Fernando Trueba’s (Madrid, 1955) Belle Epoque establishes from the first scene the nature and spirit of the film. With a star studded cast that includes Fernando Fernán Gómez, Jorge Sanz, Penélope Cruz, Miriam Díaz-Aroca, Ariadna Gil, Chus Lampreave and Maribel Verdú among others, and with an equally talented crew including the award winning veteran Rafael Azcona as writer, the quality of the film is evident by its award shelf. The film hauled in Best Foreign Language Oscar© in 1994, BAFTA, Berlin Bear, Goyas, etc. The initial scene post credits is an abstract of the entire film as it, from the very first impression, establishes the main character, the mood, and the setting.
The modernist stylized opening credits start and roll on a long, almost horizon view of a desolate, palm tree lined dirt road. There appears to be some sort of unidentifiable bulk in the middle of the road. Is it a body? The music that accompanies the credits is a village band version of Ravel’s Bolero.
The camera advances down the straight road with the dark mass obviously becoming larger, but with the viewer still unable to identify it. Just before the camera reaches the point where the viewer can identify the object, two notes appear on screen. The first note reads: “En el invierno de 1930, tras el fracaso de la sublevación antimonárquica de Jaca, un joven soldado abandona el cuartel y, convertido en desertor, vaga por los campos intentando vivir su propia vida.”, (In the Winter of 1930 after the failure of the Jaca antimonarchic revolt, a young soldier abandons the barracks and, as a deserter, wanders the countryside trying to live his own life), and “Febrero 1931, en algún lugar de España…” (“February 1931, somewhere in Spain…”¹). With the fading of the last musical note, the viewer finally identifies the bulk as a suitcase at the same time as a foot enters the screen and sets itself next to the case.
With a whack From a Mauser ‘s rifle butt, the suitcase immediately and innocently pops open. A Guardia Civil (a Spanish paramilitary policeman) in his traditional three cornered, patent leather hat pokes his head from the top left corner into the screen, looking into the suitcase. Another guardia then enters from the top right hand corner of the screen. The viewer is looking up at the policemen from inside the suitcase. This comic gaze of the suitcase looking up at the policemen establishes the tone for the rest of the film. The suitcase appears to be observing the feared authority as the authority curiously peeks in – who is looking at who? This shot, with the camera on the ground pointing up at the nosy guardias, goes on for five seconds, an eternity in modern film, before the guardia are distracted by noises coming from the bushes on the side of the road.
With the fear inducing shout of “¡Alto a la Guardia Civil!” and “¡Manos arriba!” (“Halt to the Guardia Civil!” and “Hands up!”), a young man (Jorge Sanz) walks out of the bushes and obediently puts his hands up. Simultaneously his trousers drop. Here again Fernando Trueba reiterates a comic wink as the feared Guardia Civil deals with a young man in his underwear trying to explain why his trousers aren’t fastened. The connotations are clear. Although this scene could be dramatic, reminding viewers of the brutal arrests of Federico García Lorca, or Miguel Hernandez, we are reminded not to take this scene too seriously. As the younger Guardia goes to fetch the traveler, the older one has stayed to inspect the contents of the case. This inquisition leads him to believe the suspect is a deserter, which causes protagonist Jorge Sanz to shout “¡Viva Galán y García Hernandez! (“Long live Galán and García Hernandez!” the executed army captains that led the antimonarchic revolt in Jaca). The younger policeman, realizing the suspect is an outlaw, is ready to hit him with the rifle. However, the older policeman casually tells him to stop. Trueba has easily established the “good cop, bad cop” dynamic, which calls forth further issues as the role of the authority in a divided Spain. The wiser, older Guardia is the more flexible, tolerant one, willing to listen to the renegade, and the younger more passionate one blindly follows the established order.
The deserter denies coming from Jaca where the revolt has just occurred, claiming he is coming from Madrid. In addition, he denies deserting. This is all unconvincing with a purpose. When asked where he is going, his answer is clear when he exerts a shrug of the shoulders, a showing of open palms and a “no sé” (I don’t know). This is a key element in establishing the character as a vagrant, a wanderer and following the rich Spanish literary tradition, maybe a pícaro, a rogue or picaroon.
The interrogation proceeds with the three men standing around the open suitcase. The older Guardia picks up and flips through a Bible as he continues the questioning. The young man declares he is in favor of the Republic. With the sentence: “Aquí ya no se entiende nada, republicano y con la Biblia encima” (“Nothing is understood here anymore, Republican with a Bible on him”) the opening credit music creeps in and the camera zooms to the young man’s hands as he is handcuffed voluntarily. The scene fades quickly to the cuffed hands of the deserter carrying his bag in the dark of night.
This brief opening chapter, just over a minute long, with ten camera shots, creates the setting, the main character and the main issues of the film. At this point it becomes important to delve into how the filmmaker manages to convey so much information in such little time.
While the two policemen in Belle Epoque might appear somewhat parodical , their reputation, cultural representation and historical prestige is so heavy one does not take them lightly but maybe only just a little. Using the Guardia Civil in the opening scene is a master stroke in having the audience, at least the Spanish one, instantly recognize and culturally associate the scene. In the following scene we shall see the younger of the two policemen shoot the elder one, who also happens to be his father in law therefore proving the Guardia’s “trigger happy” reputation. Another cinematographic stroke is not using the lighting, camera angles, or available contrasts to establish a power superiority on behalf of the authority. This keeps the young deserter as an equal throughout the sequence.
Why a renegade deserter would leave his suitcase right smack in the middle of a road, regardless of how untraveled it might be, in politically difficult times does not go unnoticed by the viewer. Yet Trueba’s point, does not seem to be beating a dead horse, instead he is making sure we accept the tale lightheartedly, without the heady historical and political charge.
The craftsmanship and technique required to accomplish so much narrative in such little space is a credit to the filmmakers. The mise en scene is necessarily economic to get the most amount of information in the fastest, easiest way possible.
The lighting is very neutral. While the viewer appreciates the long shadows of the palm trees during the opening credits, there is no other indicator of time or temperature. The coloring is also quite neutral with the main splashes of color coming from the green fields on the side of the road and the deserter’s white boxer shorts – lest anyone has not yet noticed the comedy in the exchange with the Guardia civil. Could it be the white boxer shorts are meant to evoke a thought of “innocence” or “surrender” via color alone? The Guardias’ uniforms are famously (or infamously) olive green. Even the glimpse of a stream behind the deserter as he comes out of the bushes is rather murky. Other than the point of view shot from inside the suitcase, all other camera angles and shots are standard full body shots. An American or half body shot is used for the final exchange in the scene, where the conversation comes to a climax and the handcuffs come on. Another item of note is the absolute lack of any other sort of civilization in the film. There are no houses, farms, barns, animals or cars. Because the setting is quite rural, even without expected rural backdrops, the focus remains on the actors, which still allows the viewer to believe the events happen at a distance from the closest village or town. There are various possible reasons for this remote setting: to rule out any possible interference in the scene that would take away from the carefully worked exchange, and to emphasize that the action is taking place in a rural setting and not an urban, cosmopolitan one. The use of lenses, depth of field and composition again are evident only in that they are not noticed. The filmmaker wants the audience to focus on the exchange and reduces everything else in order for the viewer to take in what information is being provided.
In conclusion, the scene builds up gradually from the opening shot of the suitcase on the middle of the road to the climactic “Nothing is understood here anymore- Republican with a Bible on him” declared by the older Guardian. In just over a minute the filmmaker has managed to set up the audience to enjoy a likely comic film with a clear political and historical theme.
All translations by the author
Monaco, James. How to Read a Film. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980.