Lola Millás

Together with Berlanga

Dear Luis,

Now, so many years after we started to work so that Spanish cinema was known beyond our borders, I need to get in touch with you, even if it is electronically, so that you accompany me to carry out a task I have just been asked to do and of which you are the protagonist. That's why I wouldn't know how to start without you.

The Filmoteca (Film Archive) of Valencia, that region where we were both born, is working on a website called Berlanga Film Museum, where they intend to collect “on line” everything that has had something to do with your world. This world here, because now I don't really understand where you are even though, taking into account what they say about the theory of the eternal return, I have looked for you a thousand times among the trees of the Casa de Campo and the Retiro, in the Doré cinema, and also in some of the restaurants of the old Madrid, where we used to have our business lunches, although they really ended up looking more like a sequence from one of your films.

As you can see, they have told me about the task the Filmoteca Valenciana intends to carry out through a modern language, and adapted to the new technologies. I don’t think you need an explanation because, as you can see, it has a certain touch of surrealism and that is something you have always known a lot about. On the other hand, if you had filmed that fourth film in the Leguineches saga which was left up in the air, for which the Spanish Ministry of Culture is to blame, according to your producer, I’m sure that the saga itself could have its own website and it could be visited on the Net, a place through which we are now used to surf without having a ship; Is it possible to have any more surrealism than that?

Well, Luis, if it’s all right with you we will talk about the late seventies, when the then General Director of Cultural Relations, Amaro González de Mesa, asked me to create a film archive with collections of Spanish films to circulate them round cultural centres and Spanish departments in foreign universities. Just like Amaro, who was a very sensible and funny man, although he was also an ambassador, said, the Direction was spreading Spanish culture in every country where there was a diplomatic or consular representation. It did it through our literature, promoting our writers, with painting exhibitions, live music, grants and everything within their reach, regarding culture. However, strangely, in the middle of the century of the image, the cinema didn’t have a space to represent it. For me, that was a great proposal and, although I had no idea how to put together a film archive or how to manage everything related to intellectual rights, leaving out those questions and taking into account the degree of madness that has always been part of me when taking decisions, I agreed to take that wonderful “cinema” job.

The first thing I did was to turn to friends like Ramón Rubio, from the Filmoteca Española (National Film Archive), for help, and through him I got to you, starting thus a chain of contacts with producers, directors and, later, film actors, of whom I have good memories. But now we are trying to bring those moments when we first met to the present. Actually, it was quite simple because you and also your producer, Alfredo Matas, were willing to transfer the rights of your films to the new Film Archive of the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs; and not only that, you also contributed with ideas which were very useful when it came to starting such an adventure.

“I think the first thing you should do”, you said, “is to retrieve all the copies of the Spanish films which have been stored in the basements of embassies and consulates for years. I even think that some ambassadors must be sitting on cans of film of some specific titles they do not want to get rid of. I don’t think it will be difficult because, as soon as you tell them they have with them inflammable material and that the Ministry is willing to replace their material with a catalogue of Spanish cinema with means which adjust to current times, you’ll see their reaction”. That was why, following your wise advice, I started to make up the contents of something that they call an ordinance in the Administration and that, as its name suggests, circulates round all the representations of Spain abroad.

The answer came swiftly and that way we retrieved copies that were thought to be lost and that went on to increase the National Film Archive collection.

Luis, we gradually became accomplices, friends and also travel partners, and I think it was almost without realising, in this fantastic world known as the cinema, within which you knew how to move very well.

In 1983, when the Filmoteca de Exteriores (Film Archive of the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs) had been open for just over four years, the Director of the Institute for the Promotion of Hispanic Culture of the University of Southern California, Ramón Araluce, together with his Assistant Director Samuel Mark, suggested organising a season of your films so that it would start at that Institute and then go to other American universities until it visited twenty in two years. This project, which sounds easy to carry out, took a while to put together, and there, again, we could rely on your collaboration and Alfredo Mata’s too, that pleasant and educated producer who I remember we went to Paris with, but that would be later. The General Director, excited to see that the project he had asked me to carry out one day, without having an assigned budget, was growing, because at the beginning the film archive lived on the bits of money it managed to get from the rest of the sections which made up the General Direction, didn’t make any objections to the expense which, at that time, meant adding English subtitles to the copies.

So, you went there, together with your films, and after a welcome that even you did not expect you witnessed the premiere of “Esa pareja feliz” (“That Happy Couple”) at the Norris Theatre of the University of Southern California, on 12 November 1983. A little later, on the 20th you closed the season with an encounter with your new audience and after that the season went on its journey to the University of San Diego.

When you came back, while you were giving me details of that journey of yours, I listened to you thinking you were telling me an adventure from Mr. Marshall in a different register, because you had suddenly become Kafka.

As you already know, there are always opinions for everything, so there were some who thought your humour was too local and it would not be understood in the United States. We were so ignorant!   But they did understand it and, since then and until my retirement, your films never stopped being shown in the States. Because, look, Luis, there are things which are difficult to explain, that is, they are difficult to understand in a Public Institution. But you, and I, trusted our intuition and whenever we did that things went well, perhaps because we were both a little “falleros” (festive, bold, enterprising) or simply because we were dreamers. I must also say that we were lucky that Amaro González de Mesa was succeeded as General Director by my new boss, and still a beloved friend, Miguel Arias, although, like everyone else, he ended up becoming an ambassador... He is also a dreamer and accepted an explosive recipe without hesitation. I can't remember whose idea it was, but it had to be prepared as follows: Sarcasm to taste, a good helping of the eroticism in “Tamaño natural” (“Life Size”), a pinch of the unease and tackiness in “Plácido”, another pinch of the hope and ingenuity in “Bienvenido, Mister Marshall” (“Welcome, Mr. Marshall”), some touches of the caustic acid in “El verdugo” (“The Executioner”), and equal amounts of some of the loneliness in “Calabuch” and the tenderness in “Esa pareja feliz” (“That Happy Couple”). Then, season to taste with the apparent or real madness of your trilogy: “La escopeta nacional” (“The National Shotgun”), “Patrimonio nacional” (“National Heritage”) and “Nacional III” (“National III”). That way we will eventually meet on our way to Timbuktu or Calabuig, which is practically the same, as long as we remember to pronounce the word “Austro-Hungarian”. 

Thanks to this magical recipe, we made several journeys and in one of them, precisely with Miguel Arias, we found ourselves inaugurating the Casa de América in Madrid in the very Palacio de Linares, that mysterious space where you placed the characters of your trilogy. You looked a little disoriented in that place which you had made yours at a different time, but Alfredo Matas tried to redirect you through those restored rooms on whose ceilings there had come out, as if by magic, paintings that the passing of time had hidden. Your confusion reached its highest point when you found out that there was a kitchen in the basement of the Palace... You said the marquesses never had a kitchen because they were brought their food from Lhardy, and you were right, that kitchen was new. We ended our journey with a lunch in the old dining room of the marquesses and it was a real luxury to have it with you.

You were always ready to give your support to any initiative which helped the foundations of our film industry to be more and more solid, and support the promotion of this seventh art which so many people established in a position of power find it so difficult to accept as part of our culture.

That’s how we travelled to Paris together, to present another of your seasons in what was then known as the Centro Cultural Español (Spanish Cultural Centre) and later became the Instituto Cervantes.

 I remember that journey in a very special way because Alfredo also joined us, together with one of your pet actresses, Amparo Soler Leal, while you were accompanied by your inseparable María Jesús. On our way back, at the airport, we lived a Berlanguian scene, because you, Luis, were the most Berlanguian of all your characters. You were about to go through passport control when, suddenly, your hand-luggage, which you never let out of your sight, tore open and left the collection of erotic books you had got by combing different corners of the city scattered all over the floor.

Your cinema was realist, impressionist, and it still is nowadays. It was also often premonitory, although we still haven’t managed to send “Everybody to Jail”.

I remember that when Almodovar’s cinema could not be accepted in Spain because of the narrow-mindedness we were immersed in, you already announced that Pedro would be a new window for the Spanish cinema which would open new paths. And there he is. You were right.

For me, who followed closely how the Spanish cinema, with the task carried out by the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, was not only well-received in other countries, but the demand for it was unstoppable, your example was exceptional because your films were an unexplored treasure beyond our borders. Of course, the example of the USA was something unusual because, on top of everything, those universities had enough means to promote material which was unknown until then. But no cultural centre or Spanish department of any foreign university was left without knowing about your cinema. Sometimes, they could count on your presence and sometimes they couldn’t and, of course, you did not like that because, as everybody knew because you had said it on countless occasions, you suffered, as a Freudian pathology, of a God complex, and as such, you should be able to watch at the same time all the TV channels, all the films that were being shown everywhere and, of course, you would have liked to be in Lima and in Bello Horizonte at the same time, but neither friends nor family could please you on this subject.

Our mutual understanding grew at the same time as the funds of the Filmoteca, and also while I was in charge of creating the Audiovisual area of the Casa de América, so one way or another, we always ended up getting together to support the organization of a new festival in Spain. That’s what happened with the Peñíscola Comedy Film Festival, to which we managed to add a section for Latin American comedy, after several editions, so that this festival, which was successful in many ways, remained thus connected to the Casa de América and later, as a result of these contacts, the Filmoteca de Exteriores would be not only for Spanish films but for films in Spanish, because it started to acquire the rights from directors from the other side of the Atlantic.

Now, a few years later, all this, which seemed to happen almost naturally, allows us to see all the work that was being created from other people’s knowledge, knowledge that sometimes became friendship. Right now, when I’m writing this without much thought I would like to tell you that, as it happened with you, I have also been pointlessly looking for some of our other common friends like Agustín Gonzalez, Juan Antonio Bardem or Tedy Villalba. As regards Tedy Villalba, whose partner Sol Carnicero has given me this task for your future Museum, I have even carried out a search which took me to a cake shop in Valencia, next to the Estación del Norte (Valencia’s main railway station). Tedy and I used to run to buy “empanandillas de boniato” (sweet potato pasties) in the short time we had to change from the train from Madrid to another one which would take us to Benicarló. As I said, everything has been pointless, Luis, but I won’t give up hope, because if this reunion with you in cyberspace works, I mean, if it shows me a different side of existence which remained hidden, I am willing to go and look for the rest, because I find it impossible to forget you.

The Peñíscola Festival was great, it was successful. We managed to form a large group of friends with whom I could later carry out other activities, but then some politician or other, who also wanted to be God, ate it up.

I remember that nothing could stop us because every bit we could contribute to the cinema, both in and out of Spain, was like discovering new worlds, and that’s why we never stopped taking part in the Film Festival of Teruel, where we used to go in a taxi that the Festival organisers would send us so that we wouldn’t lose our way, because here it has always been said that “Teruel doesn’t exist”. But we knew where it was and we thought it was just as important as any other place. I remember a journey during which you were proofreading the novels that were going to compete for The Vertical Smile award, in which you were a member of the panel. You didn’t talk much during that journey... Later, in a hotel next to the Plaza del Torico, we could meet some character like Pedro Beltrán, who used to sing to zarzuela music while he represented the assault to the Spanish Congress on 23F (failed coup d’état in 1981), before the astonished eyes of a Russian committee which was part of the group of guests. He was the one who told us that you filmed in a state of angelic foolishness because, apparently, it was said that you boasted of going to shootings without a pre-established plan and that you left your cast of actors free until, suddenly, something started you off and there started the “silence, we’re rolling”. There, in Teruel, there were lots of things going on and people never missed a showing, especially one of those round tables in which directors, actors, screenwriters... all the film people, at their finest, took part. Each and every one of them had got there by taxi, like us. I don’t know whether you will remember that time when Pedro Beltrán’s taxi was taking a while to arrive and we were all worried because, among other things, we did not have mobile phones yet and there was no way to find out what was going on. In the end he arrived, but first Pedro had asked the driver to stop in Cuenca to visit a relative of his, and he had.

Now I remember that unforgettable dinner in Valencia, during one of the editions of Cinema Jove (International Film Festival for young film makers) where Ricardo Muñoz Suay was proud to have got you two together, you and Juan Antonio Bardem. He said you loved each other, maybe even too much, which must have been true because after a while, in between dishes, you gave us the incredible news that Juan and you had just got married. And this was not your only love, because your understanding with Rafael Azcona was widely known. Azcona was also a Berlanguian character, with whom you used to meet to write in the noisiest places of Madrid, like the El Corte Inglés café, always full of people carrying their shopping, who shouted all the time to get their coffees. You could spend hours there talking about your things until, suddenly, something or somebody made the spark of inspiration light up. This way, I mean, through inspiration, was how you decided to get into the film world while you were watching “El Quijote” (“The Quixote”) by Pabst. But we were talking about your relationship with Azcona. According to your own words you were a co-habiting couple because next to him you felt like a lesbian homosexual. That’s how crazy and surprising everything could be in your company. I never managed to find out how far that sense of humour of yours, which left us dumbfounded, could go, nor where some of the ideas or fantasies put together from real life came from, because you always tried to create confusion, like that day when at the door of a restaurant where we were going to have lunch, you insisted on giving you car keys to a priest dressed in casual clothes, with his clerical collar, so that he would park it, because you were convinced that that was his job.

There was a time when I thought you were just another member of the Filmoteca team and I don’t think I was the only one who felt like that. I remember one morning when we were crossing one of the Patios of the Ministry, we came across one of the porters who normally worked with us and who was pushing a wheelbarrow full of films, which he had probably just collected from the diplomatic bag.  José was a shy and alert young man who you almost had to force to talk. Then, once he started, everything was easier. Well, when he was next to us, without taking his eyes off the pile of film cans he was carefully transporting, he said: “Bienvenido Mister Marshall” (“Welcome, Mr. Marshall”). That encounter was beautiful and unique. I hope you haven’t forgotten it.

You left your mark in many parts of that Filmoteca which was created under the protection of democracy, coinciding with the end of censorship in Spain. That censorship which made you suffer so much and which cut so many metres off your films in the most absurd way.   In 1996, on the 50th anniversary of the General Direction of Cultural Relations, they published a book which, as was commissioned by the General Director, Santiago Cabanas, was coordinated by our Deputy Director, Juan Romero de Terreros. A special person with whom work became fun. We had the honour to have your help for the film section and there is your writing, which I read from time to time, especially when I am overwhelmed with nostalgia.

But I did not get here today to be sad, although now I remember you could not come with me to a showing of your work held at Universidad Autónoma de México, thanks to Iván Trujillo’s participation. I think you had just had sciatica which had tortured you for a while and, logically, the last thing you wanted to do was to spend twelve hours on a plane.

Look, Luis, I have to confess that I am a little confused, because when I start to remember our adventures, the memories come rushing together wanting to get out all at once and, there are so many of them that I do not know how to organise them. That’s why I will stop here and I will wait, impatiently, for any sign you may be able to send me from wherever you are, because this Net thing performs miracles and if we get it to work, we will try and find a way not to lose track of each other again. In any case, you are in my memory, with your laughs and your jokes and, sometimes, your anger, and you will remain there as long as my hard disk stays in good shape.. 

Lola Millás, 2012