Born in Palma de Mallorca in 1953, Villaronga obtained his degree in Art History at the University of Barcelona. He began combining work as a professor of visual image, film critic and artistic direction in the theatre. In addition, he has worked as an actor in various film and theatre productions. After directing various short films, his first full length film In A Glass Cage (Tras el cristal) opened in 1987. With Moon Child (El niño de la luna, 1989) he won a Goya award for best original screenplay. In 2000, one of his most personal works, The Sea (El mar), obtained the Manfred Salzberg Award at the Berlin Film Festival. Villaronga's filmography has generally been distinguished by its distance from commercial circuits. In 2002, together with Isaac P. Racine and Lydia Zimmermann, he made the film Aro Tolbujhin. En la mente del asesino, an audiovisual experiment mixing styles, genres and film formats. My thanks to Núria Costa Salvà of Working At Weekend for arranging time for me to sit down with director Villaronga and his producer Isona Passola.
In full disclosure, this is a paraphrased transcript. With my simple command of Spanish and his of English, my conversation with Villaronga was a mixture of both languages with some third inbetween language of instinct and good will thrown in for good measure. I trust I have remained true, however, to the tenor of our discussion. [This conversation is not for the spoiler-wary!]
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Michael Guillén: Agustí, you're a filmmaker who isn't as well-known as he should be. Your first films achieved a certain notoriety and controversy, but it wasn't until Black Bread that you broke through to an international audience. This is the film that has caught people's attention.
Agustí Villaronga: That's true, yes.
Guillén: Can you speak to why that is? Because it shares similar themes with your previous films, though perhaps a bit more matured. Still, why do you think audiences are responding to your vision at this time?
Villaronga: This is a question Isona and I have asked ourselves many times. Why is this my first film to have such success? Just as you've realized, there are many of the same elements in Black Bread as there are in my other films—children in violent situations, ambiguous morality, homosexuality—but, perhaps, less intensely pronounced in Black Bread. This film doesn't grab the audience by the back of the neck like my previous films. Its approach is a bit more relaxed. Also, perhaps, the characters in Black Bread are more ... normal? In my other films, The Sea for example, the characters are mentally unbalanced and sick with tuberculosis; but, in Black Bread there's an old grandmother, the boy Andreu (Francesc Colomer) and his friends, and the father Farriol (Roger Casamajor) who loves his son. Maybe the father is also a murderer; but, he loves his son. He's an ordinary person whose personality has been changed by extraordinary circumstances in his life. By contrast, the two boys in The Sea are already crazy from the beginning of their story and that, possibly, makes it more difficult for the audience to identify with them.
Guillén: Speaking of The Sea, Roger Casamajor—who plays Andreu's father Farriol in Black Bread—is the same actor who played Ramallo in The Sea?
Guillén: Which is interesting because his performances moreorless articulate the difference between these two films. He was almost uncomfortable to watch in The Sea because his performance as Ramallo was so intense; but, in Black Bread the intensity of his performance is contained and reflects that the tone of Black Bread is—I don't want to say calmer—but characterized by restraint. Is this a consequence of your maturation as a filmmaker or the effect of the original material on which the film is based, namely Emili Teixidor's novel of the same name?
Villaronga: It has partly to do, yes, with the fact that I'm older. That's important. Time changes a person, especially the way one is deceived by life. You fall in love and are betrayed by love. You try to create but have no success. These deceptions change you. You were someone specific once and then you are who you have become and you don't want to do things the same way. There's no denying that the success of Black Bread has made me very happy, but that's not why I make films. Success is no longer the most important thing in my life as it was, perhaps, when I was younger.
Guillén: You say that success is not the reason you make films, but won't the success of Black Bread influence the way you make films in the future? Hasn't it opened doors for you?
Villaronga: Yes, it has, and I want my films to open doors. I've always wanted to be accepted by my audiences. Although it was something I'd always imagined, it didn't happen; but now I'm happy—not just because of the success—but because different kinds of people are now connecting to the ideas and the feelings that I'm expressing in my films. That's the most important thing for a filmmaker.
Isona Passola: But Agustí, even though you may not have had success in terms of large audiences, I've accompanied you to many festivals in many countries and wherever we go you have fans who love your work. You have many interesting people who wait for your films. But you're a strange bird, you are.
Perhaps the success of Black Bread has to do with the fact that the novel on which it's based was a bestseller in Catalonia, in Spain? You can recognize Agustí's vision in every frame of the film, but Teixidor's novel was already quite accepted by all the major literati of Spain who are able to imagine the book in the film. The novel is full of elements that Agustí loves.
Guillén: And you saw that when you read the book, right? You were the one who brought the novel to Agustí?
Passola: Yes! I saw that the book had all the elements that Agustí loves, but not only the book. Emili Teixidor is a good writer. He has many tales and stories and novels that have subjects that interest Agustí and that are similar to his own subjects. A good author like Teixidor tends to work around the same ideas—the Civil War, the conflicts with children, the ambiguous morality of the adults, mysterious little villages where everything is hidden—and when I read Teixidor's novel, I instantly thought, "This would be wonderful for Agustí!" But I never dreamt his film would be so successful. When the film was released on DVD in Spain, it sold more than 150,000 copies in just two months, more than the release of Harry Potter. We've seen the same success in Japan and China. Why it should be so popular in those territories, I don't know.
Guillén: But that's what I'm trying to get at: to figure out why that is, why this film has had such immense popular appeal. I imagine myself as a typical American who is stupid about so many things that have happened or are happening in the world. [Both Villaronga and Passola laugh.] I sometimes feel that—if it weren't for film—I wouldn't know anything. This is one of the reasons I love film: it forces me to look at narratives with which filmmakers from their own countries address with concern and passion. By example, Spain's Civil War and Franco's post-war regime: you were a child while Franco was still in power?
Guillén: What was that like for you? I presume it has influenced why, perhaps, you are looking at these historical atrocities through the eyes of children?
Villaronga: Ah. Of course, I have been very influenced by experiencing firsthand Franco's regime because the post-war in Spain continued long past the '40s, which is the time depicted in The Sea and Black Bread. The effects of the post-war continued into the '50s, the '60s, and even into the '70s, especially in one respect: religious repression.
Passola: The false moralism; the pseudo-moralism.
Villaronga: For me, that constant feeling of picado, of sin, terrified me as a child and into my young adulthood. I was fortunate in being able to travel outside of Spain as a young man, by which I could compare what was happening within Spain. But I have to ask you now the first question you asked us: what do you think is the reason this film is so popular with audiences? Why have audiences accepted Black Bread?
Guillén: I think it has to do with the narrative viewpoint of the children, much like Victor Erice's Spirit of the Beehive (El espíritu de la colmena, 1973) and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth (El laberinto del fauno, 2006). I suspect audiences are more able and willing to look at these historical atrocities if they are framed through the eyes of children, or—as Bay Area journalist Johnny Ray Huston has suggested—through the resistance of children. Is it because audiences identify with the children in the sense that they do not know the historical context so they come at it through the perspective of the children who, themselves, do not understand the historical moment they are experiencing? In other words, is it that audiences perceive these historical atrocities with the same innocence as the children in these narratives and feel—with the children—that their own innocence is being desecrated? As the children are learning, we in the audience are learning at the same time. So I presume it is that element of identification that has had so much to do with the success of Black Bread and, previously, Pan's Labyrinth. I don't offhand know how Spirit of the Beehive was received by audiences upon its release, though I know it was critically praised.
Further, films I have seen about Spanish fascism in the cities are quite different from films about Spanish fascism set in the countryside, which again offsets a certain urban sophistication against the (perhaps romanticized?) innocence of rural folk. Your films, both The Sea and Black Bread, are set in the countryside. So I would have to ask you why you have chosen that pastoral setting to reflect this historical moment?
Villaronga: More because the literary sources for my films have talked about the countryside, both Teixidor's writing for Black Bread and Blai Bonet's novel for The Sea. I, myself, am not from the country. I was born and raised on the island of Mallorca within the city, the capitol. I didn't know so much about the country.
Passola: Perhaps this is also one of the keys to the film's success? People love the life of the countryside which Teixidor has described so realistically in his novel, and which Agustí has portrayed faithfully in his film. Agustí chose all the locations for his film so that they would match Teixidor's locations.
Villaronga: It's interesting that you say that, Isona, because people frequently mention how realistic Black Bread is, especially older audience members who were living in the countryside of Catalonia during the 1940s. They say, "Oh, it's just as I remember." But it's not true, eh? It's a convention. The locations of the film seem realistic, the village seems rural and mysterious, but it's actually a very sophisticated reconstruction. Even the dialogue spoken by the characters seems naturalistic, but again it's not true: the language is full of poetic exchanges. The costumes appear simple but they are elaborately designed. The resolution of all of this is that the film arrives as something real, as if it is happening at that moment in time.
Passola: I think what people are seeing as "realistic" is the truth of the story.
Villaronga: But that truth is internal; it's not really in the external details.
Passola: Your question intrigues us because it is the question that every day we ask ourselves. Our success feels strange.
Guillén: Let's shift to something of a delicate question—and I don't mean to be offensive at all, so please bear with me—but, last year at this time I was talking to Icíar Bollaín and she mentioned to me that within the film community in Spain there was something of a political tug-of-war going on between her film Even the Rain (2010) and Álex de la Iglesia's The Last Circus (2010). Do you feel in any way that—because their two films were so at odds—that Black Bread slipped through to victory, notably at the Goyas?
Villaronga: Ah! This is another question altogether about the prizes of the Academy. This is different than the question of how audiences have accepted the film. There was this fight going on at the Goya Awards because one of the filmmakers was the President of the Academy and the other was the Vice-President and they both had films in competition, and it is possible that our film Black Bread, which was considered less important, gained a certain focus within that controversy.
Passola: But let me say one thing: Agustí is beloved. He's a director who is loved a lot by the academic professionals of Spain. I know this for a fact. I think that the Academy decided, at last, to give him the recognition he had long deserved. For me, this is clear because the voting was very clear. Also, it's true that the Catalan voting was important in this case because in Catalonia everybody loved Black Bread and 50% of the Academy members are Catalan. Everyone knew that Agustí needed to be recognized and accepted definitively. It was important. And when Black Bread won at the Goyas, the joy of the people at the ceremony was palpable. This was not just a passing fad of popularity.
Guillén: It's interesting to hear you describe this because, here in the United States and among American film journalists, Black Bread's win was perceived as something of a dark horse victory, whereas you frame it as something long overdue in Spain. Admittedly, that's probably because your work has not had much distribution in the United States. Black Bread is the only film of your's that I've seen in a moviehouse, I watched The Sea online at MUBI, and have In A Glass Cage waiting for me by way of Netflix rental when I return home; but, because I have a great love for genre films, I familiarized myself with the body of your work through a series of erudite online career overviews, notably Chris Gallant's article for Kinoeye, Donald Totaro and Roberto Curti's pieces for Offscreen, and Quim Casa's essay for last year's retrospective at Rotterdam (with an attendant video interview conducted during their festival). If I may, I'd like to pursue some of the themes culled out of your body of work by those respective writers.
First of all, Donald Totaro has described your work as "paracinematic", a term coined by genre theorist Jeffrey Sconce, which Totaro describes as being "part of what Carol Clover and Linda Williams have called 'body genres'; genres which place as their prime aim the titillation of the body, those being horror (violence, blood, gore), porn (sexual arousal) and melodrama (weeping)." Your talent—from the little I've been able to see of your work so far—is how you combine these genres with the tropes of arthouse cinema. It strikes me that you're quite conscious about how you employ horror, let's say, to elicit poetry. Am I correct?
Villaronga: Yes, that's true.
Passola: I very much like this theory that Agustí combines art house with genre and that this creates poetry. I know Agustí is a poet. He doesn't know it, but I know it.
Guillén: We both know it. [Villaronga duck his head in embarrassment.]
Passola: I was interested in your comment about how Americans have reacted to Agustí's work. I think American audiences have been receptive and open-minded to his films and I especially feel that now that we've shown Black Bread around several cities in the United States. People usually say that European audiences are sophisticated and close-minded and that Americans are the opposite and I always thought that was just a theory; but, now—through our festival experience of Black Bread in the U.S.—I think this theory is true. Here in the United States audiences love stories about children; in Europe, no.
Guillén:Is that so?
Passola: American audiences are so open to being personally affected by Black Bread, which has created a new perception for me about American people.
Guillén: I think American audiences love genre films, which account for their popularity, perhaps moreso than arthouse cinema. Which is why I frequently ask filmmakers how conscious they are about using the tropes of genre to traffic their films to a broader audience. Because even though it's arthouse cinema that seems to traffic best among film festivals, I suspect it's genre films that the majority of audiences really want.
Passola: Are you sure? You think people want genre?
Guillén: It's just my opinion, but I suspect audiences want entertainment, and—generally speaking—are more entertained by genre than arthouse cinema.
Passola: But Black Bread is not a genre film.
Guillén: Oh, but I disagree. Black Bread has definite genre elements, even as it traffics as foreign arthouse cinema. It has melodramatic elements, which make it sad.
Villaronga: Melodramatic, yes.
Guillén: And it utilizes the horrific.
Villaronga: Yes, the fantastic.
Guillén: These are all genre conventions, but—as I said earlier—Agustí employs them in the service of arthouse cinema, again what Jeffrey Sconce calls paracinema and which Donald Totaro synopsizes as "a cross-generic cinema which eliminates the distinction between high art and trash / exploitation / low art by focusing on visceral emotionalism, on affect." What elevates Black Bread and Agustí's previous films above mere genre, however—what can be understood as their arthouse effect—is their moral ambiguity, which complicates the limitations of genre. What fascinates me in both The Sea and Black Bread, for example, is their exploration of the nature of evil. I would argue that evil is actually natural to the human animal, whereas good is something that has to be learned and practiced.
Villaronga: But this is your theory, no?
Guillén: Yes, but I'm not alone in thinking this. I've come to this attitude from studying with psychologists and theologians; but, what I'm trying to get at with regard to your films particularly, is the contagious nature of evil and how—when the children in your films witness evil, especially in The Sea—they become susceptible to evil, their innocence falls under evil's influence, or what is already evil within them by nature is triggered by experience. Evil becomes like an infection and spreads. For me that was the strength and the horror of the opening sequence in The Sea where the children witness murder and then commit murder and suicide themselves. The evil of adults enters through the eyes of children and taints their innocence and, at the same time, triggers the ethical response to resist evil.
Villaronga: That's true that evil is contagious but it's my philosophy that children are innocent at the beginning. It's the times they live in and the things that happen to them that change them. In four or five of my films this same theme happens: there is the child, there is the war, the war changes sensibilities, and some of the people are changed for the worse and become bad people. The violence is like a seed.
Passola: We had an amazing interview with psychiatrist Luis Rojas Marcos about this very subject, included in a video of people who have encouraged Black Bread's nomination to the Oscars®.
Villaronga: Rojas Marcos has written a book Las Semillas de la Violencia (The Seeds of Violence), in which he has explained what I am expressing quite poorly here.
Passola: But concerning Black Bread, Rojas Marcos has spoken about the post-traumatic stress that stays inside of people after horrific experiences like the Spanish Civil War and its post-war regime. When a situation is a collective trauma in the first or even the second generation, it remains long after in succeeding generations. He speaks very well about this theory as it applies to Black Bread and links it, of course, to the tragedy of the 9/11 World Trade Center. He was called in to help victims of that tragedy.
Villaronga: For me it is a pity that we are talking about such interesting topics when I have such a simple command of English. These topics are already very difficult to discuss.
Guillén: Please, speak to me in Spanish. I will understand you, even if I don't have a full command of spoken Spanish.
Villaronga: I've already mentioned that I was raised with a specific representation of religion, but—in my opinion—human spirituality is more important than religion, especially when we are talking about how evil makes people psychologically—i.e., spiritually—sick. Therefore, I adore those people who clean the world of this sickness. Normally, most of the people who watch my movies think that I am perverse; but, it's not the truth. In the last seven to eight years, I have become very involved with Buddhist teachings. They have changed me, which of course means they have changed the nature of my work. Many of these things remain unclear for me and I'm not sure how they play into my work; but, basically, I want to think the best of people and the world.
Passola: It's true! Agustí is very generous, moreso than I am. When I'm critical of someone, he'll say, "Don't say that." He always forgives everyone for everything. His spirituality is a very important element of his films.
Guillén: This I understand from Agustí's critique of the Catholic religiosity evident in his films. I was going to ask you if you were still Catholic, but now you tell me you are leaning the way of Buddhism, which believe me I fully support. But what I understand from reading about the cultural reaction to the repressive Catholicism of the post-war Franco regime is that—when Franco finally fell from power and Spanish artists and intellectuals felt they could express themselves again—one of the first waves of that expression was a collective need to "let it all hang out" and to explore the pseudo-morality you referenced earlier used by the Catholic hierarchy to enforce the unnatural and the artificial, and to do so by underscoring the perverse hypocrisies of the Catholic hierarchy and its support of fascism, something Guillermo del Toro emphasized when I spoke to him about Pan's Labyrinth.
This leads me to ask about one of your more controversial thematic concerns: the use of homoeroticism in your films. In The Sea it struck me that the homoeroticism was being placed alongside all that was fascist and evil; but, in Black Bread, the homosexual character was clearly the victim in this narrative and the violence committed against him was the seed of evil. Which obliges me to ask—despite what we've already determined are similar elements—how closely does your film follow the novel?
Villaronga: [Chuckles.] It's very far from the book. Of course, Teixidor's vision is easier; it's a simpler narrative line to follow.
Passola: It's more black and white.
Villaronga: When Isona came to me with the book, I admitted to her that I didn't understand it very well, or why she wanted me to think about it for a film because it was so normal, so simple, so clear. I was also reluctant because there had already been many movies made about the Spanish Civil War. But then I read Teixidor's other works and was particularly impressed with The Portrait Of A Bird Killer and when I considered combining the two books, I became more enthused. For example, the character of Farriol the father in my movie is complicated. Half of him is a good man, as in the novel, and the other half—taken from Portrait Of A Bird Killer—is absolutely bad. By combining both, we created one complex character. By doing so, we were able to better describe how war visited misery upon these people. The melodrama becomes not just a melodrama but opens up into new possibilities of forgiveness.
Passola: Agustí always finds something good in the bad and something bad in the good. This is his ability. It was not in the book and it was not in my idea of what could be done with the book. Agustí's participation with this project was his capacity to make the morality of these individuals ambiguous.
Villaronga: Another example would be the girl Núria (Marina Comas). In the book she is girlish and constantly crying. But in The Portrait Of A Bird Killer, there is an 11-year-old boy who has lost his hand. Again, I combined the two characters and the composite was stronger.
Guillén: I respect what you're saying, but for me it was not so much about forgiving good people for what is bad within them. I don't want to forgive Farriol for what he's done; I want to understand him for what he's done, even if he's done so in a bad way. Your film thins the membrane between good and evil and shows how this membrane is within everyone, adult and child alike.
Villaronga: I like to dissect my main characters, open them up, to reveal all that is inside them. I'm not afraid of what I'll find.
Guillén: But even as you dissect your characters to reveal them, you are respectful of this mysterious process by which they can be both good and bad. This might be confusing to some of your audience members who, perhaps, would want the story to be more black-and-white like the novel; but, for me this is your poetic impulse. A poet asks you to go with an image to see what it makes you feel. The audience isn't supposed to always know everything, even as they feel many different things. This, for me, has always been the power of an image: that it can contain contradictions without resolution. For example, the sequence where you have the beautiful boy bathing by the water, moving his arms as if he were a bird flapping its wings is sublime and mysterious. Is he half bird? Who is he? Why does he appear just then in the story? Ultimately, it didn't matter to me because he was simply a beautiful image within a complicated narrative. It would be unfair to ask you: what does this specifically mean?
Passola: Further, the point of view is Andreu's point of view. He never discovers the whole truth. The film's point of view is that of the children and the boy doesn't fully understand everything that is happening. He discovers aspects of the truth. For me this is wonderful and Agustí and I often discussed whether or not audiences would understand these beautiful images; but, finally, he decided to just go ahead and film it the way he saw it.
Guillén: Another very mysterious sequence was when Andreu went into the cave and had a vision of what had actually happened in the past. Just a moment ago I said it wasn't fair to ask you what something specifically means; but, here I go contradicting myself because I want to confirm my impressions of this castration sequence. You set it up so vaguely with the ghost of the delicate boy Pitorliua buttoning up his shirt who is then approached by, I assume, the brother of Señora Manubens? She has forced her brother to marry a woman in another country at the same time that she has sought to discredit his inheritance so she can have everything for herself. She had paid Dionís and Farriol to scare off Pitorliua, but they took it too far and castrated him. Señora Manubens subsequently hired Farriol to kill Dionís, which is the opening sequence of the film. Am I following this correctly?
Villaronga: Perfect! [Laughs.]
Passola: [Laughs.] You are probably the only one who understands this!
Villaronga: You are very clever because there is only one clue in the film that explains this and it's when Andreu's mother Florència (Nora Navas) finally reveals to him that Pitorliua was castrated, which she does very quickly. But the important part is not that the audience understands fully the particulars of what has happened; the important part is that the boy realizes his father has lied to him.
Passola: But the ending of the film is tough because—despite the fact that the mother Florència loves Andreu—he chooses to cut himself loose from her because he feels betrayed by his father, even though she is a good mother.
Guillén: I was more affected by his cutting off ties with his cousin Núria, specifically when she came running after him and said, "You promised me" and he responded, "If I can leave my mother, I can leave you." That's what was important for me, that in order for him to become himself—a young man in his own right—he had to cut himself off from the feminine influences. The mystery of this narrative is that his father committed a crime that, in effect, allows Andreu to become independent, albeit by default. I understood this because I had to do the same in my own life. At the age of 15, I had to cut myself off from my family, cut myself off from my mother, so that I could go into the world to become myself.
Guillén: Well, it's complicated but, basically, it was because my individuality was being stifled by the traditions of my family. They were already meddling in my business and trying to manipulate who I would become.
Villaronga: Ah yes, they were trying to control you?
Guillén: Yes. I was a creative person with a will of my own and I couldn't stand their interference so the only thing I knew to do was to leave home at 15 to live on my own terms. I knew early on that I thought and felt differently than the rest of my family. This is also, perhaps, why I was struck in your film by how anyone who spoke the truth was characterized as crazy. I loved the sequence in the cemetery when Andreu encounters Pauletta (Laia Marull), the mother of his friend Culet, the boy who died, and she speaks the truth. Everyone wants to say she's crazy because the truth itself is crazy.
Passola: Laia Marull is a very important actress in our country.
Guillén: So to wrap up here, your films have exhibited this continuous thematic thread of concerns that have expressed your creative vision, culminating popularly with Black Bread. Do you feel you are done with these themes or will you continue to explore them in future films?
Villaronga: I don't know.
Passola: Agustí is accepting offers to make other films. For example, he just shot a television series Una carta para Evita (A Letter For Evita, 2011) about Evita Perón.
Guillén: You've just made a film about Evita Perón?!
Villaronga: I just finished shooting, yes. It's both about Evita Perón and Carmen Polo, the women of Franco. It's a fantastic story.
Guillén: Well, I certainly look forward to seeing that in the future, along with the rest of your work that I've not seen. Thank you so much for taking the time today to speak with me. Your work is beautiful.
Villaronga: I am very happy with all of your opinions.