In the early part of the 20th century, religion remained central to Spain's image as a traditional country dominated by old traditions. A distinctive aspect of Spanish culture in the context of European religious debates was the exclusivity of the Catholic Church and, even to date, the scarce interest shown by mainstream artists in other religious confessions. (Jews and Muslims were officially expelled from Spain in the late 15th century, and no efforts were made for their rehabilitation.) Institutionalized religion set up an alliance with absolutist tendencies in politics, and the Church became a source of power that continued into the start of the 20th century: religion remained one of the main aspects that divided the country in the decades leading up to the Civil War. Centralization of religion in Spain accounts for its strength but also for its lack of flexibility.
   In the early years of film, religious authorities distrusted cinema deeply. As in the United States, the Church led efforts to establish a system of censorship. In the 1930s, however, the Catholic authorities realized that cinema could be used to their advantage as propaganda. In a country divided between a strong anticlerical movement (both among intellectuals and among the urban working classes) and a virulent pro-church stance (mostly rural classes, aristocracy, and industrialists), the former side seldom got to use film for their purposes, but the Church did so repeatedly. Even toward the end of the Republican period, a number of films sympathetically portrayed priests and nuns as heroes. The most popular is El cura de aldea (The Village Priest, Francisco Camacho, 1936), which is at the origin of a tradition in Spanish cinema about goodly priests who act as fathers to their rural communities by exercising a benign moral authority. But a religious impulse was present in many plots, as the repertory of positive qualities and accepted endings came straight from the pulpit.
   After the Civil War, with a government that declared its allegiance to the Catholic Church and forbade public expression of any other system of beliefs, this trend intensified. Although there was no religious cinema in the early postwar period, one could argue that all films were pro-church, as Catholic values were the only ones allowed. The censorship committees consisted basically of priests, together with staunch Catholics from the military and the Falange party.
   Taking inspiration from Hollywood films about miracles (Song of Bernadette, Henry King, 1943), a more specific religious vein became prominent in Spanish cinema in the late 1940s and early 1950s. One important factor was the growing importance the Church started to have in politics after 1951 through the Opus Dei organization (just as the Falange was marginalized). Films with religious subjects became a small industry in themselves. They were the only ones allowed to open during the Holy Week and Easter festivities, and the country's climate of repression made them very popular. As in the pre-war period, the preferred stories were centered on conversions and the life of priests. The phenomenally successful Balarrasa (1951), directed by José Antonio Nieves Conde, established the trend, which continued with such titles as Misión blanca (White Mission, Juan de Orduña, 1946), La mies es mucha (Plentiful Harvest, José Luis Sáenz de Heredia, 1948), La señora de Fátima (Our Lady of Fatima, Rafael Gil, 1951), Marcelino pan y vino (Marcelino, Bread and Wine, Ladislao Vajda, 1955), La herida luminosa (The Luminous Wound, Tulio Demicheli, 1956), El frente infinito (The Endless Front, Pedro Lazaga, 1959), Molokai (Luis Lucia, 1959), and Teresa de Jesús (Saint Teresa, Juan de Orduña, 1961). Missionaries, nuns, monks, and other holy men became screen heroes for a whole decade. Although less centrally, the decade also featured a series of biblical stories, as in El judas (Ignacio F. Iquino, 1952). The films were earnest and humorless, often with high production values and verging on a hysterical belief in the literal contents of the Gospel.
   As social progress and technological development slowly replaced the more traditional religion-centered view of Spanish society, the image of the Catholic Church on film began to change. Institutions stopped believing in miracles, at least officially. There were still films with hero-priests, but these were now low-key protagonists of sentimental comedies in which, for instance, an old meddlesome rural priest sorted out the lives of families going astray, as in Un curita cañon (The Rocking Priest, Luis Maria Delgado, 1971), or, as in Sor Citroen (Sister Citroen, Pedro Lazaga, 1967), a nun could learn how to drive. Following the lead of The Sound of Music, singing nuns were back in fashion, and Rocío Dúrcal starred in a new version of the musical La hermana San Sulpicio (1927, 1934, and 1952), this time titled La novicia rebelde (The Rebellious Nun, Luis Lucia, 1971). Sara Montiel also portrayed a singing nun (raped by enemy soldiers early into the plot) in Esa mujer (That Woman, Mario Camus, 1969).
   The Transition brought a backlash in the treatment of religious issues on screen. Suddenly, as in Eloy de la Iglesia's El sacerdote (The Priest, 1978), priests were sexual perverts, or, as in Tasio (Montxo Armendáriz, 1984) and some early Pedro Almodovar films, selfish, corrupted, and repressive. Given the Church's obsession with (and their tight grip on) the representation of all things sexual for four decades, the temptation to show the clergy as sex maniacs was strong and seldom resisted. This is apparent even in Right-wing films like La boda del señor cura (The Priest's Wedding, Rafael Gil, 1979). In other films, like Los santos inocentes (The Holy Innocents, Mario Camus, 1984), the Church was just corrupt and selfish and their representatives just cowardly and deceitful. Fun nuns who doubled as romance writers, or were drug addicts or masochists, were the protagonists of Pedro Almodóvar's Entre tinieblas (Dark Habits, 1983), but the director was too generous with his characters for this to be taken as a negative depiction.
   As democracy became more stable and resentment less heated, treatment of religious issues became more balanced. Carlos Saura's Noche oscura (Dark Night, 1989) was a lay approach to San Juan de la Cruz's mysticism, and the more recent Teresa, el cuerpo de Cristo (Teresa, Body of Christ, 2007), directed by Ray Loriga and starring Paz Vega, certainly eroticized Saint Teresa's experience of God, but with a deep respect for the character and her work. Almodóvar's La mala educación (Bad Education, 2004), is a recent reminder of the effects of repressive religious education.

Historical dictionary of Spanish cinema. . 2010.


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