Check-In #2: Childhood and Trauma in Spanish Civil War Cinema

Ana Torent (left) and Geraldine Chaplin in Carlos Saura's Cría Cuervos (1976)

Ana Torrent and Geraldine Chaplin in Cría Cuervos (dir. Carlos Saura 1976)

I want to use this final post to collect my thoughts on the major questions/interests that have driven my research as well as on the experience of the research itself. To accomplish this, I’ve divided this last post into a series of major themes and will comment briefly on each. Given the informal nature of the blog format, I’ve credited relevant sources at the bottom but have avoided in-text citations, except when totally necessary.


On Children

“Why are child protagonists so prevalent in war films?” was the original question behind my research and, in some respects, is the easiest questions to answer. Generally, great art that depicts a history moments doesn’t surface until well after that moment has passed. Consequently, the artists best equipped to create such art are often those who came of age during the historical moment. Such is true of Carlos Saura, who was born just years before the start of the Spanish Civil War, and of Victor Erice, who was born during the early years of Franco’s reign. Having been children when they experienced this trauma, it is not surprising that they should choose to explore their traumas from the perspective or experience of a child.

The films included in this this project are indisputably political, but the child’s perspective allows the focus of the narrative to be on the trauma and recovery aspects of war, whereas adult characters might be more likely to become mired in the specific history and ideology of the war (Keene). Therefore, without getting technical or academic, the child’s perspective is more universal. Although it can be difficult for modern/foreign viewers to connect with the specific traumas and difficulties of the Spanish Civil War, but one can almost definitely find common ground with and connect to the experiences of a child.


On Fantasy, the Supernatural, & Morality

It’s difficult to talk about trauma without also discussing the coping mechanisms employed to deal with it. A common thread in each of these films is the presence of fantastic or supernatural elements that provide an alternative to the painful realities of war. In one respect, the creation of alternate or parallel realities is about establishing a comfortable domain in which to deal with trauma. This is perhaps most evident in Pan’s Labyrinth, wherein Ofelia deals with the introduction of Captain Vidal and the traumas of war in the context of the fairy tales she so frequently reads. Usually, morality in fantasy world is more clear-cut and comprehensible to the naïve mind of a child than is the morally gray world of adulthood. In one capacity, the fantastic alternative to serves as a refuge from trauma, and some have read Ana’s fascination Frankenstein’s monster The Spirit of the Beehive as a comment on escapism, especially with regard to cinema. However, Clark and McDonald argue that the creation of fantasy is a means of more fully understanding reality. Thus, in creating parallels (e.g. the King of the Underworld/Captain Vidal, Frankenstein’s monster/Republican soldiers, the ghost of Ana’s mother/Anselmo), the child protagonist is able to make sense of their world.

The child’s mind sees the world in terms of a facile moral code, dividing things into basic yet important distinctions of “good” or “bad.” The tendency to find comfort in elements of fantasy points out deficiencies in reality; for example, Ana’s clinging to her mother’s ghostly presence betrays the deficiency of life both with her father and with her aunt. These fantasies provide some level of comfort that allows the child protagonist to cope, but the act of imagining is subversive and disobedient in and of itself. This disobedience fosters the individualization of the child and assists in the development of an ideology that challenges the trauma of reality.


On Spanish History

Francisco Franco’s cultural and political dominance of Spain rested largely on his own personality and on his models of ideal Spanish relationships. Franco positioned himself as a paternal figure to fascist Spain, and he imposed traditional Catholic familiar models onto the Spanish populace; the father was the head of the household, women were to serve their husbands and provide children, and children were to be raised according to these ideals/roles. In each of the films, an allegorical reading is possible in which the youthful protagonist deals with or confronts the oppression of a cruel and uncaring father figure, who is always a stand-in for Franco (Jacinto in The Devil’s Backbone, Captain Vidal in Pan’s Labyrinth, Anselmo in Cría cuervos, and Fernando in The Spirit of the Beehive). In Francoist Spain, the struggle against Fascism was driven by the younger generation, who rise up against the father in order to liberate the self as well as to vindicate the maternal figure (more to follow in the next section).

In an interview for the Criterion release of The Devil’s Backbone, Guillermo del Toro argues that Spain before Franco was a very progressive nation for reasons such as modern, accessible education and the elevated status of women. This was largely undone under Franco, and so Del Toro’s older characters such as Carmen and Dr. Casares who represent the old ideals of Spain and who provide aid to those resisting Francoism. Ana’s silent grandmother in Cría cuervos can also be read as a symbol of the older generation’s progressive ideals being silenced, especially with regard to the subjugation of women. The children’s frequent identification with these characters hints at rejection of Francoism.


On Oedipal Tensions

In each of the films, there is consistently a brutal and uncaring father (Jacinto in The Devil’s Backbone, Captain Vidal in Pan’s Labyrinth, Anselmo in Cría Cuervos, and Fernando in The Spirit of the Beehive). As mentioned before, this character is always a stand-in for Franco. This is especially apparent in Cria cuervos and Pan’s Labyrinth, in which the father characters are associated directly with Franco’s military. Given generational differences in ideology, Ana Vivancos argues for a “National Oedipal Narrative” in Pan’s Labyrinth, in which Ofelia’s resistance to Captain Vidal is seen as an illustration of Oedipal tendencies, as well as a reflection of the younger generation’s enmity for Franco and fascism. This is seen even more clearly in Cría cuervos when Ana believes that she is responsible for her father’s death and in The Devil’s Backbone when the boys literally kill Jacinto. Judith Keene argues that the child in cinema will always serve “as a metonym for the larger state of the family, the nation and indeed the world” and that the child represents the promise of adulthood. Therefore, the goodness of a child is indicative of future goodness (i.e. the erasure of Francoism and the promise of a better society). In summary, these children, who ultimately defeat or outlive their brutal fathers, represent an oedipal promise that Franco will ultimately be overthrown and that Spain will return to its former ways. Because it is specific to Franco, this section feels the least applicable to films outside of the Spanish Civil War context. However, I think there is something universal in the child’s psychology and the association of the father with cold brutality and the mother with nurturing, especially given the patriarchal structures that exist in society today.


Final Thoughts

As this project comes to an end, I feel like I could still say so much more about what I’ve learned and that I could continue to learn and explore so much more about my selected topic. This process has taught me a lot about the process of research (both its pleasure and challeges), and, despite my initial concern that forty hours was more research than I’d be able to do, I now feel like forty hours was nowhere near enough time for me to watch, read, say, or do everything that would be needed in order to give my topic a fair treatment. I would hesitate to say that I’ve been able to draw any real conclusions over the course of this project, but it has certainly sparked a flood of ideas that I feel are interesting and at least somewhat valid.


Relevant Sources

Archibald, David. The War That Won’t Die: The Spanish Civil War in Cinema.

Atkinson, Michael. “The Heart of the Maze.”

Clark, Roger & Keith McDonald. “‘A Constant Transit of Finding’: Fantasy as Realisation in

Pan’s Labyrinth.”

Hanley, Jane. “The walls fall down: Fantasy and power in El laberinto del fauno.”

Interview with Geraldine Chaplin for Criterion.

Interviews with Guillermo del Toro for Criterion.

Keene, Judith. “The child witness and cultural memory in European War Cinema.”

Kermode, Mark. “The Past Is Never Dead”

Miles, Robert J. “Reclaiming Revelation: Pan’s Labyrinth and The Spirit of the Beehive.”

Ramos, Yvonne Gavela. “El acto colectivo de recordar: historia y fantasía en El espíritu de la colmena y El laberinto del fauno.”

Sheriff, Gina. “Franco’s Monsters: The Fantasy of Childhood in El laberinto del fauno and

Balada triste de trompeta

Smith, Paul Julian. “Spanish Lessons.”

Spector, Barry. “Sacrifce of the Children in Pan’s Labyrinth”

Vivancos, Ana. “Malevolent Fathers and Rebellious Daughters: National Oedipal Narratives andPolitical Erasures in El laberinto del fauno.”