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Tales for Tapas: Life is a pleasure

Farewell to a sex-symbol, celebrating Picasso and lamenting Málaga’s injury-time disaster.


Sara Montiel.

Sara Montiel: alluded to that vast undercurrent of everyday experience that wasn’t supposed to exist.

A woman of international stature passed from the scene this week.  Admired at home and abroad, she touched the lives of millions, a champion of personal freedom who nonetheless came to terms with dictatorship, her instincts were conservative but her choices were often daring – Sara Montiel, the venerable icon of stage and screen, died at her home in Madrid on Monday at the age of 85.

Montiel personified – particularly in her later chat-show-celebrity-magazine incarnation – the superficiality of pop culture, yet that very superficiality may have been the key not only to her commercial success but to her importance to Spanish society, particularly in the 1960s. Montiel articulated a kitsch but optimistic and obliquely subversive descant to the sombre music of official Spain.

The title of the memoir she published in 2000, To Live Is a Pleasure, sums up the commendably intrepid and upbeat philosophy of a woman born without many advantages in a country plagued by poverty, intolerance and violent class division. Sara and Sex, her second book, published at the age of 75, testifies to a refreshingly frank engagement with reality.

Montiel shot to fame first in Mexico where she made hugely popular films in the early 1950s, and then in Hollywood, acting opposite Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster, among others, before returning to Spain to shoot the runaway success, El Último Cuplé in 1957, which propelled her to domestic superstardom.

She remained resolutely mainstream even though her private life at the height of her fame was at odds with the official morality of the day. Some might dismiss this as a dismal and inevitable example of the hypocrisy that riddled a ferociously puritanical society. Others would argue, however, that Montiel’s conformity was more interestingly anarchic.

With a seductive raising of the eyebrows she alluded, confidently if conspiratorially, to that vast undercurrent of everyday experience that wasn’t supposed to exist.

Food and sex

The creative achievement of director, photographer and painter Juan José Bigas Luna, who died on April 5 at the age of 67, reflects the undercurrents of a later era.

If Montiel showed the artistic possibilities of testing narrow cultural boundaries, Bigas Luna explored the possibilities and contradictions of a period in which social and political freedom had already expanded exponentially.

Jamón Jamón, which brought the director (along with Javier Bardem and Penélope Cruz) international recognition in 1992, stands up today as an enduringly funny and pertinent comedy (which, among other things, took the whole concept of a “food fight” to a new and extremely bizarre level).

Bigas Luna’s preoccupations with sex and food, like Montiel’s extravagant escapism, say a great deal about Spain. When the rest of the world discovered sex in the 1960s and 70s, it was just sex. When Spain’s turn came, a decade after everyone else, sex wasn’t simply discovered: it was rediscovered, and it was found to be woven into the fabric of culture, history, art, and politics.

Jamón Jamón and Bigas Luna’s other works are entertainingly emblematic of this quintessentially Spanish compulsion to inject meaning into all manner of things. It takes a particular kind of genius to celebrate the philosophical subtext of nude bullfighting, and Bigas Luna had that sort of genius.

Solidarity of the soul

The fertile cultural heritage on which both Montiel and Bigas Luna were in their different ways able to draw was highlighted this week by the 40th anniversary of the death of Picasso.

Málaga’s most famous son complained at the end of his long life about the burden of celebrity, which obliged him, he said, to live in almost monastic seclusion.

All artists crave company – kindred spirits who sympathise with the work and whose quirks and foibles sometimes go into the work.  This solidarity of the soul – like a well-choreographed dance number or a naked corrida – is the sort of thing that can make life bearable in even the most challenging of times.

It is precisely the solidarity that right-thinking people everywhere will extend to the players of Málaga FC following the injury-time catastrophe of Tuesday evening.

History shows that actresses, singers, directors, painters and the like have managed to rise above the tribulations of daily life – footballers can, and surely will, do the same.

To read more by Anna Maria O’Donovan visit My Spanish Interlude.

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Published: Apr 12 2013
Category: Iberoblog, Featured, Spain News
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
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