68-87.
  16. Joachín Jordà, “Dante no es unicamente severo”, Nosferatu: Revista de Cine, No. 9, June 1992, pp. 97-9.
  17. Manresa, p. 154.
  18. Quoted in Lorenza Pignatti, “An introduction to the polyphonic films of Pere Portabella”, 42a Mostra Internazionale del Nuovo Cinema (Pesaro: Fondazione Pesaro Nuovo Cinema Onlus: 2006), p. 82.
  19. See, for instance, Anonymous, “Sobre la Escuela de Barcelona”, Destino, No. 1581, November, 1967. Joachín Jordà claims that the Destino critics hated them for being insufficiently Catalan, and referred to them always as the “so-called Barcelona School”. Angulo, Casas and Torres, p. 69 (my translation).
  20. Marvin D’Lugo, “Catalan Cinema: Historical Experience and Cinematic Practice”, Quarterly Review of Film and Video, No.13/1-3,1991, pp. 131-46.
  21. Albert Balcells, Catalan Nationalism Past and Present, translated by Jacqueline Hall and Geoffrey J. Walker (New York: St Martin’s Press, 1996), p. 52.
  22. Riambau and Torreiro, p. 100 (my translation).
  23. Oms, p. 10.
  24. The image of Count Dracula removing his contact lenses suggests Les Diaboliques (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1955), and the film consistently refers to a history of European horror film from Carl Th. Dreyer and F. W. Murnau onward.
  25. Jonathan Rosenbaum, “Moviegoing at Cannes: Classics without Labels”, Village Voice, 17 June 1971, p. 72.
  26. Franco’s films include Miss Muerte (1966) and Necronomicon (1968), produced respectively with France and West Germany. Count Dracula was a Spanish, British, Italian and West German co-production with an international cast including Lee, Klaus Kinski and Soledad Miranda.
  27. Francesca Poggi, “Le vampire comme métaphore du pouvoir: Interview de Marcelo Exposito sur Cuadecuc de Pere Portabella”, June 2006.
  28. Quoted in Riambau and Torreiro, p. 157 (my translation).
  29. Hopewell, p. 69.
  30. Pignatti, p. 83.
  31. Quoted Iris Martín-Peralta, “Pere Portabella, A Walk on the Bridge (Or How Cinema Sets You Free)”, 42a Mostra Internazionale del Nuovo Cinema (Pesaro: Fondazione Pesaro Nuovo Cinema Onlus, 2006), p. 95.
  32. Pignatti, p. 82.
  33. Gifreu, p. 21.
  34. Available: www.tempoglauber.com.br/Ingles/GR/films/cabecas2.htm#dois, June 2006.
  35. Quoted in Besas, p. 88.
  36. D’Lugo, p. 135.
  37. Kinder, p. 394.
  38. Aubert, p. 3 (my translation).
  39. Nuria Vidal, “Joachín Jordà, el círculo del perverso”, Nosferatu: Revista de Cine, No. 9, June 1992, pp. 48-55 (my translation). In Spanish, the headlines read, “Nacimiento de una escuela, que no nación” and “Nacimiento de una escuela que no nació”.
  40. Pere Portabella, “Realism’s place in Spanish cinema,” 42a Mostra Internazionale del Nuovo Cinema (Pesaro: Fondazione Pesaro Nuovo Cinema Onlus, 2006), p. 85.
  41. Portabella, p. 85.