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Cinema Made in Spain: A Historical Outline 1896-1980

October 26, 2013 | By

Oscar Awards’ winners, such as Pedro Almodóvar, have drawn the audience’s attention towards movies made in Spain. But most of the Spanish production, past and present, is still unknown beyond the country’s own borders.

Cinema made in Spain has lately come under the spotlight thanks to a few international figures, such as Javier Bardem or Penélope Cruz, mostly because of their participation in Hollywood movies.

Oscar Awards’ winners, such as Pedro Almodóvar, have drawn the audience’s attention towards movies made in Spain. But most of the Spanish production, past and present, is still unknown beyond the country’s own borders.

This article pretends to give a brief account of it, in a chronological outline from its first steps until the end of the 1970’s – decade after which Spanish cinema underwent great changes – so that the reader will be familiar with the essential names, genres, topics and issues of the Spanish cinema.

The historical, political and economic idiosyncrasies of Spain have set apart its cinema from the rest of the European production. In short, Spain went through great political upheavals in the 20th century – having overthrown monarchy, it went through two republics, two dictatorships, a civil war in between, and a democratic government only by the end of the century. These events left a deep impression in the Spanish mindset, which are still affecting Spain nowadays.

When the cinematographer arrived in Spain in 1896, with the first Lumière Brothers’ recordings, the Spanish people, who were very fond of theater, did not show much interest in this new technology.  Neither did they try to develop the technical infrastructure to produce their own movies. It was much preferred to watch movies imported from France or the US. Only by the end of the 1920’s people started to appreciate indigenous productions, influenced, as Spanish literature was, by Modernism.

Undoubtedly, Un Perro Andaluz (An Andalousian Dog, 1928), by Luis Buñuel, is the clearer example, a short movie in which no scene has any rational or psychological explanation – it dives into the world of dreams.

However, as talkies started arriving to Spain, the industry resented – again – the lack of the adequate technical infrastructure. The companies did not have the means, neither the money, nor the technicians to make films with sound; therefore, the already scarce Spanish industry went bankrupted, unable to compete with foreign talkies.

Taking advantage of the void left in the industry, new companies were founded, which imported foreign technology, thus preventing Spanish cinema from dying.

In the following decade, Spain went through a Civil War that changed everything. By the start of 1930’s, literary adaptations and documentary films were the most popular genre; however, as the fascist General Franco lead a military coup against the Republican left-wing government in 1936, cinema was used as war propaganda.

Three years later, General Franco having won the war, most of the Republican film production was destroyed. Therefore, we will never be able to know completely which kind of movies were being made during the war years and the years before it.

As Franco became an authoritarian fascist dictator in 1939, most of the Spanish intellectuals and artists fled to France and Latin America, in order to escape the regime; filmmakers included. In Spain, Franco used cinema to extend his ideas and change the mind of the people; he used censorship to repress any content beyond the limits of his conservative ideology, based on Patriotism, Catholicism and Family.

Every foreign movie was dubbed, so that the content could be checked and changed in the translation. In addition, the industry was made to depend on government’s financial subsidies, so that there could not be independent filmmakers shooting films against the establishment.

As a result, movies were unrealistic, a way to evade the bleak post-war daily life. Imitations of Hollywood comedies were the most successful genre, showcasing a luxurious way of life, absolutely unattainable for the general population, as well as adaptations of both historical novels and typical Spanish comic musical plays, called “zarzuelas”, to which the audience could easily relate.

Attempts to make different kind of movies were completely unsuccessful until the 1950’s, when a slight economic growth caused a huge problem of migration from rural to urban areas. Cities were not ready to take such an influx of people, and the living conditions for the newcomers were unsanitary and harsh. As a result, the first labour and student protest movements against Franco emerged.

With the birth of anew intellectual dissidence, the culture of protest blossomed in the Arts, including cinema. However, censorship forced filmmakers to be imaginative to avoid the censors’ cut.

As the previous years, traditional comedies that emphasized conservative values were still commercially successful. These reinforced social stereotypes, like gender roles – women being always minor characters, often caricatures, while men were the heroes, and they portrayed as well the inferiority complex of Spain, as it wanted to imitate foreign, mainly, other European countries’ culture.

Nevertheless, new genres appeared in the industry: thrillers and dramas. Thrillers were adaptations of detective fiction novels onto the screen, while dramas were influenced by Italian Neo-realism. Both genres showed social criticism in such a subtle way that it could pass the censors board. Among these movies we must mention

Buy Welcome Mr. Marshall (Bienvenido, Mister Marshall!)  DVD from Amazon

Welcome Mr. Marshall (Bienvenido, Mister Marshall!)
Rafael Alonso (Actor), José Isbert (Actor), Luis García Berlanga (Director) | DVD

Surcos (Furrows, 1951), by José Antonio Nieves Conde, a bleak insight on the migration towards the urban areas and the tragedy of displacement. It focuses on the story of a family of poor farmers that only wishes to improve their miserable living conditions – but the city is a wild world, where life is harsher than in the village they came from.

Another important director of this period is Luis García Berlanga, whose movie Bienvenido, Mr. Marshall! (Welcome, Mr. Marshall!, 1952) mocks the European and American hypocrisy and lack of interest on the situation of the Spanish people after the Civil War, in which they involved themselves passionately, only to forget about it after World War II.

The economic growth that Spain saw in the 1960’s was accompanied by are laxation of the regime’s control. Franco was desperate to earn international acceptance, so, with that purpose in mind, some opening reforms were promoted, and some freedoms, though limited, were granted. Spain became a tourist destination, cheap for other Europeans, especially from Northern Europe.

Carlos Saura

Carlos Saura (Pic: Internet)

The contact with foreign and more open cultures was a shock to the Spanish people, until then greatly influenced by orthodox Catholic values. Cinema reflected such modernization, with the birth of a New Spanish Cinema, which was influenced by the principles of the French Nouvelle Vague and by the European realist cinema. Carlos Saura is probably the most international figure of this generation. Saura’s Lacaza (The Hunt, 1965) harshly portraits the moral and psychological degradation of Franco’s Spain, intelligently placing violence against animals as a metaphor of violence against human beings.

Apart from this trend, in Barcelona emerged a different school of filmmaking, which rebelled not only against the center’s artistic ideology, but against the center’s financial policy as well, emphasizing Barcelona’s (and Catalonia’s) autonomy. Their movies were self-financed, economically unsuccessful, and boldly experimental in aesthetics and structure.

Among others, Vicente Aranda’s Fata Morgana (Fata Morgana, 1966) stands out: a horror movie without beginning or end, which instead of relying on a clear storyline, uses the motive of the heroine, developing its variations and deviations, in different scenes loosely connected.

Also renowned directors, such as Berlanga, continued filming; however, they had problems with the government and faced obstacles to release new films. Berlanga managed to fool censorship in his dark comedy El Verdugo (The Executioner, 1963), a statement against death penalty, in which the main character, a young man who wants to marry his girlfriend, must deal with the girl’s father requirement to allow the marriage: he must take the father’s job and become an executioner.

Buy El Verdugo from Amazon

El Verdugo

During the final years of Franco’s life, in the 1970’s, the opposition intensified its protests, which led to harder repression and stronger law enforcement. Directors had to resort to metaphor to escape the censors, and their movies were a great success, since watching them became an act of resistance.

Among these movies, Elespíritu de la Colmena (1973), by Víctor Erice, is remarkable. It deals with the psychological impact of Civil War on Spanish society, through the eyes of a 7-year-oldvillage girl, who is fascinated with 1931’s Frankestein’s movie, in which she has seen death for the first time. She is the daughter of an estranged family with problems to communicate with each other, isolated both mentally and emotionally from her parents, who are traumatized by the Civil War.

Shortly after Franco died in 1975, a democratic government took over and three years later, under a new Constitution and after democratic elections, censorship and the lack of freedom for artists disappeared. This new freedom allowed filmmakers to talk about topics which were absolutely banned before, such as the Civil War, the Regime, the emancipation of women, sex, drugs, abortion, crime, or unemployment – and they tried to make the most of it.

A striking movie of this period is El Desencanto (The Disenchantment, 1976), by Jaime Chávarri. This movie, halfway between documentary and fiction, exposes the decadence of the traditional family – which was one of the pillars of Franco’s ideology – exemplified on the fascist poet Luis Panero’s family. Panero’s widow and their three sons reveal in front of the camera their past, the father’s shadow, and their troubled relationships, with an astonishing frankness and lucidity, demolishing the legend of “perfect family” built around them.

In less than ten years since Franco’s death, Spain became a socialist country. That meant a completely new social order for Spain. A new generation, with a different mindset, took over the public spheres: a generation of young men and women who had not seen the Civil War nor the dire first post-war years.

For them, as professor G. Naharro says, freedom was not something to fight for, but something to enjoy. Consequently, their artistic works differ greatly from the ones made by the previous generations; movies were not an exception. The newer generation wanted to move forward, embrace modernity, forsake all taboos, while the older one tried to discretely bury Spain’s fascist past.

The transition from one Spain to the other, and the new cinema developed in the next democratic decades until the present time,may be another article later.


  1. El cambio de mentalidad de la sociedad española durante el periodo de latransición a la democracia. “Movida” y cambio social (1975-1985). FernandoG. Naharro. Universidad Complutense de Madrid. Accessed July, 2013.
  2. El cine español en la clase de E/LE: una propuesta didáctica. Carmen RojoGordillo. Accessed July, 2013  El cine español en la clase de E/LE: una propuesta didáctica*
  3. Breve historia del cine español. Accessed July, 2013.   
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Leyre Villate Garrcia did both her BA in Linguistics and English Literature and her MA in Teaching Spanish as Foreign Language in Salamanca (Spain), plus a one-year degree in Japanese Language and Culture from Kansai Gaidai University (Osaka). She has been working as Visiting Spanish Lecturer at Calcutta University, Kolkata, India for the last two years. Whenever she is not preparing her lessons, she writes, reads, translates and travels, which are kind of the same thing. Ah, and she watches movies.
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