May 2011, arsenal cinema

Pere Portabella Retrospective


For five decades, the Catalan filmmaker Pere Portabella (born 1929) has ranked among the most important protagonists of Spanish cinema. After first producing films by Carlos Saura (Los Golfos, 1959) and Luis Buñuel (Viridiana, 1961), at the end of the 1960s he began making his own films that originated in a both artistically and politically radical context. Artistic avant-garde movements and resistance against the Franco dictatorship are the poles between which he operates. His work focuses on expanding the possibilities of film as a medium: The deconstruction and subversion of aesthetic and narrative conventions, the relation between image and that which is shown, and the critique of representation. He often starts off with existing genres (advertising films, horror movies), the structures of which are then thoroughly examined and newly interpreted. This also includes the complex relationships between image and sound. He makes use of documentary and fictional forms in an equal way, often crossing or blurring genre borders. His atmospherically dense movies take images apart and assembling them anew, constantly evading the audience's expectations. Portabella's first films predominantly dealt with cinematic forms and the related questions of political representation. He then examined politics in a concrete fashion in the clandestinely produced EL SOPAR (1974), a film observing a discussion between a group of former political prisoners about their experiences in jail, on the evening before the execution of the Catalan anarchist Salvador Puig Antich. INFORME GENERAL from 1976 is a filmic stocktaking of the political situation during the phase of radical change in Spain.

After Franco's death and the transition phase to democracy, Portabella went into politics and was a member of the Catalan parliament for more than ten years, before returning to filmmaking. Since then, he has come upon his themes outside of Spain as well.

UMBRACLE (1972, March 11 & 25) is a film about frustration, repression and paranoia, drawing from image and sound strategies of horror movies. A man (Christopher Lee) walks through an unreal Barcelona, aimlessly visiting shops and museums, while a disturbing and nightmarish mood descends upon the filmic images. Other pictures interrupt the fragmentary plot: scenes from the history of film, Christopher Lee reciting a poem, three film critics discussing the conditions of filmmaking in Spain. What remains is a feeling of foreignness and disturbed perception.

VAMPIR – CUADECUC (1970, March 12 & 26) was made during the shooting of Jess Franco's El conde Drácula / The Count Dracula and is a delirious reflection on the conventions of horror movies. Portabella dismantles Franco's film in two ways: One the one hand, he eliminates the color in favor of flickering black-and-white images, on the other, he replaces the audio track with a soundscape by Carles Santos that attacks the images. An analysis of the mechanisms of dominating narrative cinema in Franco's Spain and a radical questioning of it.

EL SOPAR (1974, March 12 & 22) In the night before the execution of the militant anarchist Salvador Puig Antich, five former political prisoners meet for dinner to talk about the conditions of captivity. Portabella is entirely concentrated on the discussion revolving around whether and how it is possible to continue the struggle in prison, to offer resistance, to take on a position and maintain a relation to reality, no matter what it is like.

Portabella's first, almost half-hour film, NO COMPTEU AMB EL DITS (Don't Count With Your Fingers, 1967, March 17 & 22), was created in collaboration with the writer Joan Brossa, whose angry word games determine the tone of the film. In 27 autonomous sequences, he attempts to dismantle the structures and discourses of advertising films.

The title of NOCTURNO 29 (1968, March 17 & 24), Portabella's first full-length movie, refers to Franco's rule of Spain that spanned 20 years. A sequence of scenes, in the words of Pere Portabella, "super-realistic fragments that expose the irrelevance of daily life." Like pieces of a mosaic, motivated neither in a narrative nor psychological way, the film follows the life of a married woman (Lucia Bosé) in her upper middle-class environment and portraits a social class in a specific political situation through her eyes.

INFORME GENERAL SOBRE ALGUNAS CUESTIONES DE INTERÉS PARA UNA PROYECCIÓN PÚBLICA (General Report on Some Questions of Interest for a Public Projection, 1976, March 15 & 21) is a large-scale, three-hour investigation of Spain's political situation after the end of Franquismo. Following Franco's death in 1975, a phase of transition to democracy commenced, leading to the first free elections in 1977.

The film interweaves the atmosphere in the streets with interviews with politicians, labor unionists and activists, all revolving around the question: How can democratic structures be established in a country that was under a dictatorship for 30 years?

In PONT DE VARSÒVIA (Warsaw Bridge, March 16 & 27) from 1989, Portabella examines the new social structures in Europe. He tells the story of three persons whose paths cross: a writer who wins a prize for a novel titled Pont de Varsòvia, his wife and a nameless man roaming Barcelona and nostalgically longing for a revolutionary past. The man dies in a diving accident and his corpse is thrown into a burning forest by a firefighting helicopter. With an extremely precise aesthetic, modeled on contemporary commercial cinema, Portabella casts a view to a fragmented Europe that is shaken by the return of history.

Portabella's latest full-length film, which was presented at the film festival in Venice in 2007, is DIE STILLE VOR BACH (The Silence Before Bach, March 13 & 28), a reflection on Bach stagings and Bach's influence on the world of music. Fragmented, as usual, DIE STILLE VOR BACH vacillates between historical scenes from Bach's life, his reception in the 19th century through the eyes of Felix Mendelssohn and the effect Bach has on the most various people today. An experiment in conveying music in film.

MUDANZA (2008) observes how the former house of the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca is emptied of everything inside 70 years after his death. While paintings and furniture are carefully packed up and transported away, the camera gauges the rooms in flowing motions. What remains in the end is a silence and emptiness charged with the past and with memories.

With the support of the Spanish Embassy in Berlin. Thanks to Pere Portabella and Films 59.