FAITH + IDEAS =: last updated 02/28/2012

"Pa Negre": What The Academy Awards Missed

February 21, 2012                           Volume 5, Issue 3

Faith + Ideas= an e-conversation with the Faculty of Gordon College

By Pilar Pérez Serrano

This year’s official Spanish entry to the Oscars didn’t impress as much as we Spaniards thought it would. The topic was an obvious downer, the Spanish Civil War, and the film was certainly not as flashy, or catchy, as the latest Spanish foreign movie recipient, Almodovar’s thriller Volver. To add further insult, few on this side of the puddle, as we say in Spain, have heard of the director, Agustí Villaronga. Even though the film received close to 35 awards in and outside my home country, it didn’t quite catch the eye of the Academy. Still, the movie is a masterpiece, a must see for anyone concerned about the global conflicts which fill our daily headlines.

Black Bread (Pa Negre) is based on Emili Teixidor’s highly acclaimed novel of the same title, and weaves together three different stories by the same writer, all surrounding life in the small town of Vic near Barcelona, where he grew up. With the end of the Spanish Civil War as a backdrop (around 1939), the movie does not dwell in an eternal winner-loser tension, but focuses on the devastating results of a few adults’ actions seen through the eyes of a boy named Andreu. It is his innocent eyes that guide the audience through the film’s contradictory plot, and it is the tortured soul behind them that captures our imagination from beginning to end.

The film moves rapidly through the ins and outs of the arduous lives of a family of losers, or “rojos”, in post-war Spain. The misery left behind from three years of brutal fighting is portrayed through impressive cinematography and an outstanding yet unknown cast; actors capture both the weariness and fear of those final days of the war. The two young actors, Francesc Colomber (Andreu) and Marina Comas (Núria), though, bring a magic to an otherwise nervous and raw atmosphere, which could easily dominate the film. These constant but timid glimpses of hope that the children bring to the chaotic adult world keep the audience wondering, and believing, all things will be made right.

Yet Pa Negre does not depict the typical outcomes of war. The Spanish Civil War has been the object of many literary and filmic representations, from Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls to the most modern voyage of Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth. Perhaps it is the intrinsic good and evil nature of its civil conflict that distinguishes this film, with “the evil” being the fascists or “franquistas,” followers of the General Francisco Franco, and “the good,” the “republicanos,” wrongly ousted from power after a bloody coup d’etat.

What Pa Negre offers to the long list of war narratives is a demystification of the conflict as we know it, paying closer attention to human nature than to stereotypes. The film focuses on universally human emotions such as pride, anger, hatred, love and especially, humiliation. As one producer put it, Villaronga is a master at illustrating “the evil in good people and the good in evil ones.” Such incongruity is what makes this film so relevant for the times in which we live.

As Andreu sees the atrocities and feels the betrayal of the closest adults in his life, he begins a journey of painful discoveries that leads to a disturbing end of his innocence. And what the audience witnesses is the slow formation of a monster. Consequently, we begin to make the connection between the small monster at the end of the film and the big ‘monsters’ of today’s world, and somehow, we begin to feel a strange but real responsibility toward them and their circumstances. Andreu’s final actions, then, can be seen as difficult and bitter acts of freedom, or those of survival. (Each viewer can decide for herself since the film is available through the local library.)

Certainly, it is human nature to polarize feelings and view points: the good and the evil, the haves and have-nots. And who of us does not walk securely amongst these concise definitions? After all, they can offer us a clear and easy ground towards which to gravitate. But the movie Pa Negre breaks any normalizing notion about who “the other” is, showing us that “the other” could very well be us, carrying our own monsters or allowing, by ignorance, pride or inaction, the formation of such monsters. Tyranny, in this movie, encompasses all, reaching sacred places, demonstrating the complexity of human behavior under extreme circumstances, and making us all responsible partakers of its destructive power. Which might be why the Academy Awards missed it.

Pilar Pérez Serrano is an assistant professor of Spanish at Gordon College in Wenham, MA. She and her family live in Haverhill, MA.


Pilar Perez Serrano