PRINT September 2016


Pere Portabella with cameraman Teo Escamilla shooting Nocturno 29, Barcelona, 1968.

PERE PORTABELLA made his first film in Barcelona in 1967, a time marked by intense repression in Francoist Spain and a worldwide proliferation of cinematic new waves that were challenging the parameters of filmic language. The eight features and countless shorts he brought to fruition in the subsequent half century would seem to thwart the typical auteurist search for unity in which the critic catalogues repeated motifs and notes trademark gestures recurring across a body of work. One can’t simply periodize his films, either. It is tempting to divide up the various productions and say that there are two Portabellas: At times, the Catalan director seems an heir to the Surrealism of Luis Buñuel, at work in an art-cinema idiom of dark, irreverent humor and social critique; at others, his name could be fairly uttered in the same breath as that of Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino, advocates of Third Cinema, a partisan form of documentary filmmaking in the service of revolutionary political change.

But we must ultimately insist that there is only one Portabella, a filmmaker who has consistently engaged multiple strategies to forge a cinematic language of contestation, first in opposition to the dictatorship of Francisco Franco and later in response to the no- alternative capitalism of neoliberal Europe. His is a radical cinema that emerged—and has evolved—in response to political emergency. In 2009, reflecting on Franco’s reign, Portabella asked, “What was the underlying factor that caused this understanding amongst us all to occur, which fed the determined will to take a new critical look at reality? The imperious need to intervene in a hostile, mediocre, gray, and repressive environment in the hands of the reactionary powers of the dictatorship.”1 Portabella’s films offer no single prescription as to how this intervention—cinematic or otherwise—should occur, and notably depart from two stylistic systems ready-to-hand for a leftist filmmaker in the late 1960s: the anti-Fascist humanism of Italian Neorealism and the anti-illusionist didacticism of Brechtian modernism. Portabella is altogether more promiscuous and difficult to pin down. He moves as needed between fiction and documentary, reflexivity and direct observation, often combining them freely within a single film.

Born into the industrial bourgeoisie in 1927, Portabella first became involved with the cinema in 1959 as a producer, taking Carlos Saura’s Los golfos (The Delinquents, 1960) and Buñuel’s Viridiana (1961) to Cannes, where the latter film’s anticlericalism provoked such a scandal that the Franco regime confiscated Portabella’s passport. In 1967, he made his directorial debut with the short No compteu amb els dits (Don’t Count with Your Fingers), in which he established a central strand of his practice: a Surrealist-inspired embrace of artifice, fragmentation, and associative logic, and a purposeful resistance to easy intelligibility that he would carry forward in films such as his first feature, the similarly nonnarrative (or just barely narrative) Nocturno 29 (1968) and the much later Pont de Varsòvia (Warsaw Bridge, 1989) and Die Stille vor Bach (The Silence Before Bach, 2007).

Portabella is perhaps best known for his second feature, the cult classic Vampir-Cuadecuc (1970). Shot on high-contrast black-and-white 16-mm stock on the set of Jesús (Jess) Franco’s Count Dracula (1970), the film moves stealthily between fragmentarily inhabiting the fiction of a vampire story starring Christopher Lee (an actor familiar from countless Hammer horrors) and pulling back to offer a metacommentary on the artifice of film production. Unlike so many exemplars of the cinephilic microgenre of films about filmmaking, Portabella makes no clear division between the “real” and the staged, instead collapsing both into an eerie universe of dark disquiet. He offers a viewing experience that might equally function as a philosophical statement about our relation to the world: It is often impossible to discern the truth of what we see. The B-movie schlock of Count Dracula is transformed into a nonnarrative exercise in atmosphere and allegory, aided by the near-complete absence of dialogue and an unforgettable sound track by Carles Santos, a concert pianist and composer who was a prominent member of the Barcelona avant-garde and worked with Portabella on many of his films.

But if Vampir is to be understood as an allegory, who is its Count Dracula? Here, echoing the film’s indeterminate position between fiction and documentary, Portabella’s tendency to cultivate multiple, sometimes conflicting meanings comes into view. Cuadecuc, a Catalan word meaning “worm’s tail,” also refers to the unexposed stock at the end of a reel of film, suggesting Portabella-as-vampire, preying on Jess Franco to effect a critique of industrial cinema. Yet in addition to this unveiling of filmic illusion, Vampir can simultaneously be understood as commentary on Francisco Franco, a charismatic dictator who fed off the blood of the people while propping himself up by means of pomp and stagecraft. In the film’s final minutes—the only to feature sync sound—Lee discusses the death of Dracula as written in Bram Stoker’s novel and reads selected lines. Staring at the “waxen image” of Dracula, narrator Mina Harker sees the knives plunge in and his “whole body crumble into dust.” In ending with this account of a seemingly invincible figure brought down swiftly by strategic intervention, Vampir-Cuadecuc might be seen as sounding an encrypted call for similar action against the dictatorship.

Still from Pere Portabella’s Vampir-Cuadecuc, 1970, 16 mm, black-and-white, sound, 75 minutes. Christopher Lee. Maria Rohm. Christopher Lee.

THE INDIRECT POLITICAL CRITIQUE and anxious, surreal mood of Vampir persist in Portabella’s shadowy masterpiece Umbracle (1972). The film begins with a sequence in which a man, played once more by Christopher Lee, is being watched as he walks among vitrines of taxidermied birds and other natural specimens at a zoological museum. Over the course of the film’s first fourteen minutes, he wanders through Barcelona, buys a cigar, and impassively witnesses an abduction. The well-dressed man moves through these encounters as if behind glass, much like the dead animals. Grainy, blown-out black-and-white images are presented without synchronized sound, accompanied instead by a sound track by Santos that slides past them without ever taking root. The sequence concludes with snippets of moments just seen flashing up once more, suggesting the nonchronological time of dream or memory. All signs point to the development of a moody psychodrama worthy of Buñuel.

It is thus rather surprising when this inky spell is broken by a cutaway to three consecutive to-camera monologues about censorship in the Spanish film industry. If one could indeed speak of two Portabellas, here the first might be seen as having handed the baton to the second. Seated at a desk in front of a poster of Lenin, critic and scriptwriter Román Gubern relates that the apertura—the opening of Francoist Spain to tourism and economic development in the early ’60s—was ironically accompanied by a formalization of censorship statutes; he then reads selections from a code banning criticisms of the Catholic Church, national identity, and Franco. He foregrounds the hypocrisy of the state, noting that while the depiction of terror is proscribed in the cinema, police use “terrorist methods” on the streets. In the second monologue, Joan Enric Lahosa, speaking in the then-forbidden Catalan language, begins, “The conclusion is clear: The only kind of cinema of interest . . . falls outside the realm of legality. It is a marginal cinema, a cinema that has become clandestine due to its legal status.”

Lasting more than ten minutes, the three monologues serve to mark out any official cinema as compromised and possibilist. Though not mentioned, the target here is likely the Nuevo Cine Español, or New Spanish Cinema, which had recently emerged in Madrid and produced socially themed progressive films that were nonetheless government-funded and tasked with presenting a liberalizing image of Spain at festivals around the world; meanwhile, the work of Portabella and the rest of the Barcelona School (Vicente Aranda, Carlos Durán, Jorge Grau, Jacinto Esteva Grewe, Gonzalo Suárez, et al.) went relatively unseen. Indeed, during the dictatorship, Portabella’s films circulated only informally, screening at private gatherings and underground venues. (When Portabella was unable to attend the US premiere of Vampir-Cuadecuc at the Museum of Modern Art in 1972, he sent the following letter: “The repeated denial of passports that affects me as well as other intellectuals, which explains my absence today in New York, and the media censorship that makes Vampir lack legal existence in my country, shouldn’t be interpreted as isolated incidents, since they better express the Spanish reality than all of the official Spanish candidates in international festivals, however much the film may interest you.”)2 The monologues recode the preceding psychodrama and all that will come after as political allegory, with everything said and unsaid now understood in relation to a policed restriction on freedom of expression. Umbracle’s title is borrowed from the name of a botanical structure in Barcelona’s Parc de la Ciutadella that protects shade-loving plants from the sun, yet the film’s foreboding atmosphere suggests no such benevolent shielding, transforming its title into a powerful metaphor of a cruel, suffocating blockage imposed via a rhetoric of protection.

Umbracle’s first two sequences seem to possess no connection to each other and yet demand to be understood in their relation, making them a fitting metonym for the two major strands that mark Portabella’s practice as a whole. From the beginning, Portabella’s avant-gardism was interwoven with nonfiction filmmaking deeply concerned with testimony, devoted to capturing in a relatively direct manner the recitations of Catalan poets (Poetes catalans [1970]), the labor of artisans working for Joan Miró (Miró la forja [Miró the Forge] and Miró tapis [Miró Tapestry]; both 1973), and, perhaps most crucially, the violence, struggle, and hope of the late Francoist period and the transition to democracy. Informe general sobre algunas cuestiones de interés para una proyección pública (General Report on Certain Matters of Interest for a Public Screening, 1976)—Portabella’s last film before a thirteen-year hiatus during which he served first as a senator in the national government (where he helped draft the new Spanish Constitution) and then as a member of the Catalan parliament—offers an expansive and polyvocal account of the immediate aftermath of Franco’s death. Nearly forty years later, but with the same palpable urgency, Portabella has reprised a similar form with Informe general II: El nuevo rapto de Europa (General Report II: The New Abduction of Europe, 2015), a film that, through a series of filmed conversations, tackles a vast array of subjects, among them the fate of the Left, Catalan nationalism, climate change, and the role of art, all as they exist within a neoliberal world system.

Still from Pere Portabella’s Umbracle, 1972, 16 mm, black-and-white, sound, 85 minutes. Woman (Jeannine Mestre).

THE APPARENT SPLIT between a politics of the signifier and a politics of the signified in Portabella’s output is resolved by considering both tendencies as devoted to the contestation of dominant and dominating regimes, whether political or cinematic. But there is a further principle that unifies this seemingly bifurcated oeuvre, a single ethic guiding the construction of ostensibly very different films: namely, a commitment to agonism as a compositional principle in which inheres nothing less than a philosophy of democracy. As political theorist Chantal Mouffe describes it, agonism recognizes that because consensus is based on necessary exclusion, a truly democratic public sphere will be characterized by pluralistic conflict. Formed under and in response to the repressive exigencies of Francoist authoritarianism, Portabella’s rejection of unity resonates allegorically as a form of democratic opposition to El Caudillo’s imposition of a single national identity, a single ideology, and a single state religion. The potency of Portabella’s gesture survives today, at a time when questions of inclusion and the need to collectively imagine change remain pressing. Counter to the violence of coerced consensus, Portabella turns to radical heterogeneity and plurality. Even in his working methods, the singular voice of the auteur was, from the beginning, displaced by interdisciplinary collaboration, particularly with Santos and the Catalan poet Joan Brossa. Rather than opposing Francoist discourse by altering the content of political speech while failing to disrupt its form, Portabella opens a space in which the clash of voices is encouraged.

Portabella’s agonism is evident in Umbracle’s resolute rejection of a unified filmic discourse. The loose narrative starring Lee develops throughout the film, but only as it is consistently interrupted by a host of other sequences: The visual language of advertising is ventriloquized as women try on shoes in a shop, accompanied by a cover of the Jackson 5’s “I’ll Be There”; a long excerpt from Pedro Lazaga’s El frente infinito (The Endless Front, 1956), a Francoist film championing the imbrication of the Spanish state and the Catholic Church, is presented without commentary; Lee steps out of character to sing and recite Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven”; clips of classic slapstick appear; and scenes of industrial chicken slaughter are incongruously set to another cover, this time of Burt Bacharach’s “Close to You.” The cumulative effect of this disorienting stylistic infidelity is a complete denaturalization of the conventions of filmic representation. Comparing the “Close to You” sequence with the slaughter of the bull in Sergei Eisenstein’s Strike (1925) gives some indication of Portabella’s procedure. Gone is the pedagogical intercutting (between the bleeding bull and the striking workers being beaten by police) in a montage that imposes its meaning on the spectator like a kino-fist; instead, an image of the mechanized and systematic taking of life is set loose within a constellation of fragments, leaving the viewer to parse the rich resonances between them.

If an oblique figuration of agonism marks Portabella’s more experimental films, this principle surfaces more directly in his documentaries, which are characterized by a palpable affinity for situations of debate and disagreement. In El sopar (The Dinner, 1974), Portabella assembled five former political prisoners for a meal on the day the anarchist Salvador Puig Antich was executed in Barcelona to tremendous popular objection. Under conditions of extreme clandestinity, they discuss their experiences and the merits of various tactics of resistance. Though the participants display a clear solidarity, no united front appears. Particularly when compared with the unambiguous positions advanced in much political modernist filmmaking at the time, the lively conversations filmed in a noninterventionist style throughout Portabella’s work point to a different notion of committed cinema, one grounded in the lived experience of activism yet adamant in its refusal to endorse a single viewpoint. At the beginning of El sopar, in a brief voice-over, the director states, “The idea of this film is an approach to the specific problems of political prisoners,” but Portabella does not take for granted what these specific problems are, let alone assume that satisfactory answers to them may be given; instead, he uses the duration of his film to open this discussion and capture it for ex post facto circulation.

Still from Pere Portabella’s Informe general sobre algunas cuestiones de interés para una proyección pública (General Report on Certain Matters of Interest for a Public Screening), 1976, 16 mm, color, sound, 165 minutes.

INFORME GENERAL, Portabella’s nearly three-hour account of the transition to democracy following Franco’s death in 1975, extends this conviction that cinema should not simply record a completed process of thought and action but, rather, should function as an arena for the ongoing interrogation of reality. Its very title, General Report on Certain Matters of Interest for a Public Screening, suggests that its encounters between politicians, trade unionists, and intellectuals are meant to catalyze further conversation when the film is exhibited. The critic Jonathan Rosenbaum has rightly noted that “the end of Informe general’s lengthy title, una proyeccíon pública, inevitably calls to mind all the preceding proyeccíones privadas,” but so too does it function in the urgency of the present as an incitement to pluralistic negotiation in the moment of reception.3 Such a vision of the public sphere is modeled within the film itself, which consists of a series of conversations between diverse political actors who reflect on the injustices of the Franco regime and speculate on Spain’s possible future. Though the film is undeniably partisan, it allows space for multiple and incompatible points of view, including those of representatives from various left-wing parties and unions, as well as those of monarchists, lawyers of the armed Basque nationalist group eta, and former exiles. Even—or especially—within groups apparently espousing shared beliefs, Portabella pays close attention to differences of opinion.

Rosenbaum refers to Informe general as a “relatively conventional” documentary, and in many regards it is.4 But, like Umbracle, it embraces a principle of stylistic heterogeneity, articulated through semiautonomous sequences linked together by the recurring presence of an actor—in this case, Francesc Lucchetti. Amid its many testimonies, one finds an explicitly fictional reenactment of a police raid and the subsequent torture of those taken prisoner, with excerpts from the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights displayed as text over the image while Santos’s cacophonous electronics fill the sound track. Lucchetti plays tour guide at Franco’s official residence, a now-empty space that Portabella infuses with the eeriness of a haunted house. And as a pendant to Umbracle’s use of The Endless Front, there is a long excerpt of Raza (Race, 1942), a Civil War–era tale of the body politic scripted by Franco himself, presented by Lucchetti, now in the role of film archivist. In short, in form and content, polyvocality and uncertainty emerge as fundamental to the democratic project.

Such fictionalizing incursions are largely absent from the 2015 “sequel,” Informe general II, a film that turns its gaze on a Europe blighted by austerity. When classical cinema dominated, disjunctive assemblages had an oppositional power; now, when the contemporary media environment is nothing if not a hodgepodge of images and sounds, perhaps Portabella has come to question the disruptive force of discontinuity. In this latest film, he refrains from the aggressive ruptures and indiscriminate mixing of styles found in much of his work. Yet he retains a sustained concentration on scenes of group discussion, foregrounding the extent to which political thought and action are necessarily relational activities, occurring through the agonistic confrontation of bodies and minds.

Near the beginning of the film, as antigovernment protests take place in the square outside Madrid’s Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, theorist Paul B. Preciado and academic Yaiza Hernández sit in the quiet interior discussing the contradictions of the contemporary museum. While Hernández expresses skepticism about the new “participatory” paradigm, Preciado is more hopeful, proposing that the museum can act as “a collective prosthesis for inventing the future.” The conversation occurs in front of a projection of Buñuel’s L’Âge d’or (1930). Is it—like Picasso’s Guernica, hanging nearby—a piercing emblem of recuperation, pointing to the inevitable transformation of past contestation into present patrimony? Or are these works reminders of the enduring political potential of art? Just as Portabella preserves the tensions between Hernández’s and Preciado’s positions, so too does he accommodate multiple answers to these questions and the many others that emerge throughout Informe general II. In so doing, he avoids imposing a singular stance; but, perhaps appropriately given the plight of this kidnapped Europe, this can leave one unable to discern a shared vision for a way forward—and this points to a key difficulty of agonism. Nevertheless, with images of police and protesters bookending this long sequence at the museum, Portabella comes closest here to explicitly articulating the fundamental concern undergirding his oeuvre: the relationship between art and politics. This very formulation presumes them to be separate domains, and perhaps they often are, but in the case of Portabella, fifty years of filmmaking suggest otherwise.

Erika Balsom, a senior lecturer in film studies and liberal arts at King’s College London, is the author of Exhibiting Cinema in Contemporary Art (Amsterdam University Press, 2013).

The films of Pere Portabella, which were the subject of a retrospective at the 2016 International Film Festival Rotterdam, are available in a seven-disk boxed set (Pere Portabella: Complete Works) from Intermedio. Informe general I and II will be screening at the Toronto International Film Festival, Sept. 8–18; Alcances, Cádiz, Spain, Sept. 10–17; and other venues in Munich, Venice, Lisbon, and Marseille this fall.


1. Pere Portabella, untitled acceptance speech for honorary doctorate (Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, March 17, 2009),

2. Pere Portabella, “Presentación de Vampir en el Museum of Modern Art, Nueva York (1972),” in Historias sin argumento: El cine de Pere Portabella, ed. Marcelo Expósito (Valencia, Spain: Ediciones de la Mirada; Barcelona: and Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona, 2001), 283; cited and translated in Anna K. Cox, “The Artisanry of Film: Pieces from Pere Portabella’s Workshop (1960–1973),” Canadian Journal of Film Studies 23, no. 1 (Spring 2014): 42.

3. Jonathan Rosenbaum, Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia: Film Culture in Transition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010), 133.

4. Ibid., 129.