Álex de la Iglesia, initially championed by Pedro Almodóvar, and at one time the enfant terrible of Spanish film, still makes film critics nervous. The director of some of the most important films of the Post-Franco era – Acción mutante, El día de la bestia, Muertos de risa – de la Iglesia receives here a full-length study of his work. Breaking away from the pious tradition of acclaiming art-house auteurs, the book tackles a new sort of beast: the popular auteur, who brings the provocation of the avant-garde to popular genres such as horror and comedy. It brings together Anglo-American film theory, an exploration of the legal and economic history of Spanish audio-visual culture, and a comprehensive knowledge of Spanish cultural forms and traditions (esperpento, sainete costumbrista) with a detailed textual analysis of all of de la Iglesia's seven feature films.
Álex de la Iglesia represents a special phenomenon in Spanish cinema. This chapter deals with his life, presenting some significant observations about the development of his career, and, furthermore, throws light on the ambivalent critique of television that runs through much of his cinema. In cinema studies, de la Iglesia is regarded as not an individual who makes films, but a protean set of alliances shaping and reshaping around a fixed core of collaborators. This collaborative core, which formed in Bilbao prior to any cinematic work, is at the heart of all the feature films, as well as assembling in whole or in part for Mama, Detrás del sirimiri, Mirindas asesinas and Marbella antivicio. In this light, the chapter emphasises that de la Iglesia's films cannot be considered as the work of an individual, but that they take on greater significance when patterns of collaboration are considered within them
This chapter deals with Álex de la Iglesia's film, Acción mutante. The protagonists of Acción mutante are a collection of politically radicalised disabled men who have formed a ‘mutant action’ terrorist group to carry out guerrilla warfare on a culture obsessed with fitness and beauty, some time in an ill-defined future. Acción mutante is an all-out assault on what de la Iglesia has called the ‘conspiracy of boredom’ in Spanish cinema. It tends to literalise what many films leave implicit or metaphorical, and there could be no clearer example than the stapling shut of Patricia's mouth for the voyage to Axturias, an image that is regularly reproduced and has become iconic of the film. Acción mutante does not trade in the allusiveness so beloved of art cinema's proponents, but this does not prevent one from examining what the film leaves out in its articulation of sexual difference, nor what it says without knowing it says it. Its making coincided with the rapid expansion of private Spanish television, a development the film itself draws on. Acción mutante asks its audience to align itself with a Machiavellian individualism and a distrust of, and scepticism towards, organised political action. By making its heroes marginal and disfigured, though, the film refuses the humanism under whose cover individualism usually travels.
El día de la bestia, released in 1995, was Álex de la Iglesia's second feature-length film, and marked the beginning of the director's association with the producer Andrés Vicente Gómez and his Lolafilms organisation. It was both a commercial and critical success in Spain. The plot of El día de la bestia concerns a Basque Catholic priest, Father Ángel Berriartúa, who, in his research role at the University of Deusto, discovers that the predictions of the apocalypse by St John have been miscalculated. El día de la bestia is probably still de la Iglesia's best-known film. This is certainly the case internationally, where it was critically well received. El día de la bestia also appeared at a number of film festivals, such as the Brussels International Festival Fantastic Film in 1996, where it was awarded the prestigious Méliès d' or for Best European Fantastic Film. Academic criticism has been more ambivalent about it than reviews in the press.
Perdita Durango, by Álex de la Iglesia, was an international co-production with Spanish and Mexican finance. The qualities of its protagonists are at odds with the principles of comedy, which regulate de la Iglesia's fictional worlds, where there is usually room for neither heroism nor beauty. In the film, the two leads embody a traditional form of wish fulfilment for the spectator, sexual potency and mastery of the world around them. Perdita can be considered as a ferocious parody of timeworn American ideologies about the pleasures of Mexico. It may not say anything empirically valuable about social relations along the US–Mexico border, but it does confirm that the cinema of de la Iglesia is firmly on the side of spectacle and against the traditions of cinematic realism.
Muertos de risa tells the story of the rise and fall of two fictional stars of Spanish popular television, the comedians Nino and Bruno. One of its most striking aspects is its retro style and 1970s look. Costume is another essential ingredient in the film, recreating the past. The costumes in Muertos de risa are fastidiously created to complement the sets and give the impression of verisimilitude. Muertos de risa emphasises how important television was as a shared experience and how it produced memories held in common. The film, as a whole, suggests that the political legacy of the past should not be forgotten as the past is revisited from the safety of the present. And yet, one is entitled to be critical about the nostalgia, which remains in the film for such ‘communal’ viewing events.
La comunidad invokes or cites genre cinema without ever simply inhabiting any single genre. It is probably most accurate to say that it is a black comedy with elements of horror and thriller. This film presents principal generic traits of horror without recourse to the supernatural. Horror in this foreclosed and yet modern Madrid resides in nothing otherworldly, but in the quotidian itself. By virtue of its casting, La comunidad seems destined to be thought of as the most ‘Spanish’ film of a director heavily influenced by the commercial genres of Hollywood. The publicity material for the film – in effect the logo of La comunidad – implies as much, showing all fourteen members of the comunidad arrayed in an impassable line. Collectively, they embody a continuum of Spanish cinema/theatre/television history, as sources of autochthonous themes, types and genres.
This chapter deals with Álex de la Iglesia's film 800 Balas, which was supposedly inspired by the stories of the stuntmen still working on the old western sets in Almería. De la Iglesia tells the viewers that ‘800 Balas reneges on this original filmic manifesto by casting a boy of about ten as one of its two central protagonists’. The film is homage to the hundreds of Spanish and Italian stuntmen who were employed to carry out the jobs that the US stars ‘could not or would not do’, and, in a subtle manner, also deals with a social reality: the issue of immigration. 800 Balas as a whole suggests that mothers, though well meaning, are not to be trusted; the final images say that blind faith in the father will eventually be rewarded.
Crimen Ferpecto, Álex de la Iglesia's seventh feature film as director and second as a producer with Pánico, was released in October 2004. It returns to the black comedy of El día de la bestia, Muertos de risa and La comunidad, and, in many ways, is a compendium of the earlier films, with its sudden violence, explicit and exaggerated misogyny, and vicious and none-too-innocent children. In addition, the film recycles images and motifs from the earlier films. This is a cinema that pulls against the ‘ontology of the photographic image’ identified by André Bazin. According to Bazin, the cinema has a privileged relation to the real, and ‘enjoys a certain advantage in virtue of this transference of reality from the thing to its reproduction’.
This chapter provides a synoptic view on the contributions of Álex de la Inglesia, a unique filmmaker. Jordi Sánchez Navarro, in Freaks en acción notes that de la Iglesia's films address an audience fluent in television, superhero comics, the costumbrista humour of Bruguera's comic strips, the sense of adventure of Tintin, the cinema of genres, Hitchcock and Star Wars. De la Iglesia's two projects immediately after Crimen Ferpecto – the television movie La habitación del niño and the feature-length Oxford Crimes – appear to illustrate the bifurcation in the director's work. Oxford Crimes is a literary adaptation based on the novel The Oxford Murders by Guillermo Martínez, and is to be filmed in English with a British cast. It is a thriller, and is therefore firmly rooted in a popular genre.