Thursday, October 30, 2008

The View From The Street

The cars with cameras attached to the roof were spotted several months ago cruising the streets of major Spanish cities. Now Google’s Street View application has emerged in Spain, at least for Madrid, Barcelona, and a couple of the other larger Spanish cities. Naturally, the first thing I did was try and look for my house. I wasn’t really expecting my insignificant little street to be included, so I was a bit surprised when I saw that it was highlighted as having Street View available. Clicking on it produced another surprise, it wasn’t my street at all – instead they have attached photos of the bigger road running parallel to it. Despite these small teething problems the application is great, you can move along a street and rotate your view to whatever you want. The cars with the cameras did raise some privacy issues here in Spain and I believe that Google had to give an undertaking to blur faces and car registration plates. You can even include it in your web page, as evidenced by this (Aguirre headquarters free) view of the Puerta del Sol. Just click on the arrows to start taking a walk around central Madrid.

View larger map

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Franco On Trial

Judge Baltasar Garzón has decided that his case concerning over 100,000 victims of Franco’s repression can proceed and that he is competent to take it forward. His decision has provoked a hysterical reaction from the right wing media and the Partido Popular, and more seriously is being opposed by the state prosecution service. The judge’s decision opens the way for some of the many mass graves still left in Spain to be opened, including that where it is believed the remains lie of the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca.

Garzón is arguing that crimes were committed which are not affected either by a statute of limitations or the amnesty law which was passed in the late 1970’s to protect representatives of the dictatorship following the transition to democracy. The state prosecutors intend to challenge him on a number of legal technicalities. Apart from the amnesty law they will challenge the classification of crimes committed by Franco’s regime as crimes against humanity and are said to be even intending to argue that the military uprising that provoked the civil war means that those involved should be subject to military, rather than civil, justice. It’s a headlong clash between the two sides that is set to come up before a court of Garzón´s fellow judges for decision.

The reaction from the political inheritors of Francoism has largely been based around an attempt to ridicule Garzón’s case. The legal formality which requires the certification of the death of Franco and other leading figures of the dictatorship attracted their attention, with Esperanza Aguirre suggesting that Napoleon should also be charged for what his army did in Spain 200 years ago. On the media front El Mundo led the charge against Garzón, who was firmly scratched off their Christmas card list when he got close to destroying the paper’s attempts to promote the “boric acid” case. The same paper published a story the other day featuring some of the few who are still alive who they claimed could potentially be taken to trial. El Mundo portrayed the daily routine of these poor elderly “abuelos” who wanted nothing more than to be left in peace with their daily chupito and a game of dominos down at the local bar. Of course, once you apply the same logic to the Klaus Barbies of this world and the other elderly Nazi war criminals who were painstakingly tracked down, you might start to think more of those who never got near to the chance of enjoying such a peaceful retirement.

How much of the impetus behind the case is down to judge Garzón’s sizeable ego and his attraction to headline making cases? There’s undoubtedly an influence there, but that doesn’t mean that the arguments behind the case presented are necessarily faulty. A situation where human rights abuses could be pursued by Spanish judges if they happened in any country other than Spain is not sustainable. I suspect the case will be eventually thrown out by what is an overwhelmingly conservative judiciary, with legal technicalities masking the political reasoning that ultimately defines the position of most involved. The law of amnesty should in theory at least be vulnerable, it was passed before the Spanish Constitution was approved and in that political atmosphere of the transition where many things were accepted under the ever present threat of renewed intervention by the military. It’s sad to see that many of those who participated in that process end up making a virtue out of the necessity of the moment. The unfinished business of the transition is at least now on public display.

Monday, October 27, 2008

By The Skin Of Their Teeth

Spain's minority government survived its big autumn test last week by getting the budget for 2009 approved. In the end the suspense on whether they would get sufficient support went all the way up to the wire, although they only needed 7 extra votes to get a majority. To the rescue came the Galician nationalists of the BNG, and the Basque nationalists of the PNV. All the other parties opposed the budget, with the peculiar exception of Navarra’s ruling UPN. When it came to the crunch the government got the support they needed by the reasonably simple method of offering pots of money to their allies in the vote. The great thing from the point of view of the recipients is being able to accept the pot of money and at the same time proclaim to anyone who will listen that you have been acting "responsibly” by voting in favour.

In other years when the economic situation was better it might not have mattered so much if the budget had been rejected, you can always prolong the previous one. This year, however, special provision has to be made for falling tax receipts combined with an increase in social spending to deal with the significant rise in unemployment, something which can reasonably be expected to get worse next year. Also, I found out yesterday, if the government loses a key vote in the first year of a parliament they are not able to call fresh elections until the year is up, not that it would do them much good at the moment to have that option available. The government continues to live from day to day, with upcoming elections in the Basque Country and the unresolved financing scheme for the regions still making any longer term understanding with the parties that could guarantee their majority virtually impossible.

The regional factor didn’t just affect the PNV and the BNG. One of the more surprising consequences of the otherwise tedious budget negotiations has been that it has virtually provoked a rupture between the opposition PP and their allied party in Navarra, the UPN. The latter party depends on support from the PSOE to stay in power in Navarra, and consequently decided that it was in their interests for their two members in the national parliament to abstain on the budget vote. When faced with a choice between staying in power or respecting the wishes of the PP’s national leadership they didn’t hesitate – despite intense pressures and at least two “power” lunches between UPN leader Miguel Sanz and Mariano Rajoy. The PP has now declared their alliance with the UPN to be “suspended”, which doesn’t mean yet that they are about to restart the PP in the region but the implicit threat is being made. Meanwhile the UPN leadership has retaliated with sanctions against their members closest to the PP line. It’s not so long since the PP was organising demonstrations in support of the UPN in Navarra and against the alleged evil plans of Zapatero to hand over the territory to ETA and its allies. How times have changed.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Why Can't Spain Be More Like Norway?

The Spanish government seems absolutely determined to be present in the summit to be held next month on the economic crisis. A persistent lobbying operation is in place and members of the government, including Zapatero himself, have expressed public confidence that they will be invited. Even if Spain is not on the initial guest list. It’s all a bit puzzling, the government is setting itself up for a potentially humiliating rebuff; especially given the influence of the Bush administration over who might be invited. Nevertheless, they insist that Spain should be there as recognition of its economic weight – pre 2009 diet.

I don’t have any reason to suppose that the forthcoming summit is going to be anything other than a gigantic backslapping photo opportunity. We are not in a “Bretton Woods” moment where our international financial system is about to be reinvented, and not because things aren´t in a serious enough mess. It’s more to do with the people who are going to be taking the decisions; they’re not up to the job. Can anyone imagine George Bush delivering a slap in the direction of his cherished free market warriors just before he leaves office? I suspect we will get fine sounding words, be told not to worry because the economic system is fundamentally sound and then they will tinker with the system a bit so that worthless assets can only be resold for a maximum of 97000 times their initial value. Maybe that’s all that Zapatero wants, to be in the photo and to be seen as one of the big players.

I have the feeling that the model will be those summits where they still gather to talk of the millennium goals which have been so systematically ignored since they were first set way back in another millennium. All that boring stuff about health, basic education and not dying of starvation. At the last G8 summit they issued a statement about the awful difficulties facing the millions whose food prices had risen so sharply before sitting down to one of the most lavish banquets these summits have ever seen. Be Scandinavian about it. Then you can actually deliver on development commitments instead of just getting together every five years or so to say that of course you maintain your goals and help will probably be forthcoming when circumstances permit and if we didn´t spend all of our money on wars or tax breaks for our crappy financial system and would you mind but we have to go for lunch now. I’m not saying that the Scandinavian model is perfect but you have nations who don’t aspire to be big hitters yet who actually achieve things in a quiet way and without the need to carpet the globe with cluster bombs (so much more efficient than those outmoded anti-personnel mines).

Spain tried to be one of the big boys club under Aznar, and look where that led us! Aznar himself never made any bones about the fact that his interest in the Iraqi invasion was purely so that he could leave office strutting the international stage. His party still tries to suggest that Spain’s international influence has declined since the country withdrew its troops from Iraq. Bombing wedding parties in Afghanistan or guaranteeing the highest opium harvest ever seen may open the door to the international clubs, but Spain would probably do more good internationally and be able to act in a more autonomous way if it behaved more like a Mediterranean Norway.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

The Week Of The Great Thinkers

It’s been quite a week for the intellectual powerhouses of the Spanish right. First up we got José Maria Aznar treating us to his “thoughts on climate change. It doesn’t matter how many well funded (by the state) foundations you put behind Aznar, his ideas on any subject of any complexity are limited to simplistic notions which leave no evidence of smoking neurons behind them. His true mediocrity on the subject of climate change was best represented by his assertion that the problem would have to be dealt with future generations – so it doesn’t really matter anyway.

Later in the week we got Mrs Aguirre giving us her incisive analysis of the crisis. It should hardly surprise anyone to learn that Esperanza doesn’t regard the problem as being caused by problems of the market itself. Impossible. Instead she passed the blame onto excessive intervention by the state! I must have missed that, when did it happen? Perhaps it has been governments who have been covertly repackaging dodgy loans and selling them on as high quality restructured investment packages. Espe then went on to contradict herself – hardly an unusual occurrence – by claiming that the problems were also caused by a failure of regulation, which I’ve always assumed implies at least a degree of state intervention. Like the true believer she is, she has to maintain the faith even when the Alan Greenspan’s of this world are timidly starting to admit they may have got things wrong. In the process she leaves Zapatero looking almost like a Nobel Prize winner on economic issues.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

For Services Rendered

Competing in the cynicism stakes with Esperanza Aguirre was never going to be easy but I take my hat off to Francisco Camps, president of the Valencian regional government. He inaugurated a new award, the Orden de Jaime 1 el Conquistador, by presenting it to none other than Carlos Fabra! Presumably, this is to console Carlitos for Hacienda’s unreasonable policy of not awarding freshly minted medals for successful tax evasion. As if this wasn’t enough, Don Carlos also gets a change in the local party statutes of the Partido Popular, which will mean that nobody can be expelled from the party for their misdemeanours until there is a firm judicial sentence condemning them. Given that in Spain such a sentence may not come before the beginning of the next ice age, this is effectively a policy of internal political amnesty for all corrupt PP representatives. Given also that the Valencian domain covers a good stretch of the Mediterranean coast, we can expect the number of those seeking refuge in the new rules to be quite high. Perhaps, given Fabra’s overwhelming power in Castellón province, the gesture by Camps contributed to the latter receiving the very Bulgarian figure of 98% support in his re-election as leader of the regional PP. Aguirre only got a meagre 96% in Madrid....¡toma!

The Street Cleaner

Faced with the apparently insatiable demands of the Corporate Time Monster in the next few days, I’m going to have to do some blogging while I have the chance. Those of you unfortunate enough to live outside of Madrid may have missed the latest initiative by the city’s Mayor on how he proposes to make the streets of the capital a better place. Alberto Ruiz Gallardón proposes to ban the “hombre anuncio”, those people whose job consists of carrying an advertising hoarding around the streets. Most of those I see in Madrid are bearing sandwich boards offering to buy gold. Gallardón also wants to ban the handing out of leaflets at the entrances to Metro stations. The claim made by Gallardón is that the job is degrading, although many see the real motive as being a Chinese style measure to improve the appearance of the capital for when we get a visit from the International Olympic Committee. You can’t pretend to have a bustling, modern, economically thriving city if at the same time you have people whose only income comes from being mobile advertising hoardings. The alternative being offered by the city administration to those who face losing their jobs is, er, to be unemployed. In the midst of an economic crisis.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Spain At A Glance....Salaries Versus Stocks

A revealing comparison made last week by Amparo Estrada in Público. An alien landing in the midst of the current crisis and looking at these figures might reasonably assume that the way out would involve the investors helping out the wage earners. Instead, one of those charming little quirks of modern capitalism means that the transfer goes the other way.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

His Majesty's Loyal Opposition

They can't have been very happy in the headquarters of the Partido Popular as the Spanish government participated in the European Union's "help out our poor bankers" plan. The last thing on earth that the PP wants in this parliament is to be bound into any kind of pact with the government over the economy, after all this has been the sole focus of their opposition since the election campaign in March. Before the scale of the current crisis was fully evident the PP was already doing its bit to talk up Spain’s economic troubles, and this included several attempts to suggest that Spanish banks are not as secure as many assume them to be. This, of course, fitted nicely into the plan to try and pretend that the crisis was just a consequence of mismanagement by Zapatero's government, but even by the PP’s legendary standards they would still be hard pushed to try and claim that Zapatero is the cause of the global problems we have witnessed in the last few weeks.

More recently they have been faced with the same difficulty afflicting right wing parties in many countries. The evident failures of the liberalised market and the heavy price we all have to pay to dig the wealthy few out of their own hole don’t fit well with economic programmes based around more of the same. So the PP has instead opted for a brand of easy populism, even going as far as describing Zapatero as the banker’s friend whilst they pretend to represent the interests of the rest. At one point a couple of weeks ago they even suggested that any support for the government on the economy would depend on the proposed budget for next year being withdrawn. This was a throwback to the last parliament, making their support conditional on a set of demands which they know will never be accepted; the tactic was tried frequently with terrorism and now it is being tested with the economy. All of which throws into question the reality of the PP’s declared change of strategy, consensus has not been on show very much recently.

Now if Zapatero succeeds in leaving the PP weakened on the economy the question of how they adapt their opposition strategy is going to be a tough one. A refusal to support the government at all on this issue will leave them looking very exposed now that Spain is effectively doing what the rest of Europe is doing. Above all, they are keen to avoid the social issues like abortion which might leave them looking like the political wing of the church, and threaten their already unconvincing attempts to present a more open and modern image. Looks like they might have to invent another negotiation with ETA.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

A Martyr Is Born

El Mundo has treated us to yet another awful, soul-destroying tale of linguistic tyranny in Cataluña. It appears that one of the leading activists in the campaign to make Spanish the language of education in the the region is facing a divorce demand from his wife. The case has been presented against Carmelo González, who once went on hunger strike to demand that his children be educated in Spanish. According to the person who will presumably soon be his ex-wife, Carmelo refuses to allow his children to mix with anyone who speaks Catalan or to listen to media broadcasting in the language, refused to have cava or other products labelled in Catalan inside his house, and was furious when his wife organised a birthday celebration in a school that advertises itself in Catalan. Clearly the very model of tolerance himself, Carmelo has a small problem....he lives in Sitges. That's Sitges in Cataluña.

Monday, October 13, 2008

No English Friendly For Madrid

It didn't take long for this item to make it into the Spanish press. It's hardly a surprising decision, the Spanish football authorities preferred to look the other way and pretend that no racism was involved rather than acknowledge what had happened the last time England played at the Bernabeu stadium, so there is little reason to believe that the same thing won't happen again. I anticipate multiple comments along the lines of "oh it's so unfair, here go the anglos again calling us racists when they're more racist than we are" in the Spanish media where this gets reported.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Mariano El Pacifista

Maybe you have some doubts about whether Mariano Rajoy has really switched over to the far left, but the evidence is mounting. Not only is he opposed to plans helping out the bankers, now he's even turned on the military! Caught out yesterday by a live microphone, he was recorded telling Javier Arenas "Mañana tengo el coñazo del desfile", hardly the most patriotic thing to say about the annual military parade held in celebration of the Día de la Hispanidad. Last year, for the same occasion, a man claiming to be Mariano Rajoy issued a regal style video address to the nation where he called on all patriotic Spaniards to attend the parade with pride (and if they found time to shout anti-Zapatero slogans even better). Who said the PP hasn't changed?

Friday, October 10, 2008

Mariano El Rojo

The Partido Popular has rejected the Spanish government’s plans to create a fund to support banks that might have financial problems. They oppose it on the grounds that it is helping bankers rather than ordinary people. South of Watford has obtained exclusive access to the PP's internal bulletin on the subject and this is a rough translation of what party leader Mariano Rajoy had to say on the subject:

“The thing is comrades, we’ve been saying for decades that crisis is an in-built part of the capitalist system. Zapatero and the bankers are going to be determined to make the working class pay for the crisis, and it’s up to us to provide the alternative. Whatever they do is just placing a patch on a bankrupt system so that they can come back in a few years and do the same again. Let me remind you of the prophetic words of Rosa Luxemburg, it’s a clear choice between socialism or barbarism. The next time I play golf with my friend the President of Caja Madrid he’s going to be getting a piece of my mind, you can be sure of that.”

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Witch Hunts Are Bad For Our Health

The battle between the Comunidad de Madrid and those who oppose their ever more rapid progress on privatising health care in the region took a new turn this week. The Comunidad has been getting increasingly shrill in its campaign against the demonstrations that almost always accompany visits to health facilities by senior politicians from the regional government. This has been the case more or less since Esperanza Aguirre arrogantly swaggered her way through a hospital visit a few months ago; the video capturing her confrontation with opponents of her policies has since been seen by almost the entire universe; with the exception of Telemadrid viewers.

These days the visits are mostly done by the man in charge of health provision for Madrid, Juan José Güemes. You know your health care is in safe hands when it’s being run by someone who is the son-in-law of Carlos “I’m just very lucky with the lottery” Fabra. After the latest demonstrations the Comunidad was trying hard to get the police to crack down on the protests. As that strategy failed to take off they have fallen back on an old claim that their opponents are just full time trade union delegates, suggesting that no ordinary health worker would have any problem with their policies. They topped this off a couple of days ago by releasing a special video of a protest with some of the trade unionists involved being publicly identified. Shocking isn’t it, when people whose job it is to represent the interests of health service workers take part in protests about policies that affect their members. Shouldn’t be allowed. The way things are going in Madrid it may not be for much longer.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

The 2008 Spanish Judiciary Guide To Acceptable Insults

A couple of recent court cases in Spain have helped to clarify the boundaries of who we can insult and just how we can do it.

Case 1 – Describing someone as a “fascist” has been declared to be acceptable. I would go further, in many situations it’s clearly fair comment and there are other circumstances, usually involving consumption of a few beers, where it doesn’t really matter whether it’s fair or not. The court case involved a certain Agustín Diaz de Mera who was labelled a fascist by a member of the opposition back in the days when he was Mayor of Avila. Now Diaz de Mera subsequently went on to what should have been greater things, as his political mentor was one Angel Acebes – anyone remember him? So Diaz de Mera became head of the police when Acebes was Interior Minister, and was therefore occupying this post at the time of the Madrid bombings. In the trial of those accused of the bombings, he got himself into a potentially tricky situation by thinking that he could use the courtroom as a platform for airing conspiracy theory garbage about the alleged existence of a report linking ETA to the bombings. This almost led to him facing charges, probably the fact that he is now a member of the European Parliament was what helped to save him from such an undignified situation. All of which leads to the inevitable conclusion that “fascist” is perhaps not the only thing he could be accused of being.

Case 2 – Describing the Prime Minister as an accomplice of terrorists has also been declared to be within the bounds of legality. This case was brought against the former president of the Asociación de Victimas del Terrorismo, Francisco José Alcaraz, who had accused Zapatero of effectively conniving with ETA. Alcaraz, who politically could easily be described as a bit of a Diaz de Mera, got off the charge of "injurias" against the government on the curious grounds that he had insulted the Prime Minister rather than the government itself. This protection of the government's honour has to be a bit of a left over from less democratic times, so much as I detest Alcaraz and his attempts to use terrorism as a shield for far right politics I still wonder what would be left of our lives on this planet if we couldn't insult the government?

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Alternative Investment Plans

If the Spanish government's decision today to guarantee bank deposits up to €100,000 doesn't satisfy you, then allow me to recommend BINBAGS - the Balearic Investment Banking and Gardening System. It's quite simple to join, especially if you are the proud owner of many of those elusive €500 notes that the Spanish government would like to see circulating a bit more legally. All you need to get started is, er, a high level position or contact with the previous PP run administration in the Balearic Islands regional government, a wooden box, a bin bag (of course!), a garden, and preferably a spade to guarantee your deposit. Also, there's no commission - because you've already received it!

Liberalising The Labour Market

Here's one for fans of labour market "flexibility", often sold to us as the only thing standing between Spain and an economic miracle. Well a woman in Barcelona has just been sacked by the company she works for because of repeated unjustified absences from work and for not being punctual. Naturally, the interpretation you choose to make of the word "unjustified" is a very personal one, and some might argue that the fact the person concerned has been in a coma since suffering a serious traffic accident in September would be a mitigating factor. Not apparently enough to prevent the dismissal, so a big round of applause for El Punt del Peix - company of the week.

Monday, October 06, 2008

How Safe Are The Spanish Banks?

There has been a lot of talk in recent days about the Spanish banking system being more stable than that of many of its European neighbours. There does seem to be some foundation for this in that Spanish banks have been obliged to provision heavily against possible defaults and have slightly more operational restrictions on their activities. Also, the fund which guarantees deposits is looking reasonably healthy, and in the case of a single collapse it’s quite likely that the Spanish state will step in to guarantee that nobody loses all of their life savings. We are told, although it’s difficult to be sure about such things, that the main Spanish banks have not been heavily involved in the trading of dodgy sub-prime mortgages and the like. Spain has one of the lowest guarantees of deposits in Europe, only €20,000 is absolutely secure and the government here is very reluctant to raise this, despite the fact that other countries are doing just that as the crisis spreads.

The other side of the balance sheet is not necessarily so comforting. The German government has just had to step in with hefty assistance for a mortgage bank that has got into trouble. I’m not completely clear about what has happened, but this is in a country which I assumed to be free of the sort of speculative bubble market in property that Spain or the UK has experienced. Also, check out the size of the reported bail-out and it dwarfs the money which is set aside in Spain for such events. That’s for a single bank, and this is a key point. If it’s just one or two that get into trouble then the problems can be absorbed even at a hefty expense. However, the key issue in all of this is confidence, and that is why nobody ever admits that there is a problem with a bank until after the shit has hit the fan. In Spain there could be significant problems for banks caused by two factors, their exposure in terms of loans to the construction sector and the increasing problems of indebtedness arising from people being unable to keep up with high mortgage payments. A lot of properties in Spain seem to have been overvalued by the companies responsible for assessing this, meaning that many people effectively have 100% mortgages when the official percentage awarded was substantially less than this. Mix this with falling property prices and growing unemployment and the stage is set for a sharp rise in payment defaults.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Palin llama a Obama "amigo de los terroristas"

I suppose that's another reference to the Spanish government, led as it is by that notorious gang of Zapateristas.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Blue Sky Thinking

Yesterday was a holiday in Germany, to celebrate German Unity Day. It was quite nice to restart my working life with a four day week, but any thoughts I had of enjoying a long weekend in Madrid soon faded. Instead of it being German Unity Day, the holiday could easily be renamed All Of Germany Goes To Spain Day, as it was impossible to get a flight to Madrid either on Thursday afternoon or Friday morning.

I got home at about 22:30 last night after having a fine reminder of just what an unpleasant experience flying can be these days. After a 90 minute delay in departure I got onto one of those planes where someone of my height starts thinking seriously about whether cutting my legs off just above the knee might be the only way to avoid being permanently jammed into the space that I’ve been assigned. Cheap flights you might think, but it wasn’t cheap. The little boy sitting next to me celebrated the flying experience by vomiting profusely about ten minutes into the flight – these things can’t be helped.

Still, I got home and this morning helped to improve my humour. As I walked out into the centre of Madrid this morning I forgot all about the battering I’ve received from high winds and pouring rain in the last few days. The sky had that luminous blue colour that you normally get here in spring or autumn when pollution levels in the city fall temporarily below their now almost standard toxic average. The sun was out and you could walk in it without frying, suddenly life felt better.

El País published on their web site a couple of days ago a beautiful satellite image showing the Pyrenees, the Massif Central and the western part of the Alps completely clear of clouds. As I looked at it I thought what a clever bit of clipping they must have done because not so far further north things were very different. Maybe it will have improved by the time I get there again for Germans Go Back To Work Day.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Cinema....Los Girasoles Ciegos

Sticking with a cultural theme it’s been a long, long time since I wrote anything about cinema. This is only partly because I haven’t seen that much to make me want to write about it this year. Spanish cinema seems to save almost all of its main releases for the autumn festivals and prize ceremonies, so the interesting releases before the summer tend to be few and far between. I almost wrote about Todos Estamos Invitados, a film about those inhabitants of the Basque Country who have to live with escorts because they are under threat from ETA. Other things got in the way of that. Then there was Casual Day, with it’s look at the internal politics of a company; but this kind of thing was done much better in my opinion by Smoking Room.

Well things have improved since summer ended and first up is this year’s Spanish candidate for the foreign language Oscar; Los Girasoles Ciegos (The Blind Sunflowers). The cinema is one area where the Spanish Civil War has not been forgotten, this film is set in the aftermath of the war and focuses on the grim realities of life for those who supported the losing side. Based on a book by Alberto Méndez, although in reality the film seems to be an adaptation of only one of the four stories from the book. Directed by Jose Luis Cuerda, it is also the last script written by Rafael Azcona, who sadly died earlier this year before the film was released. Méndez himself died not long after the publication of the book.

One of the principal characters, Elena, is played by Maribel Verdú, who seems to be busier in the last 2-3 years than at any other time in her career. Elena’s husband, Ricardo (played by Javier Cámara), is a republican forced to live in a hidden chamber at the back of the family's house, whilst his wife and young son Lorenzo have to live with the pretence that he died in the war or that he escaped afterwards; depending on who they are dealing with. The couple’s pregnant daughter attempts to escape to Portugal with her fugitive boyfriend. Cámara plays a character with a miserable life, alive but forced to live as a prisoner in his own home with the curtains carefully drawn every time he emerges from his hiding place. It’s better than being dead but could hardly be described as a full life.

Salvador, the predatory priest who becomes obsessed with Elena is played by Raúl Arévalo. He’s still not yet a full priest and is sent by his seminary to teach at the school which Lorenzo attends. When back at the seminary he confesses how tortured he is by his feelings for her, but no sooner is he back in town than he is chasing Maribel all over the place. He uses the pretext of helping her son as an excuse to be with her, and his persistent attention puts the whole façade constructed by the “widow” Elena under intense pressure. In any case our priest is a man with a past, having been a combatant on the fascist side in the Civil War and having led anything but a pure life of spiritual reflection. Not that such things worried the Church very much in those days, and back at school the morning always begins with the priests raising their arms in the fascist salute as they oblige their charges to sing the Falangist anthem Cara al Sol.

For me this was a more effective, natural and personal drama than last year’s Spanish Oscar candidate, Las Trece Rosas. However, some critics have claimed that it fails to capture the full subtlety and atmosphere of the original story, but then you have to find and read the book to make that judgement.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Theatre....Boris Godunov

I’m going to raise the cultural level of the blog a bit, but only temporarily so don't get alarmed. Last week I went to the theatre in Madrid to see the version of Boris Gudonov performed by the Catalan group La Fura dels Baus. This was not your standard play, the performance was interrupted after a few minutes by loud bangs and the sudden emergence of a heavily armed group into the theatre. It all formed part of the performance as this version of Boris Gudonov is based loosely around the tragic Moscow theatre siege that took place in 2002.

Obviously the reaction of the audience to events is very different when you know that it is all part of the act, but even so it is still a bit unnerving to have masked actors patrolling the theatre with their (fake) machine guns. The rest of the evening consists of a mixture of snippets from Boris Gudonov itself interspersed with the drama of the audience being the hostages as the group responsible seeks to get concessions from the government. We even see filmed sequences of the crisis committee presided over by the president of the fictional nation at the heart of the tale. Some of the actors also play the part of hostages which is what at least prevents any random members of the real audience being dragged onto the stage for mock execution.

The occasional presence of a “neutral” mediator permits exploration of the issues of the extent to which oppression of a nation by another might permit violent reprisals against the citizens of the oppressor nation. Meanwhile, the members of the government´s crisis committee discuss the maximum number of dead hostages which might be politically acceptable. All of this is done without reference to a particular country or conflict. It’s an effective piece of theatre which I believe has already been performed in some other places in Spain. In Madrid it is due to end shortly after the middle of October, so book quickly if you want to see it. Malaga and La Coruña will get the chance to see it in January 2009.

The Crisis Explained

Everything you need to know about what´s gone wrong with the world economy. It´s subtitled in Spanish too.

The Last Laugh - George Parr - Subprime - subtitulos
by erioluk

via Guerra Eterna