Spanish Film Festival Review: “Tristana” (Spain, 1970)

After an epic three weeks, seven cities and twenty-four films, the 16th Spanish Film Festival came to a close on Wednesday night at the Verona Cinema in Paddington. The celebrations were low-key cool; guests were treated to enormous and delicious goblets of Sangria as part of a pre-screening gathering at the cinema bar, where Spanish and English chatter mingled as guests of all ages regaled each other with their experiences of all things Spanish-Latino.

This was followed by the final film of the festival program. And what better way to close out the festival than with a screening of Luis Buñuel’s classic romantic drama, Tristana (1970); a film that epitomises that heady mix of sensuality and Puritanism which is an addictive component of so many Spanish films.

Tristana is the story of a young woman, Tristana, (Catherine Deneuve), who is left in the care of her mother’s lover, Don Lope, (Fernando Rey), after her death. Don Lope is an ageing lothario of diminished fortune, but highly respected within his community. A strange relationship quickly develops between the two housemates and Don Lope indulges his love for Tristana as both a father figure and an unofficial husband. At first, Tristana is too young and innocent to refuse his advances, but she soon develops a deep resentment of Don Lope’s manipulation and begins to rebel against it. At the same time, she realises that she is heavily dependent on him, as a child would be to a parent.

As the film progresses, we see Tristana become increasingly embittered as she comes to terms with the hopelessness of her situation. Where most women spend their lives reconciling the different relationships that they have with their husbands and fathers, Tristana is in a situation where those two figures exist within the same man. It’s impossible to choose one over the other. Meanwhile, Don Lope struggles with his own feelings towards Tristana and with his desire to win her affection- as a daughter, or a wife, or both.

When Tristana first came out, it was hugely successful in both European and American critical arenas; it screened at Cannes, it was nominated for Best Foreign Language film at the 1971 Oscars. Despite the fact that forty years have passed and there have been enormous technological leaps made in filmmaking since then, this movie still holds up. Sure, the sound effects are comically out of whack with the action, and the dubbing of Catherine Deneuve and Horacio’s (Franco Nero) Spanish is as bad as any ‘70s martial arts film. But Tristana still manages to really get under your skin.

Don Lope is such a complicated mixture of chauvinistic wanker and sympathetic old father figure that you jolt back and forth between extremes of loving him and hating him just as much as poor Tristana. This has to be in part due to the immaculate performance of Fernando Rey. But it’s also Buñuel’s manipulation of character point of view, in particular, that ramps up the emotional tension. Even though Tristana is the title character in this film, it could easily be argued that the protagonist is actually Don Lope. At times, it’s very hard to know who to sympathise with, and that is a stroke of genius because it highlights just how impossible the situation is for both central characters: each bound to the other by love and need.

For her part, young Catherine Deneuve is every bit as enchanting as you would expect her to be on screen, but her performance is particularly clever in the way that it maps Tristana’s descent from innocent happiness into cynical depression. Judging by the reaction of the audience at this screening, it’s safe to say that some of the more chauvinistic ideas in this film don’t necessarily sit well with contemporary audiences. (At one point, Don Lope says, somewhat prophetically, “If you want an honest woman, break her leg and keep her at home.”) But what the film is actually talking about is ‘Freedom’ in all its incarnations; particularly in the sense of Tristana’s freedom to choose her own fate and Don Lope’s freedom to love her as someone other than her guardian. Freedom as a theme stretches into most corners of the rest of the film as well.

Once you look past some of the more dated aspects of Tristana, it’s easy to see its strength as a thoughtful and thought-provoking commentary on love and liberty in the face of deeply embedded social and religious expectations. If you feel like a bit of old-school Spain on a Saturday afternoon, be sure to take Tristana for a spin. You won’t regret it.

Review Score: FOUR STARS OUT OF FIVE

Tristana was the closing film on the Sydney leg of the 16th annual Spanish Film Festival. More details about the event can be found here: http://www.spanishfilmfestival.com/