During the reign of Francisco Franco in Spain, from the late ’30 to the mid-’70s, little was allowed and much was prohibited—making fun of the state of the country or, even worse, the dictator himself, would get you into irrevocable trouble—but that didn’t stop the Spanish from finding ingenious ways to deceive the gag law. Often masking their actual intentions and opinions with absurdities and impressive wordplay (Amanece, que no es poco), they found a way around the strict regulations of the Franco times—times one would have thought were over by now (Franco is no more and the Spanish have gotten quite used to their freedom of speech, gracias very mucho), but no such luck. As of July 1st of this year, a new ley modaza (gag law) is in effect in Spain, and of course, the people are indignados. The Spanish have always been fond of poking fun at the people and mentalities from different regions (Ocho apellidos vascos), taking the piss out of their own country and its government, but in light of recent events, that may soon change.
The type of dry, satirical humor usually reserved for the British has become quite popular in Spain in recent years, but it’s not something they’ve adopted handily. So, you probablywon’t meet a lot of Spaniards with a quick wit for sarcasm. Typical Spanish phrases, and even swear words, can be pretty brutal, which is a bit ironic considering that classic jokes revolving around sex (a national favorite!) sound like they originated in a schoolyard. A touch immature, perhaps, but whatever: Physical comedy, exaggeration and, like the Germans, an imaginative twisting of words are what best describe the Spanish sense of humor—and here are ten films that prove it.
10. Ocho apellidos vascos (Spanish Affair) (2014)
Director: Emilio Martínez Lázaro
Basque girl Amaia (Clara Lago) is on holiday in Seville with some friends and is far from impressed at having to wear the traditional Sevillana dress, complete with polka-dots, frills, a flower in her hair—the whole shebang. Over another nightcap in a caseta (booth) at the local feria (fair), matters get even worse for Amaia when a young Sevillano, Rafa (Dani Rovira) takes to the stage to crack a few jokes about the people of El País Vasco (Basque Country). You know what they say about the Spanish temperament? Well, Amaia proves just that when she loses her shit over Rafa’s jokes, causing quite the scene. Imagine how much she probably hated herself the following morning, after having spent the night with this gel-haired Andalú(sian)? She gets the hell out of Rafa’s apartment as fast as she can to catch the next train home, but stupidly forgets her purse. This is fortunate for Rafa, who has decided he has fallen in love with the cute but seemingly humorless Amaia. When he announces his plan of travelling to Euskadi—his first ever trip outside of Andalusia—to find her and bring her back with him, his friends think he’s lost his mind:
Rafa’s journey and arrival in Euskadi makes for a lot of misunderstandings, but it does bring him closer to Amaia and even to her father Koldo (Karra Elejalde). This film—which literally translates to Eight Basque Last Names, a common reality to people born in the Basque Country—is filled with typical stereotypes about the Andalusians and the Basques and their conflicting mentalities:
“Los vascos no pueden ver a los andaluces ni en pintura, eso se lo enseñan a ellos en primero de sus escayolas. Eso, y hacer cócteles molotov.” (“People from the Basque Country can´t stand to see the Andalusians, not even in a painting, they teach them that in the first grade. That and how to make Molotov cocktails.”)
With brilliant performances by the Malagueño comedian Dani Rovira and the amazing Karra Elejalde, it is no wonder that this culture-clashing movie established itself as Spain’s biggest box office hit.
9. Airbag (1997)
Director: Juanma Bajo Ulloa
In recent years we’ve seen a few time-sensitive road movies like Im Juli (Fatih Akin, 2000) and The Hangover (Todd Phillips, 2009) appear on the big screen, but nothing quite compares to the ultimate Spanish road movie, Airbag. The film follows Juantxo (Karra Elejalde), a proper, studied mama’s boy who’s reluctant to celebrate his upcoming wedding in true style: With a crazy stag night organized by his friends Paco (Alberto San Juan) and Konradín (Fernando Guillén Cuervo).
Paco and Konradín take Juantxo to a prostíbulo (brothel), where he promptly falls in love with a prostitute. He gives in to her seduction techniques, doing his friends Paco and Konradín proud—but there’s a slight issue: Juantxo loses his fiancée’s ring inside of the prostitute’s…nether regions. Uh oh. When brothel-owner and Mafioso Villambrosa (Francisco Rabal) finds the ring, a series of chaotic events involving gang warfare, a visit to a fancy casino in Santander and a whole lot of uzis is set into motion. With just three days to resolve this messy situation before having to meet his fiancée at the altar, Juantxo and his friends pull out all stops to make it in time.
Ulloa first made a name for himself with Alas de mariposa (Butterfly Wings, 1991) and La madre muerta (Dead Mother, 1993), both shot in a baroque style. Airbag, Ulloa’s first road movie and partially inspired by Quentin Tarantino, takes a cynical look at both the Spanish and Basque upper classes and popular culture, helping to popularize in Spain exaggerated action-comedies with a focus on sociopolitical puns.
8. La comunidad (Common Wealth) (2000)
Director: Álex de la Iglesia
Julia (Carmen Maura) is a 40-something real estate agent who lives in a crumbling building in the center of Madrid. Thought she’s is trying to rent out a stunning, spacious and uniquely furnished flat within her building, she decides to claim it as her own for a night in an attempt to reconnect with her grumpy old husband. Instead, her husband reads something entirely different into the situation and leaves in a huff.
Then her night takes a turn for the worse when the ceiling above her comes crashing down under the weight of an insect-eaten corpse, landing right on her bed. Not exactly horrified, Julia finds fortune in this unfortunate situation: The body belongs to a wealthy tenant who once hit the jackpot and won 300 million pesetas, but, too scared to leave the apartment out of fear of being robbed of his money—or even worse, killed for it—by the building’s other greedy and eccentric tenants, he never left the house. Except, maybe his paranoia wasn’t unfounded: As she searches his place, she senses she’s being watched. Turns out the tenants of the building have been waiting for this day, ready to pounce and grab the money, already far from pleased to find out that Julia has a headstart.
Álex de la Iglesia had his first breakthrough with the chaotically hilarious El día de la Bestia (1995), which opened some doors in Spain for a new kind of action-packed comedy. La comunidad follows suit—a comedy with a focus on greed and how people assume material gain can heal pretty much any wound, emotional or otherwise—ending on rooftop escape in true Hitchcockian fashion.
7. Torrente, el brazo tonto de la ley (The Dumb Arm of the Law) (1998)
Director: Santiago Segura
Torrente is probably the most well-known fictional character in Spain—and trust me when I say that his popularity is not born from his charm. On the contrary, José Luis Torrente (Santiago Segura) is rather disgusting. The sexist, racist swine, whose innate laziness reaches new levels thanks to a love of alcohol, shares his run-down apartment with his father (Tony LeBlanc), whose disability checks are their only source of income. Even after his father shows signs of recovery, Torrente still sends him out in a wheelchair every day to beg for additional funds.
When a new family moves into the building, Torrente finds himself infatuated with the little firecracker Amparo (Neus Asensi). To get an in with her, he befriends her cousin Rafi (Javier Cámara), a bit of a nerdy figure with a passion for weapons. Torrente, who refuses to accept his suspension from the police force, continues to go out on his daily patrols, often taking Rafi along. When Torrente is sure something’s amiss with the new Chinese restaurant in town, his suspicions are confirmed when a spring roll lands his father in hospital. You see, this was no ordinary spring roll, it came with a special ingredient: heroin. When Torrente and Rafi manage to sneak into the restaurant at night, they are shocked to see one of the boss’s workers, El Francés (Manuel Manquiña) torture and kill the unsuspecting delivery boy Wang for losing a substantial amount of heroin—which ended up in Padre Torrente’s belly. What ensues is a wild chase prone to unlucky scenarios and an overly complicated plan to bring down El Francés and drug kingpin Mendoza (Espartaco Santoni).
During the filming of de la Iglesia’s previously mentioned El día de la Bestia, Santiago complained about the lack of drama surrounding the death of his character, prompting him to direct his own movie, in which he would play the starring role. This role especially came to life, according to Santiago, when he was having lunch in a Chinese restaurant and witnessed a client acting atrociously towards the staff. Notably, too, Tony LeBlanc’s character is a rather ironic choice, considering that, after a serious car accident in 1983, he lost the ability to walk, but over the following 15 years he recovered, somewhat miraculously.
6. Amanece, que no es poco (Dawn breaks, which is no small thing) (1989)
Director: José Luis Cuerda
Amanece, que no es poco may seem like a mere collage of plot-less absurdities, but those who understand the history of Spain and its dictatorship (1939-1976) will quickly recognize that this film is a tribute to Spaniards then and now, flawed and attributed. Teodoro (Antonio Resines) is a professor at the University of Oklahoma who returns to Spain for a year-long sabbatical, finding that nothing is quite what it once was. For example, his mother is no longer alive…because his dad killed her. To fill the void his nagging wife left, he bought a motorcycle with a sidecar, and so he convinces his son to take a trip around the country with him.
Their journey takes them to a small village near Albacete, in the community of Castilla-La Mancha, where, upon their arrival, there is not a single soul in sight. That’s because the whole village is attending mass, the way they do every day of the year. El cura (the preacher) Paquito (Manuel Alexandre) is highly regarded and respected by the town’s people; to them, he is basically the manifestation of God on Earth. The village doctor Don Alonso (Paco Cambres) gets a kick out of his patients dying, while police officer Fermín (Rafael Díaz) is outraged when, of all crimes, people plagiarize Faulkner. This film plays with stereotypes and archetypes in a setting that appears to be ruled by complete anarchy—reveling in the silliness inherent in unusual combinations.
Amanece, que no es poco often toys with words: The most telling scene is one in which the local maestro de escuela (school teacher) Don Roberto (Francisco Paco Hernández) goes on a rant about las ingles. Like many other words in the Spanish language, ingles can have two different meanings: as in the English language or an English man/woman, and ingles as in “groin.” For someone who is not familiar with the Spanish language, it might be difficult to comprehend the full scope of the film’s humor—messing with ingles is not quite as straightforward as using of cojones to mean a hundred different things.
5. Primos (Cousinhood) (2011)
Director: Daniel Sánchez Arévalo
What to do when your fiancée tells you she doesn’t love you anymore? When she blows off the wedding your whole family and all of your friends are invited to, which is happening in less than a week? If you’re anything like Diego (Quim Gutiérrez), you’ll refuse to cancel, hoping she’ll change her mind. And what if such sweet optimism then blows up in your face? Then, just like Diego, you’ll stand in front of a half-empty church explaining what happened. Needless to say, Diego is devastated, but luckily his cousins Julián (Raúl Arévalo) and José Miguel (Adrián Lastra), who also happen to be his best friends, are there to save the day. They have a few suggestions as to how to cure Diego’s heartache:
Obviously, Diego and his primos opt for remedy D and set out on an awkwardly nostalgic trip to the coast to find Martina (Inma Cuesta), to whom Diego lost his virginity. Though they discover that Martina is the single mother of a boy and is happy to raise him on her own, Diego and his cojones como el caballo de Espartero (“balls like Espartero’s horse,” referencing the statue of Espatero and his horse in Madrid) aren’t quite ready to give up hope. Meanwhile, José Miguel, a pill-popping former soldier with a long list of anxieties, has become friendly with the outspoken Toña (Alicia Rubio), who urges him to stand up for himself in front of his cousins, a confrontation which would potentially make him mailto, and Julián, the womanizing Sean Penn look-alike, gets himself into a dalliance with the sharp-tongued prostitute Clara (Clara Lago).
Filled with the type of sexo salvaje (wild sex) jokes only a true tale of bromance can deliver, Primos prides itself in deviously tardy punch lines and smashing performances from usual suspects Raúl Arévalo, Clara Lago and co., as well as a nice taste of the Spanish costa with all its…erm, natural views.
4. Crimen Ferpecto (“Ferpect” Crime) (2004)
Director: Álex de la Iglesia
“Yo soy un hombre elegante, que solo pretende vivir en un mundo elegante. ¿Es pedir demasiado?” (“I’m an elegant man, only intending to live in an elegant world. Is that too much to ask?”)
Rafael (Guillermo Toledo) is one of those bearded, suave-looking types who can talk a woman into pretty much anything, whether it’s a few hours of sexy time or an expensive outfit. The latter skill comes in handy at Yeyo’s department store in Madrid, where he works as a clerk—so much so he’s up for a management position, but he’s not the only one: His arch-nemy Don Antonio (Luis Varela) is also in line for the promotion. And when the competition gets particularly heated one night, Rafael accidentally kills his rival—No, really, it was an accident!—a mistake witnessed by his colleague Lourdes (Mónica Cervera), who also happens to have been lusting after him for ages. She helps get rid of the body and grants him an alibi, but of course wants one thing in return: Rafael. Not just for one night—no, she wants him for the long haul, en plan forever and ever more. Which probably wouldn’t be such a bad deal if Lourdes wasn’t a bit goofy looking, surprisingly manipulative and wielding a worrying sense of fashion. When she finally proposes to him on national TV, we watch Rafael turn into a shard of the man he once was.
Álex de la Iglesia and co-writer Jorge Guerricaechevarría did a—ahem—ferpect job in creating a darkly humorous atmosphere for the film, setting up viewers for a seemingly classic comedy, complete with the stereotypical womanizer and the ugly duckling turned powerful missus, and then digging deeper. What could easily be a jarring transition from light-hearted, cheekily sexy comedy to an absurdly obscure social satire is ultimately saved by spot-on storytelling and an incredibly talented cast. As has become typical, if not expected of Iglesia’s films (like the aforementioned La comunidad), Crimen Ferpecto ends on a big bang, the grounds of Madrid literally shaking.
3. Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios (Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown) (1988)
Director: Pedro Almodóvar
A cheating lover, a Shiite terrorist intrusion and gazpacho spiked with sleeping pills—all the ingredients you need to turn a woman into a nervous wreck, according to Pedro Almodóvar’s 1988 black comedy. With Almodóvar’s muse Carmen Maura once again taking lead in this hilariously dramatic comedy, everything is set for yet another masterpiece. Pepa (Maura) is a voice-over actor, as is her lover Iván (Fernando Guillén). When he breaks things off with her, Pepa falls into a deep depression, a malady to which she responds by adding an extra touch to her gazpacho: sleeping pills. Meanwhile, her friend Candela (Maria Barranco), who has just realized that the best sex of her life turned out to be with a Shiite terrorist who had camped out in her apartment with his group of equally radical friends, shows up at Pepa’s place to tell her the whole story. But before Candela gets a chance to finish, a couple turns up to view Pepa’s apartment. Turns out it is no other than Iván’s son Carlos (Antonio Banderas) and his arrogant fiancée Marisa (Rossy de Palma). So, while Candela tries to exit the situation (and life) through the window, Marisa helps herself to some tainted gazpacho, and Carlos and Pepa realize they have Iván in common. Later, in order to help Candela with her terror at home, Pepa visits a feminist lawyer (Kiti Manver) who acts strangely bitchy towards Pepa—’cause she’s Iván’s latest conquest. If that weren’t enough chaotic coincidence, Iván’s ex-wife Lucia (Julieta Serrano), who’s spent the last 20 years in an asylum, shows up on Pepa’s doorstep. Of course, she is furious.
Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios is a farce that, instead of relying too readily on its overly-synchronized plot machinations and exploiting the tired stereotype that women are prone to drama, seems to be celebrating the strength women find when they’re at their most vulnerable.
2. Bienvenido Mister Marshall (Welcome Mister Marshall) (1953)
Director: Luis García Berlanga
Besides the playa (beach), sunshine and tortillas—what comes to mind when you think of Spain? Images of exotic women galore, dressed in polka-dotted flamenco dresses, might flood your brain, or you’ll suddenly remember your Grandma marveling over a typically Andalusian flower wall she saw on one of her first YouTube escapades.
So what do the Spanish think of when they imagine the United States? In Luis García Berlanga’s Bienvenido Mister Marshall, we get a sense of the Spanish perception of the U.S. during Franco’s reign. When Villar del Río’s town crier (Joaquín Roa) announces the arrival of American diplomats in relation to the Marshall Plan, the residents light up like children on Christmas Day. The people of Villar del Río have probably never been outside of León, let alone Spain. And America? Well, you may as well ask whether they have visited the moon.
Bienvenido Mister Marshall is proof that even during modern Spain’s darkest era, directors like Berlanga were able to defy Franco’s oppression much like the Monty Python crew and their “wink-winks” did decades ago, albeit on an entirely scarier level. A glimpse into the dreams the people of Villar del Río have about American ways and American life in general reveal sweetly innocent and partially fantastical images that only reinforce the grittier horrors of censorship Spain is now beginning to face, once again.
1. El milagro de P. Tinto (The Miracle of P. Tinto) (1998)
Director: Javier Fesser
This heartwarmingly absurd comedy from Javier Fesser is a true gem of Spanish cinema the story of P. Tinto (Luis Ciges), the young heir to his family’s wafer business. School didn’t quite prepare him for life, as most of his education seems to have been based on religion, the Holy Trinity in particular—a concept young P. Tinto just could not wrap his head around. None of this seems to matter though, because P. Tinto knows what he wants from his future: a large family of his own. In sweet, blind Olivia (Silvia Casanova) he finds the perfect girl to make his dreams come true. They waste no time in preparing for their big family—except for the actual physical act required to make a baby. All that religious education never really filled them in on the intricacies of what it takes to physically create life.
Coincidentally, when two Martians take a wrong turn on one of their time travels, they end up on the Tintos’ property. P. Tinto and Olivia immediately take them in as their own—foul mouthed—children. The Martians José Ramón (Javier Aller) and El Teniente (Emilio Gavira) are both adults who don’t seem to mind being treated as toddlers: El Teniente often wears a cowboy outfit, and they’re absolutely obsessed with soda, unable to stop sharing their excitement about it: “Pedazo de invento la gaseosa, macho.” (“Brilliant invention this soda stuff, dude.”)
Yet, P. Tinto can’t quite accept them as his own children, so he decides to adopt a young African boy. This is when Pancho José (Pablo Pinedo), a tree of a man, appears on P. Tinto’s doorstep. Never having seen an African person before, Tinto adopts the Caucasian (i.e., non-African) man as his seemingly new son.
The cinematography in P. Tinto is in a league of its own: What begins in black and white, the camera concentrating on angles that build tension much like old school horror movies, falls into the colorful hues of the Tintos’ oddly ignorant world. The visuals are utterly mesmerizing, plus a stellar performance by Luis Ciges (in his first lead role) allows the viewer to look past the unbelievable aspects of P. Tinto and Olivia’s lives to understand that director Javier Fesser is exploring a time in which remote parts of Spain seemed to be literally cut off from the world—the universe, even—in a beautifully innocent, nostaglic way.
Roxanne Sancto is a freelance journalist, co-author of The Pink Boots and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow her on Facebook. She likes getting creative in padm?sana.