La Movida Madrileña celebrates a period of radical invention in Spanish film

UW Cinematheque’s annual co-presented LACIS series kicks off on February 11 with the art-horror trip “Arrebato,” and continues with a groundbreaking trans documentary and an early satire from Pedro Almodóvar.

UW Cinematheque’s annual co-presented LACIS series kicks off on February 11 with the art-horror trip “Arrebato,” and continues with a groundbreaking trans documentary and an early satire from Pedro Almodóvar.

Header Image: A collage of the films in the series. Clockwise from top left: Pedro (Will More) perches above José’s bed in “Arrebato”; Mother Superior (Julieta Serrano) and Sister Manure (Marisa Paredes) of “Dark Habits” are framed among golden leaves; and the women of “Dressed In Blue” come together to discuss their lives at an outdoor restaurant.

“Well, at least we’re going to get some really great punk music out of this.” Remember when people said that in 2016? If you had told Spaniards this when Francisco Franco became Head of State in 1936, they probably would have been incredibly confused. But 40 years later, following Franco’s death, you would have been right. An uprising of radical and experimental art emerged in a renaissance period termed La Movida Madrileña (The Madrilenian Scene). Alongside the global explosion of punk music, this Spanish cultural moment of the late-’70s and early-’80s prized free expression, and broke ground for the representation of marginalized identities on-screen. For the month of February, UW Cinematheque is partnering with UW’s Department of Latin American, Caribbean, and Iberian Studies (LACIS) to present three films from the period across three Fridays at 4070 Vilas Hall—February 11, 18, and 25—beginning with Ivan Zulueta’s Arrebato [Rapture] (1979).

Screening on February 18, Dressed In Blue (1983), a documentary about trans women sex workers, is the series’ most obscure yet radical work. Director Antonio Giménez Rico gathers six women to discuss their experiences both personally and communally, and sets up a subtly tricky blend of fiction and reality, allowing the woman to speak candidly and in some cases recreate their social, medical, and sexual experiences. The film also places the radicalism of the Modrileña in a broader context, with interviews of older subjects describing how drastically things had changed for their profession before and after the fall of Franco.

But the series kicks off on February 11 with Arrebato (from 1979, technically one year before the recognized beginning of La Movida Madrileña). Maybe the most notorious of the bunch, Ivan Zulueta’s film has occasionally screened over the years, but is now seeing its first official release in the United States, a dramatic upgrade from its previous existence as a bit-crushed rip online that was recommended for fans of cult films like Possession (1981).

This reflexive piece of art-horror follows José (Eusebio Poncela), a mildly successful filmmaker and casual heroin user who receives a film and a tape in the mail from his ex-girlfriend’s strange cousin, Pedro (Will More), an aspiring filmmaker of uncertain age. As José listens to Pedro’s tape and is drawn back to memories of their meeting a couple of years ago, Zulueta blends scenes from the past and present, detailing Pedro’s odd fixation on José. Pedro details a practice by which he time-lapse photographs himself while he sleeps, trying to capture some undefined rapturous moment that he is sure happens nightly, and can only happen with the participation of the camera. All the while, Zulueta shows his hand as an experimental filmmaker, interpolating video and films-within-films in a postmodern blend that would feel academic if it weren’t so gripping.

Given Zulueta’s penchant for appropriated footage, particularly monster movies and political demonstration footage, it’s unsurprising that his magnum opus is so focused on the way cameras capture the soul. Like David Cronenberg or Kiyoshi Kurosawa (of 2001’s Pulse), Zulueta postulates that we become existentially fused to new technologies that mediate our understanding of the world and the self, to the point where these technologies take some of our humanity for themselves. The technological metaphor serves the Madrileña well—in a period moving between Francoism and the future, the film camera of Arrebato represents a desperate plea to capture something “physical” as immaterial forms herald an uncertain future. Insofar as Zulueta maps a societal metaphor onto celluloid, he seems to find the place between fascism and liberty (just like celluloid vs. digital, and heroin use vs. sobriety) as inherently compromised. Every path forward either obliterates you or finds you a new master.

This generational between-space is made into a clearer dichotomy in Dressed In Blue, too, where younger sex workers enjoy boutique fashion and “softer” work compared to their older counterparts who struggle daily with more marginal, street-based work. The younger subjects also tend toward a sort of idealist leftism and hold intensely principled stances about their clientele and working conditions. The less modern women are quieter on this front, weary of the ways they’ve had to compromise their politics in the name of survival.

Pedro Almodóvar is certainly the movement’s most written-about descendant, and his early film Dark Habits (1983) is the series’ most fun and funny, concluding things on February 25. It follows Yolanda (Cristina Pascual), a heroin-using singer who, after her boyfriend’s death, seeks refuge in a convent run by a crew of drug-pushing and erotica-writing nuns. The film is a quintessential example of the movement and of Almodovar’s career to come, focusing on the increasingly thin lines between the sacred and the profane. For the nuns of Dark Habits, dichotomies seem to barely exist; drugs and sex are timeless after all, and religion is an opiate of the masses.

Even though they burst with life and offer a brave new world for the marginalized of Spain, all three films show the impossible pressure of a revolutionary moment, especially in something immaterial like art and culture. Freedom carries a weight that can completely extinguish it. This appears to be the case for Zulueta, who went on a hiatus after Arrebato and only worked sporadically until his death in 2009. Although he’s never lost his spark, Almodóvar certainly folded his experiences from the period into more refined, awards-friendly work (from 1999’s All About My Mother to 2019’s Pain And Glory). But creative explosions like this are never meant to last. Like the best punk art, these films provided blueprints for further revolutionary work, and they’re as important to see now as they ever were.

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