Costumbrismo


Costumbrismo
   A perspective based on "costumbrismo" shapes some key manifestations of Spanish culture, including literature, theater, painting, and film. The concept refers to the representation of a series of traditional types and activities linked to the rural and working classes in Spain, which become typical and recognizable even if they are not always "realistic." In a country with a weak national identity, costumbrismo came to replace historical discourses of nationalist legitimation in popular art. The costumbrista approach takes for granted that audiences will see something of themselves without taking representation too literally. Everyday behaviors in a costumbrismo context become interesting, sometimes absurd, sometimes even grotesque manifestations of some essential "Spanishness."
   Even though apparently realistic, types and local color predominate over psychology and cultural identity, and an explicit social agenda is often absent. This trend in Spanish art can be appreciated in the paintings of Velazquez, in the novels of Pérez Galdós, and in the extremely popular plays (known as "sainetes") by Madrid author Carlos Arniches and the Álvarez Quintero brothers, who set their plots in a fantasy Andalusia. The rural films of Marcel Pagnol in France or even the Ealing Comedies in Britain share with Spanish "costumbrismo" a light-hearted and strictly unepic approach to a notion of common people. But in Spain, this approach has been identified as a specific set of stereotypes and conventions that have acquired a centrality seldom found in other cultures.
   On film, it has a long tradition, starting with the earliest Spanish fiction sketch, Riña en el café, shot by Fructuós Gelabert in 1897. From then on, portrayals of popular backgrounds in Zarzuelas, sainetes, and bullfighting sagas tend to fall within costumbrismo in its recreation of cultural types like the gypsy singer and the paleto (the Spanish version of the illiterate hick). Theatrical sainetes in particular were a frequent source for Spanish cinema until the Civil War. These were short plays that celebrated the lives of the working class and provided a gallery easily recognized types. Actors became hugely popular by specializing in playing one specific type, and in many instances their specialities were transferred to film.
   The key figure of costumbrismo in the 1940s was Edgar Neville, in a series of films including El crimen de la calle Bordadores (The Crime of Bordadores Street, 1946), El último caballo (The Last Horse, 1950), and Mi calle (My Street, 1960). Other filmmakers like Fernando Fernán Gómez, turned their wit and a keen eye to a genre that was in those years popular and unproblematic. The Franco regime saw the tradition as a way of strengthening national identity and even replacing the idea of cultural nationalism with comic particularities and regional accents. But, of course, in dealing with realities in the lives of the poor there was a potential for more politically relevant approaches.
   As the 1940s ended, costumbrismo began to assimilate the influence of neorealism without its critical edge, thus acquiring ironic qualities. When the idealized types and fanciful situations were linked to real events, stories showed their grounding in social reality. Given the Spanish situation in the early 1950s (a country isolated, under tight ideological control, intent on forgetting its past, with high rates of poverty and an ailing economy), it was logical that the relationship between costumbrismo and reality acquired social implications. The tradition of critical costumbrismo in Spanish cinema starts with Luis G. Berlanga: a film like ¡Bienvenido Mr. Marshall! (Welcome Mr. Marshall! 1953) starts with a costumbrista village and situation, and adds a layer of concern for a precise historical moment. Costumbrismo is also scriptwriter Rafael Azcona's strength (he has claimed his school for writing was simply observing people in the streets and cafés), and his earliest collaborations with Marco Ferreri (El pisito [ The Little Flat, 1959 ], El cochecito [ The Motorized Wheelchair, 1960 ]) take Berlanga's irony even further, to the extent that authorities began to show concern about such bleak comedies. Berlanga himself continued with some of the most critical sainetes in Spanish film: Plácido (1961) uses conventions of sainete to build up a tapestry on the hypocrisy of provincial bourgeoisie, and El verdugo (The Executioner, 1963) is a film that uses an absurdist sainete situation as starting point, as well as a typical sainete cast of characters, to become progressively blacker and more focused on an abstract, ethical question.
   After the end of the Franco period, costumbrismo was at risk of becoming nostalgia. Films dealing with the postwar, like Mario Camus' La colmena (The Beehive, 1982), took good care to add a critical layer to the catalog of types. A new approach to costumbrismo can be found in some films by Pedro Almodovar, including Pepi, Luci, Bom y otras chicas del montón (Pepi, Luci, Bom, 1981), ¿¿Qué he hecho yo para merecer esto!! (1984), and Volver (2006), which explore the new popular backgrounds with a particular interest for off-beat types and scant reference to political reality.

Historical dictionary of Spanish cinema. . 2010.


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