Ecstatic Traditions

Left: José Val del Omar, Fuego en Castilla, 1958–59, still from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 17 minutes. Right: José Antonio Sistiaga, . . . ere erera baleibu izik subua aruaren . . ., 1968–70, color film in 35 mm, 70 minutes.

EXACTLY WHAT General Franco thought of José Val del Omar’s “longings to communicate the ineffable” is not a matter of record, but the Spanish ruler would most certainly not have approved of the filmmaker’s way with a pietà.

The 1958–59 short Fuego en Castilla is the second work in a triptych made in the 1950s and ’60s by the Granada-born film and sound artist whose work has recently attracted considerable interest both in Spain and abroad. In this film, Val del Omar presents various examples of religious statuary by Alonso Berruguete and Juan de Juni in a decidedly impious fashion. Blasting the icons with rapidly shifting patterns of light or draping them in sinister shadows, he situates them in a chiaroscuro hellscape. A crackly voice imploring listeners to “rejoice at your power to be God” adds another sacrilegious flourish to the film, which earned Val del Omar a prize at Cannes and much official consternation at home.

The fact that such a flagrantly strange work could surface during an era of severe political and creative repression points to the surprising hardiness of Spain’s most wayward artistic strains. The earliest film included in a program that spans a half century, Fuego en Castilla serves as an appropriately startling opener for “From Ecstasy to Rapture,” a survey of Spanish experimental film and video at Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox.

Charting “50 years of the other Spanish cinema,” the series is the first in TIFF Cinematheque’s shiny new complex for the Free Screen, its long-running Wednesday night program of independent and avant-garde works. Originally curated by Antoni Pinent and Andrés Hispano for the Contemporary Cultural Centre of Barcelona, the series is rich with revelations about what was possible for filmmakers both during the Franco regime and in the decades that followed.

Early selections also demonstrate the influence of artists from far beyond Spain’s borders. The impact of Norman McLaren’s filmic experiments is clear in Joaquim Puigvert’s Exp. I/II, a pair of short animations made in 1958 and 1959. For a more extreme example of McLaren-inspired hyperkineticism, see Jordi Artigas’s Ritmes cromàtics, a 1978 marvel scored to a jazz-rock instrumental by Billy Cobham.

Even more audacious are the films that put a Spanish spin on the affronts of Warhol and Godard. An artistic by-product of the student protests that rocked Madrid in 1968, Carlos Durán’s BiBiCi Story (1969) is a Molotov cocktail of sex, politics, and death by red spray paint. Ice Cream (1970), underground filmmaker Antoni Padrós’s ode to fellatio, involves more than its fair share of licking, writhing, and heavy breathing.

Each of this series’s two feature-length works qualifies as a milestone in this alternate history of Spanish cinema. Screened from a recently restored 35-mm print that was presented in Los Angeles last year with a live score by Savage Republic, José Antonio Sistiaga’s 1968–70 . . . ere erera baleibu izik subua aruaren . . . (the title is a nonsensical phrase in mock-Basque) is the only full-length Spanish film to deploy an entirely cameraless technique. (Sistiaga painted directly onto each of the frames.) Closing the program, Arrebato (1980) is a freewheeling, semilegendary curio by Iván Zulueta, a designer and director best known for the equally wild posters he made for Pedro Almodóvar.

It can be hard for contemporary filmmakers to match the outrages of their forebears. Nevertheless, recent entries such as Oriol Sánchez’s Copy Scream (2005)—a Super 8 short that makes ingenious use of ever-more-degraded photocopies—and Laida Lertxundi’s Farce Sensationelle! (2004)—a cunning, thoroughly Vertovian self-portrait made while Lertxundi was studying with Jennifer Reeves at Bard College—indicate that Spain’s film artists are still eager to defy whatever authorities may remain.

“From Ecstasy to Rapture: 50 Years of the Other Spanish Cinema” runs January 5–February 2, 2011, at Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox. For more details, click here.