In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Spanish Cinema

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Anthologies
  • Stardom
  • Race, Immigration, and Ethnic Identity
  • Gender

Cinema and Media Studies Spanish Cinema
Marvin D'Lugo
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 October 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 October 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0214


Far overshadowed by the cultural dynamism of its neighbors and constrained by its own slow industrial underdevelopment, Spain was not a propitious site for the development of a strong film industry or culture. When Spanish artists and businessmen did begin to engage in film-related activities, during the first decades of the 20th century, it was initially at the impetus of foreign entrepreneurs and the mediation of French or US artistic models. Not unexpectedly, the Spanish cinema that thrived in the years leading up to the Civil War (1936–1939) was a popular mass medium shaped in imitation of French and US models. After the calamitous Civil War, the Franco dictatorship’s censorship system helped maintain the impression, now debunked, that the film industry benignly functioned as the propagandistic arm of the state. It may be for that reason that no serious efforts at film history in Spain were attempted until the mid-1960s with the publication of Fernando Méndez-Leite’s wordy anecdotal history Historia del cine español (1965). Though something of an opposition cinema had begun to appear since the 1950s (Juan Antonio Bardem and Luis García Berlanga), it was not until the 1970s that we see the emergence of serious film scholarship by Spaniards. The Viridiana scandal of 1961 triggered interest in resistance cinema by foreign critics. The much heralded New Spanish Cinema of the mid-1960s, which brought Carlos Saura to international note through his third film, La caza (The Hunt, 1965), however, appeared to many as mere window dressing, the effort of the regime to suggest artistic freedom while little opposition at home was possible. Still, during the decade from the release of The Hunt an increasing number of opposition films, often disguised as allegorical narratives, won international praise at film festivals and suggested the birth of a growing film culture. Since the 1980s, the Spanish industry has gone through phases of growth with increased popular and artistic success at home and abroad. The meteoric rise of Pedro Almodóvar came to embody a new Spanish mentality reflected in the sexually liberated cinema of the 1980s and 1990s. Since then, Spanish film has diversified into new thematic areas—regional cinema, intensified gender representation, multiculturalism occasioned by the intensification of immigration to Spain from Latin America, Africa, and Eastern Europe. Yet such growth in substance and the advent of new overseas markets, principally in Latin America, has coincided with the marked decrease of Spanish film’s domestic youth market especially. Since the 2000s, Spanish cinema has increasingly been displaced by television and the accessibility of films on the Internet. Recent scholarship, in fact, has shifted to include substantive studies of television and audiovisual links to Latin America.

General Overviews

Spanish cinema, with the exception of star and some auteur studies, has largely been of interest to scholars and some cinephiles. The first attempt at a comprehensive historical overview of cinema in Spain in Spanish comes late, in the form of the cumbersome two-volume study Méndez-Leite 1965. Given the historical moment of its publication, this often anecdotal history and overtly pro-Francoist text offers positive views of films that supported the regime’s conservative cultural and political values. It was followed in the mid-1970s with a wave of critical anthologies in Spanish that began to address the problems of representation in the early cinema of transition. Given their specificity and the fact that many of the films discussed were not readily available, they received very little circulation. Outside of Spain there is no extensive English-language study of the industry until the publication of Besas 1985 and the more detailed and authoritative Hopewell 1986. Besas’s journalistic approach to the subject matter serves as an ideal introductory text for nonspecialists. By contrast, Hopewell’s encyclopedic knowledge of Spanish film history was informed by the scholar’s interest in the ideological underpinnings and cultural politics that shaped Spanish film production. The book led the way to subsequent volumes by active non-Spanish critics and scholars who sought both to integrate recent scholarship on Spanish cinema and to widen the international audience for Spanish film. Notable among these scholarly works are Triana-Toribio 2003, Bentley 2008, Benet 2012, and Faulkner 2013. Triana-Toribio 2003 centers on the concept of a Spanish “national” cinema with its roots in the construction of a range of narratives of the national community and accompanying cinematic images to buttress the concept of the nation. The useful Bentley 2008, more than five hundred pages in length, is a comprehensive and detailed history of all phases of Spanish film production but with a welcomed emphasis on pre-1975 films, often given little space in other histories. Its principal limitation is that, as a single-authored comprehensive text, it merely describes a huge number of films without pushing any conceptual overview of the subject-matter. Benet 2012, Faulkner 2013, and Kinder 1993, by contrast, cover ostensibly the same periods but each with its own decidedly subjective thesis. Benet 2012 proposes an exploration of Spanish cinema’s relation to the evolution of Spanish society with a particular appreciation of the struggle for cultural modernization. Informed by cultural theory, the author sees cinema as being in continual dialog with other artistic forms. Faulkner 2013, much in the same vein, seeks to interpret the historical evolution of film culture in Spain in terms of the tension between popular and elitist “art” cinema, with that tension being mediated through what the author identifies as “middle brow” tendencies identified with the aspirations of emerging middle class. Kinder 1993 blends historical overviews of different periods with theoretically informed discussions of the concept of national cinema in Spain, arguing for the cultural specificity of violence as one of the constants of Spanish national cinema.

  • Benet, Vicente. El cine español: una historia cultural. Barcelona: Paidós, 2012.

    Integrates critical commentary on national cinema with concepts borrowed from US cultural and film studies. Filled with insightful close textual analyses of individual films and discussion of their cultural context and relevance. The result is a highly readable, cultural history of Spanish film, emphasizing the “dialogue” between Spanish film and other expressions of Spanish culture making it an indispensable reference for all periods of Spanish film up to the millennium.

  • Bentley, B. P. A Companion to Spanish Cinema. Woodbridge, UK: Tamesis, 2008.

    The first single-authored comprehensive history of Spanish cinema in English. Covers the history of film in Spain from its pre-20th-century origins up to the present and offers insightful social and political contextualization. Aimed at a general readership, it also provides extensive coverage of pre-1975 films, balancing the usual emphasis on contemporary cinema usually found in English-language volumes. Encyclopedic in scope, it also contains useful bibliography.

  • Besas, P. Behind the Spanish Lens: Cinema under Fascism and Democracy. Denver, CO: Arden, 1985.

    Written by long-time film reviewer for the trade paper Variety, this is the first comprehensive volume in English to present a panorama of Spanish film history from the Franco period and provides broad view of industrial contexts as well as some film analysis.

  • Faulkner, S. A History of Spanish Cinema: Cinema and Society 1910–2010. New York and London: Bloomsbury, 2013.

    Despite its expansive title, this volume presents a relatively narrow focus on Spanish cinema’s relation to the rise of a local middle class. The most original sections relate to the development of “middlebrow” film culture in the 1970s and the subsequent decade of political transition. Faulkner supports her arguments with some excellent scene analyses of key films in each period.

  • Hopewell, John. Out of the Past: Spanish Cinema after Franco. London: BFI, 1986.

    Excellent overview of political and cultural trends that combines savvy analyses of particular films and filmmakers with detailed discussion of the Spanish film industry. The book is especially insightful in its concise descriptions of trends in movie-making during each historical period it covers.

  • Kinder, M. Blood Cinema: The Reconstruction of National Identity in Spain. Berkeley and London: University of California Press, 1993.

    This landmark study traces the evolving forms of national cultural specificity as viewed in the psychological, anthropological, and narrative logic of social violence. Important discussions of transnational efforts in Spanish film production from Buñuel to Borau.

  • Méndez-Leite, F. Historia del cine español. 2 vols. Madrid: Ediciones Rialp, 1965.

    The first effort to present a comprehensive history of Spanish cinema from its origins to the present day (mid-1960s). The discussion of film productions and important figures in the industry is of value as a reflection of the “old school” discourse about film under Francoism. Largely anecdotal and notably biased in terms of specific analyses of films favorable to the Franco regime’s ideological positions. Particularly useful, however, as a reflection of the conservative values that shaped film culture of the 1950s and 1960s as viewed from within the regime.

  • Triana-Toribio, Núria. Spanish National Cinema. London and New York: Routledge, 2003.

    This excellent introduction to key movement and participants in the development of Spanish cinema in all periods breaks from the usual linear chronologies of film industry and culture in Spain in order to interrogate the concept of national cinema while pointing to transnational trends.

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