The Songs of Basilio Martin Patino

Most people who love good films know about Pedro Almodovar and the fact that the contemporary Spanish cinema is among the most creative and exciting of recent years (in my mind, only the contemporary Iranian cinema can rival it). But how many are familiar with the work of Basilio Martin Patino, which ushered the new Spanish cinema into existence? The Mediterranean Film Festival held in Montpellier, France (October 26-November 5) this year featured the films made by Patino over the past 40 years.

Patino, born in Salamanca in 1930, philosophy student and founder of a film magazine in the early 1950s, is of the “in between generation”, that between the bloody war and revolution caused by a military coup d’état against a democratically elected government, and that of the post-Franco period. Perhaps more that anyone, he contributed to the development of a critical vision in Spain years before the actual demise of the dictator.

It is a paradox that the Spanish Revolution and Civil War of the 1930s is arguably the most important major political event of the twentieth century and certainly the least known and understood. There are many who do not know, or want to remember, that the governments of the United States, Britain and France allowed a democratically elected republican government in Spain to fall victim to a military rebellion supported by the fascist forces of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. In Spain, during the forty years of dictatorship following the defeat of the republicans and revolutionaries, Francisco Franco and his gang did everything possible to wipe out any memory of the historic struggles and revolutionary innovations made there.

Patino’s task was first to examine living conditions in Franco’s Spain. He did this in documentary films (El Noveno, 1961 and Torerillos 61, 1962) about folk customs. In them, he showed how institutions like the Catholic Church and bullfighting had to be understood in relation to poverty and the survival of feudal traditions.

In 1965, he made his first full-length film, Nine Letters to Bertha, a story revolving around letters sent by a student in Spain to a girl living in England. The fact that the girl is the daughter of a republican exile, and that the content of the letters describes the boredom, reactionary attitudes, ignorance, pretensions of professors and a generalized apathy among the population, instantly made this film the standard bearer for an aesthetic movement with clear political implications. Suddenly, Franco’s Spain was publicly shown, in Spain, as backward and stifling.

It is hard to evaluate events such as the response to Nine Letters to Bertha. But it is clear that both the regime and the public had taken notice. When, in 1971, Patino made his third long film, Songs for the Post-War (Canciones pra después de una Guerra), the reaction was significant and surprising (his second film, Del amor y otras soledades ­ 1969, met with no real success). A documentary about popular songs in their social context during the period 1939-1953, the first 15 years of the dictatorship, Songs for the Post-War begins with footage of joyous people making the fascist salute at a public demonstration. Patino then juxtaposes images of republican crowds and fascist crowds, showing republicans singing “No Pasaran,” and then reactionaries chipping away a plaque celebrating the Anarchist leader Durruti, the defender of Madrid.

Patino, understandably, engaged in no overt reflection about how this period contrasted with that of war and revolution. What he did was to feature songs recounting contemporary concerns and events, such as the one celebrating the sacrifices of the “Azul Division”, the Spanish soldiers who volunteered to fight in Germany along side the Nazis. While the soundtrack features a singer lyrically extolling the virtues of these soldiers, Patino showed old clips of the fascist ceremonies sending them off, and then of their return, defeated and mutilated.

Many popular songs of the time lamented the destruction caused the “reds” and other subversives. Other songs simply encouraged listeners to dream, to fill the emptiness in the midst of solitude.

Tellingly, one song declaimed: “you can do anything you want, even kill me, as long as you love me.” The end of the film leaves us with the distinct impression that what Franco’s regime most assiduously promoted was a cult of death. “Race, Sacrifice, Family, and Patriotism” ­ these were the watchwords that Franco drummed into the minds of Spanish people. Whether the glorification of blood and death at the ritual bullfighting, the sacrifices of the civilian population during the civil war, or the soldiers sent to fight for fascism, death is the supreme compensation. Both Franco and the Church made sure that the Spanish didn’t forget what was expected of them.

But there were other compensations, and Patino revealed that a new “opening” of the deadly Spanish regime came about in the early 1950s, when ties were reinforced between the Spain and the United States. Military and strategic cooperation led to new cultural influences. Coca Cola and Walt Disney accompanied the installation of US military bases in Spain. Popular entertainers from America were brought in, such as Cary Grant, Frank Sinatra, Danny Kaye and Gary Cooper, some of whom who had distinguished themselves as “friendly witnesses” during the witch-hunts of the period.

All of this was set to music. The joy was there, but it was forced. The regime wanted people to forget, but in celebrating itself, it could not help recalling how it had seized control. Over one million people died in the civil war. Everyone had experienced death in some way. In the context of the “post war”, even nostalgia was almost necessarily divisive and subversive. Juxtaposing the cult of death, on the one hand, and the idiocy and frivolity of US popular culture in the 1950s, on the other, must have left the viewers of this film feeling queasy.

In fact, the censors did not allow the film to be released. Although there was no political criticism or advocacy in it, the documentary was deemed unacceptable for public viewing. Still, it was very popular with the censors, who brought their families to see it in the safety of government buildings. The word got out, and, as Patino later learned, even members of Franco’s family arranged private showings.

A master of film editing, the rather strange success of Songs for the Post War encouraged Patino to do two things: first to make other documentaries, and second to go underground to make them.

In 1971, he made the first documentary about Franco’s rise to power, Caudillo, a film beginning with images of ruins, both material and human. With footage taken from film archives outside of Spain (especially from Portugal and England), Patino shows a Franco who was far from being the grand caudillo.

A little man, physically short of stature, Franco portrayed himself as a man “sent by God” to lead “a crusade to protect Christian civilization” from barbarian hordes. To do so, as he said, he was “ready to kill half of the population in order to save Spain”.

How does a man become so bloodthirsty? Patino opines that Franco was a rather typical product of his generation and professional caste, which was that of a military officer humiliated by the crushing defeat of Spain in the Spanish-American War. The obsession with redeeming the glory of Spain long-antedated the advent of the Spanish Republic. Having chosen service in Spanish Morocco, Franco exulted in the authority given to a colonial, occupying force.

Free from censorship, if not free from the possibility of discovery, prison and worse, Patino explored aspects of Franco’s ascension that still need more complete elucidation. One example is how Franco managed to free himself from other prominent generals, his competitors in the internal struggle for power. Somehow, his rivals met with unfortunate, and fatal, accidents. Another example is the fact that Franco, although obsessed with the notion of “race”, made massive and effective use of Moroccan troops (against the wishes of Moroccan notables) to slaughter his fellow Spaniards. His famous “Condor Legion” included 30,000 such “Mauros”.

Most remarkable in Patino’s documentary is his constant contrasting of ordinary life on both sides of the conflict. The images that fascinate him are those of common people whose major preoccupation is staying alive. By an adroit use of stock shots and frozen images that the camera sometimes zooms in on, Patino eliminates the abstraction and distance that old film footage often produces. At times, we are literally forced to look into the faces of people caught in a struggle that defied imagination, so unexpected was the hate, destruction and death that it inflicted.

The force of Patino’s films is that he never denounces. Rather than indict, he shows. People on both sides of the conflict in Spain suffered, but on one side the ideals motivating people were those of equality and social justice. On the other side, that of Franco, the Phalangists, the monarchists and the Church hierarchy, the ideals articulated were clearly those of hate, contempt and cruelty.

In 1973, Patino made another remarkable underground documentary, Dearest Executioners, about the three state officials responsible for the strangling of prisoners sentenced to death (with the infamous garrot, the Spanish answer to the guillotine). By paying the three men for their interviews (and their silence), Patino was able to penetrate the mentality and the practices of the dictatorship, three years before the death of Franco.

Everything seemed to change after Franco’s death and the end of the fascist regime. But the question of recovering the memory of the interrupted Spanish revolution remained. The repression of Franco has been replaced by the cultural amnesia characteristic of contemporary consumer society. This is why Patino has continued to explore the reality and memory of Spain’s heroic and tragic history. In films like Madrid (1987), The Cry of the South: Old Houses (El grito de sur: casas viejas, 1996) and (Octavia (2002), the relevance of progressive movements and individual commitments of the past are shown to be elements of present reality that are necessary in the creation a better, future world.

LARRY PORTIS is a professor of American Studies at Montpellier University in France.


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