All About My Mother(land): A Spanish Identity Crisis?

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Cultural identity can be defined as the feeling of belonging to a particular group of people, who self-identify by reference to a shared set of ideas, values and traditions. For many years, western societies had embraced a broader concept of identity, promoting a multi-cultural outlook which seemed to make individual cultural identities less important.

Spanish Identity and the Films of Pedro Almodóvar

At a time when, in both Europe and North America, there has been an increasing backlash by a historically dominant group against what they see as the dilution of their identity, the concept of “cultural identity” has never been more topical. A revealing context in which to examine the concept of cultural identity is modern day Spain. When we think of Spanish culture, images of white washed walls, bullfighters and flamenco music are instantly evoked, reflecting both upon our perception of Spain and equally, the way in which Spain as a country has historically presented itself.

However, to what extent is cultural identity ingrained into us, as a society? Is it necessarily something which can be imposed from the outside, or endogenous? I will be examining the question of how deeply ingrained cultural identity can be through the prism of the films of Pedro Almodóvar, a celebrated director, famous for challenging the classic images of Spanish culture, which contradict his own view that identity is something which must be discovered (and perhaps created) for yourself.  As Agrado, a character from one of his films Todo Sobre Mi Madre (All About My Mother), says: “you are more authentic, the more you resemble what you’ve dreamed of being.”

The Rule of Francisco Franco and Its Aftermath

Almodóvar’s liberated depiction of Spain came as a counterreaction to the oppressive dictatorship of Francisco Franco, who governed Spain between 1939 and 1978. During this period, strict ideas of identity were imposed on the people of Spain: a cultural identity that was Catholic, unitary, nationalistic and patriarchal. Abortion was illegal, as well as the use of contraception and the practice of homosexuality. Equally, Franco opposed the notion of distinct cultural identities for different regions of Spain, and banned regional languages such as Catalan and Basque which themselves articulated distinct cultural identities and traditions.

Following Franco’s death, a counter-cultural movement emerged in Madrid, termed “La Movida Madrileña.” This movement acted as an artistic reawakening for Spain and was reflected in contemporary literature, songs and films. The Spaniards experimented with ideas of gender and sexuality, dressing up in colorful and flamboyant clothes to celebrate their liberation. This was a new, and perhaps improved, cultural identity, one which was liberal, inclusive and which celebrated diversity.

Almodóvar and Religion

The Catholic Church played a crucial part in forming what Franco regarded as Spanish cultural identity. The corrupt, monolithic approach of the church prompted Almodóvar’s film La Mala Educación (Bad Education) in 2004, which centered on the sexual abuse of young boys in the Catholic Church. The film targets Franco’s idea of religion in two ways; not only does it highlight the perversion and hypocrisy of the Catholic Church, it also alludes to the anarchy of religion, as every character loses their belief in some way. The immense popularity of this film, in what is a traditionally Catholic country, is indicative of the changing values of the population, and the speed with which those values have changed in a generation after Franco’s death.

Family and Gender Roles in Almodóvar’s Films

Likewise, changing attitudes to family have been reflected in the films of Pedro Almodóvar, moving away from Franco’s rigid model, which involved a father as the head of the household, along with a mother and children, to more extended and fluid models of family. The film which best embodies this theme is Volver (Return), which presents an atypical vision of the family setting, one lacking a father figure. This family appears to be even stronger than the quintessential family, highlighting that, although the significance of family has stayed constant, the format in which it is presented has modified.

La Movida Madrileña coincided with second-wave feminism, the movement which fought for the social equality of the sexes. The overlap between these groups is demonstrated by the liberating and empowering depiction of women in Almodóvar’s films. The representation of women in his films has defined his career, from his directing debut Pepi, Luci Bom to his most recent film Julietta.  Under the Francoist regime, women were regarded as the ideological placement of culture in society. A woman’s role was to serve her husband and bear and bring up her children. However, Almodóvar’s films acknowledge the variety of roles a woman plays, likening them to actresses capable of playing many parts. In his dedication to Todo Sobre Mi Madre (All About My Mother) he thanks “all actresses who have played actresses,” “all women who act,” “all men who act and become women,” “all the people who want to be mothers,” and, most importantly, “my mother.”  Similarly, Almodóvar marks a shift in assigned gender roles in his film hable con ella (talk to her). The character Lydia appears to be a combination of both the masculine and the feminine; she is a renowned bullfighter, traditionally a male-dominated occupation and a Spanish cultural archetype, yet she still emanates feminine power. The classically Spanish profession suggests that cultural authenticity and evolution are not in opposition; together they can form a new, adaptable and powerful Spain.

Last Word on Spanish Identity and the Films of Pedro Almodóvar

This description of Almodóvar’s deconstruction of nearly 40 years of a centrally imposed cultural identity and the readiness with which post-Franco Spain has accepted Almodóvar’s recasting of this would support the view that cultural identity is not deeply ingrained, but at best a veneer which can change rapidly as social and political circumstances evolve. Despite Franco’s reign over Spain for 39 years, Almodóvar’s depiction of Spain and its customs show the ease at which a series of pre-existing ideas can be changed, highlighting the fluidity of cultural identity. Therefore, although a few fundamental ideas may remain constant, cultural identity is not something which has been ingrained particularly deeply into a country; it is continually evolving to correspond to the demands of society. While concepts of family, faith and countryside may remain constant, the way in which we conceive of these concepts in practice can change rapidly.

However, alongside the rapidity of cultural change in the post-Franco era, it must be acknowledged that a set of more traditional cultural identities, suppressed under Franco, have also revived since 1978, challenging Almodóvar’s rival vision of a modern Spanish cultural identity. Do the alternative cultural visions of Catalan and Basque film makers show that cultural identities are so deeply ingrained that they can revive after half a millennium’s suppression? Or are these newly assumed cultural identities, which may be replaced as quickly as they have arisen? These are issues for future generations of filmmakers to explore.

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