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Friday, January 25, 2013

Juan Antonio Bardem: Calle Mayor (1956)

Calle Mayor, 1956
Spanish theatrical release poster
no copyright infringement intended

Calle Mayor, the Main Street... First time I watched this movie sometime in the 1960s or 1970s. It was one evening, we were at home the whole family, and together with us there was a close friend of my parents, an aged lady, distinguished and very nice. The movie was aired on TV. After it ended, for a long while everybody remained silent. It was a special feeling, hard to name. And then, suddenly, the lady asked why hadn't Juan let Isabel make him happy, as that would have been the natural way. The story of Isabel was also her own story, she had never been married.

I didn't know anything about Betsy Blair, actually I was confounding her name with that of another very different actress. And now this revelation! As for the director, Juan Antonio Bardem, I had once read in a movie magazine an interview given by him, and I had seen, a couple of years before, Muerte de un ciclista. But this movie was special. Beautiful and sad.

I remained with the memory of Calle Mayor, and I placed it for ever among the greatest movies. Together with the memory of that friend of my parents, with her sudden question, beautiful and sad like the spell of this movie.

Along the years new movies came, new directors and new actors, and the fame of Calle Mayor, of Juan Antonio Bardem, of Betsy Blair, started to fade among cinema goers, toward oblivion. Decades have passed, and I watched many other great movies, so it has proved difficult to keep my list of masterpieces unchanged. But, I must say, Calle Mayor remained there, unflinching, among the greatest movies I have ever seen.

There was also another thing. Along the years I found DVD copies for many great movies. Not for Calle Mayor, it was impossible to be found. A video on youTube or some other web site, either. It was a movie living in my memory, lost for ever.

Meanwhile I had read about another movie with Betsy Blair, Marty, made in 1955, where she was playing a similar role (also the plot was somehow similar, up to a point, Marty ending in an optimistic tone). Well, I didn't have the chance to watch that movie, and Betsy Blair has remained for me Isabel from Calle Mayor. The unforgettable image of a dry and shy spinster, forgotten by time and left to God, who transfigures herself as she is bathed by the rays of love.

Last year I found unexpectedly  a DVD copy on Amazon. I bought it immediately, though its region was not matching my player. It took then several months to find a multi-region player. I installed it on a computer that broke down. It took another couple of months till the computer was fixed.

And finally I was able to watch the movie, the second time after more than forty years. An encounter with a long lost friend, you're rubbing your eyes, you cannot believe it's true, despite the obvious.

How is this movie after so many years? It has kept its poignancy, and it has kept its spell.

Like Muerte de un ciclista, the other movie of Bardem that I watched, also Calle Mayor operates on multiple levels.

The most obvious is the neorealist level. A province town in the Spain of the 1950's, where time has died. The main street, the Calle Mayor, like an attempt of this place to claim an identity. Pathetic and vain. There is a church, there is a sordid café (or a brothel, whichever), there is a town library (under the billiards parlor), and there are the arcades, beautiful while not enough to demonstrate life deserves to be lived. People light candles at home and go to church on Sundays. The Civil War is still there in family wounds, while already forgotten history. Isabel's father was a colonel in the army of Franco, killed in the war, she is just an old spinster. There is a group of guys making stupid jokes to run away the boredom.  Juan (José Suárez, in the best role of his career) will pretend to fall for Isabel, to make her ridicule. She believes him and becomes happy. The story goes on till it is too late. Maybe he falls in love, too, that'd be the natural way. Only nothing can be natural in that place. Anyway, Juan has to chose between the courage to remain with her and to be happy  (covert by the ridicule of his friends, and ultimately of the whole town) and the cowardice to just get out. Of course he'll choose cowardice, because that's the way it is.

There is a political dimension: all this happens in the Spain of Franco. Bardem adds here a hint (I noticed this method also in Muerte de un ciclista; there the female lead was dying in a position reminding the hanging upside down of Mussolini and Clara Petacci). Here in Calle Mayor the hint lays in the name of one of the personages:a honest and cultivated guy (played by Yves Massard) who came from Madrid to stay in the town for a while. He is the only one who criticizes the prank made to Isabel, and eventually he is the only one who sees the life positively. His name is Federico (an inside homage to Federico Sánchez, pseudonym used then by Jorge Semprún to manage the clandestine activities of the Communist Party of Spain - wiki). 

There is also another level, beyond the neorealist drama. I would name it existential level. It is not only about that particular place in that particular time. It's about a universal experience. The street, the Calle Mayor, where all those people walk frenetically, like to show themselves that they really exist, this street comes in the movie like a dream. A dream in subtle dark tones, with imprecise images. An illusion of life. For several times the movie shows the railroad station, where trains are leaving, while no person is able to get on and escape from the illusion. Juan remains trapped in the town stupidness, Isabel remains trapped, ultimately everybody there is trapped, everybody is a spinster. A place of zombies. The impossibility of life to get off the illusion, to become reality. And the question addressed to us, who are watching the movie: is this real or are we just participants in a dream? Are we really alive?

Soportales de la Calle Mayor de Palencia
the Arcades of the Main Street in Palencia
(where the movie was shot)
no copyright infringement intended

And beyond all these levels, Calle Mayor (the same as Muerte de un ciclista) is a reference to other essential works in the history of cinema. Firstly, Fellini's Vitelloni: more has been said about their similarities. Then, the beginning scene (with the guys making the joke with the coffin) calls in mind Buñuel; also the superb scene at the end, with Isabel beyond a window washed by rain, an accolade for the Meshes of the Afternoon with its celebrated image (Maya Deren beyond a window washed by echos of reality and illusion) that in turn had come from Weinberg's Autumn Fire.


It happened that after watching Calle Mayor on DVD, I found a video copy on youTube, uploaded recently. It is my pleasure to invite you to see the movie. Please enjoy!

(Juan Antonio Bardem)



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