About a year ago, I went on a Spanish cinema kick, watching a bunch of “classic” titles from the period and doing some research on the side. I learned from Barry Jordan and Rikki Morgan-Tamosunas’s Contemporary Spanish Cinema that post-Franco Spanish Cinema tends to meditate upon past national traumas in order to better understand what national identity means in present-day Spain. The violence of the Civil War and the ideological conflicts that fueled it became particularly important themes with the rise of “New Spanish Cinema” in the late 1960s and early 1970s in the final years of the Franco regime and persist to this day.
Interestingly, I noticed that some of my favorite Spanish films featured girl protagonists as the witnesses to such traumatic events. The most obvious example: The Spirit of the Beehive, which stars Ana Torrent as Ana. Ana lives in a rural Spanish village where the film’s action begins just after the Civil War has ended. She and her sister, Isabel, watch a touring exhibition of Frankenstein early in the story. Below is a clip of that scene:
In the clip, Isabel tells Ana that the monster can be summoned if she says “It’s me, Ana” aloud. Later, Isabel shows Ana a small, abandoned building and tells her that it is the monster’s house. Soon thereafter, Ana says the magic words and when she returns to the building, finds a Republican soldier hiding there. Ana helps him by bringing him some of her father’s clothing and effects. Here is another clip showing what unfolds:
Ana’s response to discovering the soldier’s blood builds upon the previous themes established since Ana runs away from home and experiences a mystical encounter with the monster. When discovered by her family, the traumatized Ana refuses to interact with them. The film closes with her calling to the monster once more, a moment captured in the still below:
The Spirit of the Beehive, then, uses the character of Ana to explore themes of political upheaval in an allegorical fashion. Frankenstein’s monster becomes aligned with the Republican soldier, and Ana’s compassion for the condemned monster encourages viewers to also sympathize with the Republican cause. The use of allegory here, especially given the film’s release date late into the years of the Franco regime, proves interesting in and of itself.
As with The Spirit of the Beehive, Ofelia interprets both personal and historical traumas into a whimsical fantasy in which a Faun charges her with several tasks to test whether or not she might be the reincarnation of an ancient princess. Meanwhile, Ofelia’s brutal stepfather, an officer for the Fascists, attempts to root out any Republican dissidents hiding in the countryside (think Colonel Landa of Inglourious Basterds, except more cartoonish). The film, then, integrates the political and historical context of the early post-Civil War era into Ofelia’s imaginings.
Another film starring Torrent called Cria Cuervos also features a (literally) fascist father figure in opposition to the girl protagonist, this time in the late years of the Franco era. In that film, Ana (Torrent) discovers her father’s dead body and imagines that she poisoned him. These feelings of hatred result from Ana’s resentment of her father after the death of her mother (Geraldine Chaplin) who frequently appears to Ana as if alive. Chaplin also plays an adult Ana, who interjects commentary occasionally, further blending fantasy and reality as well as various temporalities. Below is the trailer:
Cria Cuervos may seem apolitical on the surface, but the frustrations that Ana faces at home under her father’s (and later her aunt’s) authoritarian rule mirror the frustrations that many filmmakers (including Cria Cuervos writer/director Carlos Saura and Behive co-writer/director Victor Erice) felt under the fascist regime.
While the exploration of trauma in all three films raises important questions about the role of allegory in art, I am even more interested in the use of girl protagonists as the conduits for such representations. Reading Barbara Creed‘s Phallic Panic recently, I learned that the surrealists in particular explored this connection between girlhood and what Tzvetan Todorov called the fantastic. Creed explains:
The view of the female child as particularly close to the world of fantasy and the imagination was central to the beliefs of the surrealists. They regarded childhood as “the privileged age in which imaginative faculties were still a l’état sauvage–sensitive to all kinds of impressions and associations which education would systematically ‘correct’.”
She goes on to explain that girls in particular were idealized “femme-enfant” and that the surrealists saw them as particularly in touch with the marvelous due to their purity and innocence. Surrealist writer Andre Breton even promoted the work of Gisele Prassinos resulting in the publication of her poems by the time she was fourteen. A photograph taken by Man Ray shows the young Prassinos:
The picture (and what Creed describes) encapsulates my conflicted feelings about this portrayal of girlhood imagination. On the one hand, I appreciate any attention given to girls as genuine artists with valuable insights to share, just as the men seem genuinely interested to hear Prassinos read. On the other hand, I wonder if the romanticization of girlhood imagination (particularly the way the surrealists associate girlhood with purity and innocence) oversimplifies what girl artists might have to say by desexualizing their work. This might say more about the fantasies of men rather than the thoughts of girls–the picture, after all, most prominently depicts the men crowding around her in an almost intimidating manner. How much of the meaning of the femme-enfant (both Prassinos and our young female heroines), then, is merely an idealized perception of girlhood? I’m sure more than I would like to admit.
Nonetheless, these girls give voice to the private experiences of Spaniards during this difficult period, blurring the line between private trials and public concerns. They may not offer viewers a direct view into the imagination of the femme-enfant (as if that could ever be possible), but they do suggest that girls’ emotions and experiences are worthy of art and politically significant.