Eisenstein, Godard, Brossa, Brecht, Buñuel, Dracula and General Franco dine at the table of History: the persevering cinema of Pere Portabella
To understand the historical relevance of Pere Portabella we need to consider his work as the singular result of a crossing of the artistic vanguard, cinematic experience and political activity - experience which, since the beginning, has sought to operate simultaneously in synch and in depth with the contemporary languages of vanguard cinema, while remaining rooted in its own cultural, political and historical context.
The films of Carlos Saura (Los Golfos) and Marco Ferreri (El Cochecito), which Portabella produced at the end of fifties, marked the eruption of a new type of critical realism on the Spanish post-civil war cinematographic scene: a cinema of renovation that reformulated the European neo-realistic trend towards aesthetic realism and Spanish literary tradition. His reappearance as a filmmaker, after a period in exile in Italy due to the scandalous success of Luis Buñuel's "Viridiana" in Cannes (1961, which Portabella co-produced), came as one of the protagonists of the modernisation of Spanish cinema of the time. "No compteu amb els dits" (1967) and "Nocturn 29" (1968) acknowledged the arrival of new languages to cinema, languages with which to shake up the world. They connected the tradition of political commitment in film, art and vanguard literature, which had been wiped out by General Franco's regime after the civil war.
The hardship of the last years of the dictatorship places Vampir-Cuadecuc (1970) in the field of what is generally known as "independent cinema", which in reality deals with a major trend in radicalisation in Spanish cinema towards unregulated, semi-clandestine or openly anti-Franco practices. Vampir-Cuadecuc is one of the founding films that reflect this trend, making Portabella a prominent figure during one of the most tense and important periods (and perhaps not by chance, most forgotten) in Spanish cinema. Umbracle (1972) is indisputably an opus magnum: an analysis of the political conditions of the dictatorship articulated through a rigorous reflection of cinematographic language. In parallel, Portabella formed part of the Grup de Treball, a memorable Catalan example of the international trend in radical questioning of artistic institution through conceptualism and institutional criticism. The work of Portabella in the artistic and cinematographic fields during this period cannot be dissociated from the contemporary reality of the anti-Franco opposition movements. Informe general sobre algunas cuestiones de interés para una proyección pública (1975) is the culmination of this period: a choral account of the heterogeneous spectrum of political alternatives that would open up after the death of the dictator. This is a film that embodies the corresponding and contradictory expectations and hopes for social change.
"Breaking with the Aristotelian narrative canon, rejecting anecdote, going directly to the core of the issue", as in Brechtian dramaturgy; fragmenting the hegemonic linear narrative, cinema that proceeds in cinematic stages provoking emotional responses in the spectator, as in Eisenstein's theory of a cinematic "montage of attractions" based on the experience of political theatre in Russia and Germany during the twenties: Portabella's cinema pulverises the mechanisms of the naturalisation of classic representation, attacking bourgeois forms of living and alienated forms of social identity. These are some of the essential traits that characterise a very anti-idealist cinematography, a peculiar materialism that moves between an in depth exploration of the spectator's fascination for the showing of a film in a dark room and a critical anti-illusionist gap.
The most recent projects in the biographical and creative career of the film maker who some have qualified perseverant, were the production of a film by José Luis Guerín called Tren de sombras (1997) and Portabella's return to directing with Pont de Varsòvia (1989), an accurate fast paced film shot after the fall of the Berlin wall, which takes us back to History contradicting both amnesia and nostalgia.