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Asunción Martínez-Arbelaiz
Noodle Expert Member

December 18, 2019

Not all films made in or about Spain portray it, and its history, accurately. Here's a guide to building a cinematic experience that will inform your cultural understanding before you study abroad.

Many films depict life as a teenager or twentysomething in Europe, but few do it well. Fewer still do it in a way that will prepare you to study abroad in Spain. With a focus on Spain, I’ve compiled a list of great movies that will jumpstart your language and cultural knowledge.

Having trouble getting started? "Italian for Beginners" (2000) will, as the title suggests, amp up your enthusiasm for learning a foreign language. It will convince you that studying languages can be enjoyable, and will impact your entire life. The movie interweaves stories from a group of thirtysomething Danes who sign up for an Italian class at a Community Center, detailing the various twists and turns of their friendship and lives.

From Copenhagen and Venice, we’ll now fly to Barcelona. No, I’m not thinking of "Vicky, Cristina, Barcelona" (2008) — sorry, Woody, but I don’t think this movie opens anyone’s eyes to unexplored aspects of Spanish culture. A more interesting film{: target="_blank"} is "L’auberge espagnole" (Cédric Klapisch, 2002), whose title refers to a French expression meaning an inn where you bring your own food, or, more metaphorically, a chaotic situation.

To demonstrate how difficult translating an idiom or a fixed expression can be, notice the different titles this movie has been given in different geographical locations: in Great Britain the movie opened as “Pot Luck," and in North America as “The Spanish Apartment." In Spain, however, we came to know it as “Una casa de locos" — literally, “A House for Crazy People."

The movie is based on the experiences of a French university student, Xavier, who shares an apartment in Barcelona with other exchange students from other Western European countries. It is a romanticized representation of what the Erasmus year can be like, since after many complicated love affairs, and very few visits to the university, Xavier decides to follow his true passion and become a writer instead of a bureaucrat.

Once you have arrived in Barcelona, you should familiarize yourself with the style of well-known and representative Spanish directors such as Almodóvar, Amenábar, Médem, Bollaín, and Bigas Lunas. The list is endless, but as a Spanish teacher, I would recommend you begin with “¡Ay Carmela!" (1991) by Carlos Saura, which portrays the ethical and personal dilemmas a group of nomadic comedians face during the Spanish civil war.

The film features a scene where Carmela, played by Carmen Maura, tries to teach a Polish prisoner, an International Brigadist, how to pronounce the /ñ/ sound in the word España — it is one of the greatest homages to Spanish teachers in film. There are many other excellent movies on the civil war, which is unsurprising given its consequences are evident in contemporary Spanish society. This is why watching a few movies will help you understand not only the actual and complicated spectrum of political parties, but also the 40 years of dictatorship that came after this war.

After watching a few civil war movies, you better move on — pasar página — from depressing topics and connect with Pedro Almódovar's lively, personal style; in Spain, people say that you either love or hate him, however his movies will never leave you indifferent.

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown" is a classic movie screened in Spanish classes. Students usually recognize a very young Antonio Banderas, but you might also recognize the main actress who goes berserk after being abandoned by her lover: yes, she is the passionate and temperamental Carmen Maura again! She was, unsurprisingly, named “Almovódar's muse," since she has a very prominent role in many of his movies.

All of these movies portray the lifestyle of Spaniards in real apartments, in real neighborhoods (usually in Madrid), usually dealing with very tormented relationships. After watching some of these films, you will be equipped with some knowledge of the history and culture of Spain.

Now, from Almodóvar´s Madrid, we will finish our trip by heading north toward San Sebastián, a city in the Basque Country, where the International Film Festival is celebrated every September, attracting many film industry celebrities and bigwigs.

Two new Basque movies were just released in the 2014 festival: Pablo Malo's “Lasa and Zabala," a movie about two young terrorists murdered in the ‘80s, and “Loreak," co-directed by Jon Garaño and Jose Mari Goenaga, which presents an intimate portrait of relationships. They both show us that lesser-known languages, such as Basque, can find their own way and have an audience in the competitive film industry.

The movie “Bertsolari" (2011) showcases other interesting forms of expression and performance. The film highlights the competitions surrounding the singing of improvised oral verses, illustrating a distinct feature of the Basque language and culture.

This completes our cinematic journey! Movies can show the importance of language diversity in our lives, and each one can be a different window to a novel, fascinating world. But now it is time to really travel: choose your movie and start your adventure!