Barcelona has long attracted directors who have tried to encapsulate its essence on film. But like all cities, Barcelona has many faces, and with each person's situation comes a unique experience. The films that attempt to define it are as varied and contradictory as the city itself.
Vicky, Cristina, Barcelona
Director: Woody Allen. 2008. Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Rebecca Hall, Javier Bardem, Penélope Cruz. Language: English, Spanish.
This romantic drama about two young Americans, Vicky (Hall) and Cristina (Johansson), who spend the summer in Barcelona, received cynical reviews from some Barceloneses, many of whom fail to recognise their city in the airy, spacious houses, the clichéd urban imagery and the complete absence of the Catalan language. Their disapproval was likely heightened by the fact that the Ajuntament and Generalitat provided 10 percent of the film’s budget. In return, Allen presented the city of Barcelona itself as the third title character—an idealised, somewhat stereotypical, representation of a visitor’s Barcelona experience, which has, no doubt, helped attract more tourist money. Vicky and Cristina are naïve tourists who come to Barcelona in search of finding an authenticity that they feel is missing from their lives back home. They find themselves entranced by the beauty and culture of the city, as they live what they believe to be the ‘authentic’ Barcelona lifestyle, both having a passionate fling with a romantic Spaniard (Bardem) along this road of self-discovery. However, their attitudes come off as overtly pretentious and, ultimately, the film seems to poke fun at the tourist’s superficial search for authenticity and the modern-day tendency to idolise iconic cities.
Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu. 2010. Starring: Maricel Álvarez, Javier Bardem, Hanaa Bouchaib, Guillermo Estrella. Language: Spanish, Wolof, Chinese.
After the romantic, privileged city image projected by Vicky, Cristina, Barcelona, Biutiful drags us back down to earth. The film follows single-father Uxbal (Bardem), whose criminal dealings take us on a tour of Barcelona’s gritty underbelly. Uxbal is involved in a criminal racket that has Chinese immigrants working in basement sweatshops to make handbags, which are then sold by African manteros on the streets. Viewers have commented that they struggle to see Barcelona in the dodgy streets and hovels where much of the action takes place. However, this is one of the key messages of the film—even a beautiful city like Barcelona can be ugly to the destitute. The occasional shots of the Sagrada Familia feel incongruous and highlight the contrast between the two different sides of the city.
Director: Cédric Klapisch. 2002. Starring: Romain Duris, Judith Godrèche, Kelly Reilly. Languages: Spanish, Catalan, German, English, Italian, French, Danish.
L’Auberge Espagnole brings to life the ‘Erasmus’ experience, following French student, Xavier (Duris), who comes to Barcelona to study economics and improve his Spanish. Some aspects of the story are universal to many Erasmus cities: the scramble to find a flat at the beginning of term; dingey accommodation at over-the-odds prices; living in an international group where communication happens in a mish-mash of languages. However, other aspects place the film firmly in Barcelona, such as a lecturer’s refusal to give the class in Spanish instead of Catalan—although this doesn’t deter the main character from trying to integrate. Xavier is keen to get off the beaten track and becomes a kind of tour guide for his friend, Anne-Sophie. This leads the audience on a tour of the city, from the famous tourist sights to the grubbier streets of the Raval, where Xavier scolds Anne-Sophie for dismissing the city as dirty and ugly, urging her not to take everything at face value. Like Vicky, Cristina, Barcelona, this film can be read as a story of self-discovery. However, unlike Vicky and Cristina’s romantic, stylish adventure, the characters in L'Auberge Espagnole learn their life lessons through hilarious, embarrassing situations.
More films based in Barcelona and Catalunya
Los Tarantos (1963), The Passenger (1975), Barcelona (1994), Land and Freedom (1995), Todo Sobre Mi Madre (1999), En Construcción (2001), Gaudí Afternoon (2001), En la Puta Vida (2001), En la Ciudad (2003), El Gran Gato (2003), El Taxista Ful (2005), Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (2006), [REC] 1 (2007), [REC] 2 (2009), A Gun in Each Hand (2012).