By Erin Hogan*
This audiovisual essay explores orientations–spatial, political, and sexual–in child-starred films from Spain. Recent coming-of-age cinema offers a counter narrative to its predecessor, the cine con niño child musical films (1950s-60s) from Francisco Franco’s military dictatorship (1939-75). This nuevo cine con niño engages with the norms of the genre for political back talk. Features since the beginning of the long Transition to democracy, such as Víctor Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive from 1973, through the early 2000s gaze retrospectively upon Francoist childhood from an opposing ideology, that of the losing side of the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), to re-orient the cine con niño along a number of vectors. They, thus, form two cines con niño that correspond to the right-left historical polarization of the “two Spains.”
Spatial re-orientation is perhaps most notable when contrasting the upwards verticality of Franco’s early National Catholic regime with the downwards and outwards trajectories of child protagonists in nuevo cine con niño films. The titular character of 1955’s Marcelino pan y vino ascends the stairs, a symbolic Jacob’s ladder, to the attic, representing Heaven, where the crucifix will accept his offering of bread and wine. Javi (Andoni Erburu), of 1997’s Secretos del corazón depicting the 60s, descends the stairs to the cellar-stable to retrieve wine for his family’s dinner table upstairs. Mischievous Civil War orphans of El espinazo del diablo (Del Toro 2001) are punished with a stations of the cross, in which they carry the crucifix down to earth as battle victories slip away from the Republicans. Ana (Ana Torrent), from Erice’s film set in 1940, scurries outward to the margins of her town to befriend and make her offering to an outcasted kindred spirit, a fugitive fighting the resistance to Francoism. Carol (Clara Lago), of El viaje de Carol (Uribe 2002) set during the war, Moncho (Manuel Lozano), of La lengua de las mariposas (Cuerda 1999) set on war’s eve, and Secretos’ Javi cross the metaphorical thresholds of bridges or rivers in their sexual and political awakenings.
Following Kathryn Bond Stockton’s theorization of the queer child’s development as sideways rather than upwards, this video essay traces the footprints of child protagonists in the cines con niño. It features recurring actor movement and mimetic motifs in props and set design for close readings informed by Stockton that reveal how the nuevo cine con niño re-routes child leads. Balletic intertitles and arrows mirror character movement and are loosely choreographed to turn-of-the-century French composer Claude Debussy’s own musical reflection on youth in his Children’s Corner suite. Ultimately, Agustí Villaronga’s pas de deux of the two cines pivots. His Catalan-language film Black Bread (2010) perceptively side-steps the political and sexual normativity of the dueling cines con niño while queering the depiction of postwar childhood. Such spatial re-orientations showcase young protagonists’ growth against the grain of Francoist and heteronormative ideologies.