Exclusive Interview by Brad Balfour
While the stylish and ever-charming Spanish actor Antonio Banderas may be running off to promote to his latest Hollywood excursion, Shrek Forever After -- again voicing the hilarious re-invention of Puss in Boots: "I have to do my duty," he says -- his real passion recently has been curating a new, free film series, "Realism in Spanish Cinema 1951 - 1963" at Manhattan's Spanish culture center, The Cervantes Institute (211 East 49th Street). Spanning the post-WWII fascist dictatorship of Francisco Franco, the 10-movie set is comprised of classic works selected for their artistic and historical merit.
Screening from May 10th to the 19th, Banderas, who serves on the Cervantes advisory board, conceived the program's concept and was on hand for the first two nights -- at the screenings of José Antonio Nieves Conde's Furrows/Surcos and Luis García Berlanga's Welcome Mr. Marshall!/Bienvenido Mr. Marshall!
Though known as Hollywood royalty, having starred in Evita, The Mask of Zorro, Desperado and other hits, Banderas' collaboration with director Pedro Almadóvar on films such as the Oscar-nominated Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown established him as a symbol of Spain's post-Franco counter-cultural movement, the Movida.
Though his multi-faceted nature has sometimes been overshadowed by his celebrity, it is at this 49-year-old actor's core -- something amply demonstrated when he was nominated for Broadway's 2003 Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical for a revival of Nine The Musical. As Banderas explains in this exclusive interview, his versatility is proven again in curating this series.
Q: This is a fascinating opportunity for you to look back at the history of Spanish cinema and explore it in many different ways.
AB: Absolutely. But the interesting thing for me is not only in a personal way, because I knew these movies, it's the possibility of showing these movies. When I came to America for the first time, it was a surprise for me that very little was known about the Spanish neorealist period of movies. People knew about Italy and about France, but very little about Spain. So when Eduardo Lago got this crazy of idea of [adding me to] the Cervantes Institute, I thought hmm, I have to [lend] some value to this title that they gave me.
It shouldn't just be my name on the programs and just my picture to bring people here; it was not enough. So I had this idea that he actually picked enthusiastically. We got in contact with the president of the Festival of Spanish Cinema in Malaga, which is actually my hometown, and a person that I met when I came to New York for the first time in 1984 presenting our movies at the time.
So it was a great opportunity and a framework because it's not just to bring movies in exhibition in big movie theaters, but it's in a very specific environment, the environment of the Cervantes Institute in New York, with the idea that actually this cycle can go all around the world.
There are 73 Cervantes Institutes all around the world; in Shanghai, in Tokyo, in different places in the United States like San Francisco and Miami. With these movies people are going to recognize links that they can see now in filmmakers that are making movies in Spain, like Pedro Almodovar and Julio Medem.
The beginning of that was there in these earlier filmmakers, they're actually like the missing links that will make sense for [cineastes or directors] if they've been following Spanish movies to see this. At the same time, they can recognize different times in the history of my country.
Q: When they did the most recent Spanish Cinema Now series at Lincoln Center this year, I realized how people don't know much about that lost period when Franco was the dictator. These films were being made then, but people don't realize there was all this cinema being made at that time.
Q: Filmmakers were trying to react or respond even while they were being repressed; they had to work around it. This series reveals that makes a link between the cultural experience and the conflict. This is a chance for us to understand it. Would you agree?
AB: It's a picture, almost like an x-ray not only of Spanish art in general, but of a political period in the history of Spain. The need, the cruelty, of what it was behind the Franco regime and the imposition of religion and other cultural stuff; that has to be known.
At the same time, the way that actually filmmakers at the time got to go around censorship in order to just go with an idea, they do it sometimes through comedy, black comedy, they have to hide. I saw a movie this morning, which I've seen a couple of times before, but today I wanted to just refresh and I saw Death of a Biker / Muerte de un Ciclista. It's unbelievable because there is a moment in which you lose eight minutes of the movie, and you can see the jump in the movie. It was totally eliminated.
Q: Was that the censors?
AB: Oh absolutely. These guys came with scissors and mercilessly cut eight minutes out of the movie. So I think it's important for the people, if they really are interested in the Spanish cinema to see these, because it's almost like a ladder in which they took steps out.
It's very difficult to recognize what is happening now if you don't go back a little bit and have the sight of these guys that were making movies with a lot of imagination, against the dictatorship, without them knowing that they were criticizing them.
Q: What did you learn about yourself as a Spanish person who has lived in the United States -- and not as an exile -- but for creative reasons; you don't always get an opportunity to look at it on an intimate basis.
AB: It's very difficult because for me I get to almost an emotional place, it's of recognition of my own country that sometimes makes me cry. When I see Welcome Mister Marshall /Bienvenido Mr. Marshall!, I see this little village waiting for the Americans to come and fix the whole entire situation with the Marshall Plan and they prepare during the entire movie for that to happen -- then the cars cross in front of them and they never stop -- it makes me cry because this is a story of my country.
I can see my father and my mother reflected there, I can see something that has to do with your genes. And at the same time a certain gratitude that we were able to overcome without a bloody revolution after Franco died, that there was a pass of power that made sense in an evolution, not a revolution.
So it makes me reflect about my own persona, about my own community. For me. it's unbelievably interesting just to see how the Americans are going to react to that, because at the same time in Welcome Mister Marshall, you see people giving opinions, sometimes outstanding opinions, of the Americans that are [supposedly] going to come.
They talk about the Americans, how the Americans were seen in the 1950s and 1960s, and I just can't wait to see the faces of people [in this day and age] when we play Welcome Mister Marshall.
This movie speaks for itself, it is one of my favorites in the Spanish cinematography but I believe that it is very interesting to be showed in the USA.
For me, it was particularly important to show this movie because I have lived both realities, the Spanish one and the American one. They get mixed here in a very interesting way. The USA was like Santa Claus in this movie. The past of poverty that is portrayed in this movie as if it was a fairy tale.
There are two points of view that I would like that you pay attention to in this movie: the view of the priest and the view of the hidalgo [the old aristocrat]. The hidalgo says that Spain was a country that used to be big and the conqueror of the world, some of the visions of the priest are even racist but you don't have to forget that Luis Garcia Berlanga was criticizing these kind of ideas through these characters.
I believe this is the 15th time I've watched this movie but I never get tired because it's really very funny and I even cry a bit. These movies are going to travel around the world via Instituto Cervantes.
Q: When you see the first film Furrows/Surcos and back to back with this you get a two-sided look at Spain of that tie during the Franco regime -- the dark side and the comic one.
AB: The to movies showed the mood of the time, how the people survived and chronicled the society without judgement. The country was destroyed after the revolution and though Hitler tried to pressure Franco into joining the war all the country wanted to do was survive with out money and over a million dead.
I admire this group of filmmakers because they were brave enough to face the Franco regime but they had to do it using only their immagination. You needed to be very smart to avoid censorship and they did it using irony and dark humor but also by creating scenes that were very strong. They knew they would get censored so other scenes were subtle but probably even stronger in a way so they would pass the censors. To me these filmmakers were masters in their field not only because they were very brave but because they were facing the regime in a very subtle way.
Q: Then after Franco died and the society undid the Fascist state, they made a peaceful transition to a democracy.
AB: Yes they made an amazing bloodless transition -- without recriminations or revenge. We made an amazing recovery and filmmaking reflected that as well.
Q: But now there is a crisis again, an economic one as Spain and other countries in Europe formed the Union and tried to stand apart from the U.S.
AB: It is a very difficult situation now, until a year ago, a plumber thought he could afford a Mercedes and then suddenly, everything is crumbling. The situation in Greece is very dramatic. Spain or Europe doesn't think anymore they need the Americans, they are doing it by themselves but they are also connected in the world at large....
People like myself, Javier [Bardem] and Penelope [Cruz] and Pedro or Rafael Nadal, Severiano Ballesteros... We are all people that in a way are helping to shake out this feeling of inferiority that Spain has had for many years. Our success represents shaking out that from the past of our country.
Q: This is a crucial opportunity to reexamine yourself and where you're going. Where are you going now? How will this affect you? Are you going to be directing? The last few movies I've seen you were doing things more lighthearted. How will that change you?
AB: I'm going to work with Pedro Almadóvar again in August. We are going to do a movie finally, after 21 years without working with each other. It's tough movie; he's going back actually to his roots as a balls kicker and I love that opportunity.
And then I have an agreement with another company in Madrid, we're increasing the possibility of doing movies with more quality and quantity too. We have a plan to start producing more often than we were doing with a little company in South Spain.
We're just experimenting; it's almost like a laboratory just to see how we're going to do it. So now is a time to jump and take a leap ahead and so I'm going to be doing that. And after that I may come here to Broadway and just get on the stage.
Q: Do you have an idea what kind of thing? Would it be a serious play or would it be a musical -- isn't it uncanny timing given the situation in Greece?
AB: It would be Zorba. We were doing a workshop here in town like four months ago, just reading in front of an audience trying to refresh the play because we don't want to just clean the dust off it and put it on the stage.
The situation in Greece is very, very critical, I didn't think about that, but it would make more sense that we put in the mouth of Zorba, that street philosopher, things that are happening in actual time.
Q: Have you seen some of the Spanish horror films, some of the genre stuff?
AB: No... I saw [Rec] ....
Q: Of the Spanish cinema you've been seeing now, or cinema in Spanish language, what's been exciting you, who's been exciting you?
AB: I saw the other day a movie of Julio Medem called Room in Rome /Habitación en Rome which is a very sexual, interesting reflection of our life. The relationship between two girls with a lot of style.
I liked [Alejandro Amenábar's] Agora very much; I thought it was a beautiful approach to a big dimension movie from the perspective of a market like Spain; we are not so used to this type of production. And I liked the last Almodovar movie, Broken Embraces / Los Abrazos Rotos.