Broadly speaking, Spain bucks the international trend of relegating 'Gay Cinema' to the sidelines. Of all of the national cinemas around the world, Spain has one of the richest traditions of incorporating LGBT themes and thinking into its mainstream films.
For proof, look to the export market for the works of leading gay filmmakers Juan Flahn, Andrés Rubio and Roberto Castón, whose movies can be seen as part of this month's Instituto Cervantes conference/screening program, 'Spanish Gay Cinema: From Rebellion to Popularity'.
Timed to commemorate International Gay Pride month, the event is a month-long feature film, shorts and documentary screening series aimed at demonstrating the sexual diversity that has become an essential characteristic of Spanish society.
“Acceptance of gay lifestyle in Spain has an interesting history, which goes back to the years of Franco's dictatorship and the overwhelming presence and power of the Catholic Church in all aspects of life, especially sex and morality,” says Professor Alfredo Martínez Expósito, Professor of Hispanic Studies at the Universities of Melbourne and Queensland, who will be presenting a keynote address on Tuesday June 7.
“In the new democratic regime since 1978, the Church's influence was highly contested from most sectors of society, while women's rights, non-traditional families and LGBT minorities were seen increasingly sympathetically, perhaps as symbols of the freedoms that have been suppressed under Francoism, but also as signs of modernity and the Europeanisation that Spaniards were so eager to achieve in the '70s and '80s.”
At the forefront of this sweeping period of change, in which alternate lifestyles embodying personal freedom and expression were celebrated, the late director Eloy de la Iglesia was a driving creative force. “De la Iglesia was very much a pioneer of gay cinema during the Transition years, when Spain was beginning to come to terms with dictatorship and the Church,” says Expósito, in recognition of the groundbreaking impact the director had with his works Forbidden Love Game (1975), El diputado (1978) and The Priest (1978). “The combination of politics and sexual agendas permeates his films, which showcase the loneliness of the homosexual facing a hostile society.”
By the 1980s, a challenging new voice in gay Spanish cinema had emerged – Pedro Almodovar. So internationally revered were his succession of early films, it would have been churlish for his homeland to turn against the artist simply because they contained such challenging elements as nymphomaniacs and gay Islamic terrorists (Labyrinth of Passion, 1982), lesbian nuns (Dark Habits, 1984), necrophilia (Matador, 1986) and bondage-love (Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, 1990); indeed, the lead character in one of his most honoured films, Law of Desire (1987), is a gay filmmaker. His influence can be seen in the works of his contemporaries Jaime Chávarri (the Las cosas del querer films, 1989 and 1995) and Agustín Villaronga (Tras el cristal, 1986; Pa Negre, 2010).
“Almodovar decided not to speak to a hostile society, but simply to focus on gay relations, and Law of Desire is just that: a camp, gay melodrama infused with gay themes that are immediately recognisable to gay audiences. Almodovar's miracle, of course, was to make his gay product a mainstream success,” says Expósito, who also points to the emergence of Alfonso Albacete (Not Love, Just Frenzy, 1996; Atomica, 1998; Sobreviviré, 1999) as the final important voice in the emergence and acceptance of gay Spanish cinema. “Alfonso Albacete represents a generation of gay filmmakers who are keen to explore the lifestyle of young, urban gays, with all the excesses of the late '90s, testing the limits of mainstream tolerance for sex and nude scenes.”
The combined impact of De la Iglesia, Almodovar and Albacete – the legacy of their work and the courage it took to present confronting, unique points-of-view – cannot be undervalued, according to Expósito. “These three names represent, in my opinion, moments of deep change in the recent history of gay cinema in Spain – moments that affected both the gay community and society at large in a country where the gay community more seamlessly integrated in mainstream society than in most of its neighbours.”
In a culture that has fawned over the projection of the swarthy male image since its history began, the challenge of 'playing gay' is considered by many Spanish stars to be a test of one's talent and, more importantly, audience acceptance. “The younger generation of male actors – Banderas, Bardem, Eduardo Noriega, Mario Casas – made the 'gay role' the ultimate professional challenge,” explains Expósito. “[This] not only contributed to the visibility and 'normalisation' of gayness in cinema, but also prompted the industry to keep exploring homosexual themes. Their success [in] foreign movies, for example, Banderas in Philadelphia (1993) and Bardem in Before Night Falls (2000), was a received by the industry as positive feedback in this regard.”
Expósito adds that the diversity of Spanish gay cinema extends to the variety of genres: “Spanish gay cinema has not limited itself to just comedies – in fact, the most salient names such as Pedro Almodovar, Ventura Pons, Agusti Villaronga and Eloy de la Iglesia made their mark in non-comedy genres: melodramas, dramas, horror, noir.”
The 'From Rebellion to Popularity' program presents a best-of smattering of modern gay Spanish cinema, including Ramón Salazar's enriching drama 20 Centímetros (2005, pictured), Roberto Castón's male bonding tale Ander (2009) and Esteban Crespo's moving short Lala (2009). For Professor Expósito, it is month of films that honours the best that a modern society can be.
“The success of Spanish gay cinema has been linked to the progressive social agenda and the fight for equal rights,” he says. The gay Spanish film industry's status is not simply reflecting tolerance for the gay community of Spain, but an acceptance of the right to live as one pleases, wherever that may be.