JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

 

Milady sexually in charge and in full view.

Damián on top and under the covers.

Afonso and Marirrosi fall out of view to make love.

Alfonso's orchids doing well.

Early in the narrative, Patricia and Milady share a close friendship which would include Milady’s offer to financially help Patricia.

When Milady is in need, however, Patricia does not reciprocate.

Milady hitchhikes out of Santa Eulalia with Carmelo’s assistant, whose German shepherd suggests that he, like Carmelo, can turn violent. Visually, the framing of the three crammed in this small car underscores Milady’s entrapment.

Icíar Bollaín during production of Mataharis, which had its premiere in San Sebastián, September '07.

Patricia's Dominican husband: Scripted as the male character in the film with the lowest moral and ethical standards, the darkness of his skin correlates with how the film constructs racial hierarchies. Visually there's an equally superficial construction of him as a villain figure through his gestures, goatee, and earring.

The first time Milady and Patricia meet, the framing serves to foreshadow their characters’ positioning as either within or outside the town’s rules.

While Patricia is always framed below the horizon line ...

... Milady is framed against an open sky.

After Milady escapes, Carmelo eats by himself with a Christmas message from the King of Spain on TV in the background. The film articulates patriarchy only through its most outward manifestations — i.e., the monarchy, Carmelo’s violence — and therefore fails to critique its underlying structures.

Milady’s legal and moral crisis is reduced to emotional terms, emphasized here through two melodramatic conventions: a white phone and tears.

 

 

 

In contrast, Milady's sexuality is depicted as uncontrolled and therefore dangerous. In effect, the film reproduces the stereotypical view of race intersecting with sexuality, whereby the darker a person's skin, the greater that person's sexual prowess. At one extreme is Milady's sexuality, which is presented directly and graphically, as when she gets on top of Carmelo and literally makes love to him without even taking his or her clothes off. Patricia's sexuality, which corresponds to the middle ground between "black" and "white" sexualities, is shown directly but under the covers of the matrimonial bed. And finally, at the other end of the race/sexuality spectrum, Marirrosi's sexuality is always suggested, as when she and Alfonso fall on the floor and out of the camera's view to make love.

This last lovemaking sequence is important in another way, in that it includes — in dialogue form and inside Alfonso’s nursery — the film’s guiding metaphor of female immigrants as exotic and delicate, and therefore in need of protection:

Alfonso: Look.
Marirrosi: What are they?
Alfonso: Orchids.
Marirrosi:  How lovely!
Alfonso: We’ll see, it’s the first time I’ve planted them.
Marirrosi: Where are they from?
Alfonso: They’re African.
Marirrosi: You think they’ll grow here?
Alfonso: With care, everything grows.

The reference to Milady and Patricia is crystal clear: like the orchids in Alfonso’s nursery, Milady and Patricia are exotic flowers in an inhospitable environment, and the only way for them to survive, let alone grow and flourish, is for the patriarch on whom they depend to keep them housed and tended. A reading of this exchange against the grain could point out that just as the greenhouse is made of glass and therefore easily breakable, so too, metaphorically speaking, is the patriarchy that is to protect Milady and Patricia by domesticating them. However, even this reading would lead us to conclude that without such patriarchy and the domestic sphere within which it encloses women, Milady and Patricia could never grow and flourish in Spain. Moreover, and this is perhaps more important than the merits or limits of the double metaphor orchids:immigrants :: greenhouse:patriarchy, what this exchange reveals is that from the perspective of the only Spanish-Spanish couple in the narrative, the couple that represents the country’s mainstream culture, all dark-skinned subjects can be lumped into one reductive category, that of the exotic Other, and therefore that of an object — of desire, yes, but from there also, and all too easily, of violence.

In effect, beyond reproducing the stereotypical view of race intersecting with sexuality, the film also reproduces a stereotypical view of race intersecting with violence. When Alfonso and Marirrosi end their relationship, for example, there is no violence. On the other hand, when Damián orders Patricia to take her children and leave, not only does he yell at her, but he also yells at their daughter Janai and even pushes her off the tractor. Finally, Milady suffers the most violence, as is clear from the scene where Carmelo beats her up. That Carmelo is never punished for this act of violence indicates that all of Santa Eulalia, including by now Patricia, is complicit with the patriarchal structures of class, gender, race and sexuality — which combine to justify collective silence and inaction in the face of a crime witnessed, directly or indirectly, by all. Moreover, by treating Milady in broadly comic terms, the film first allows for her transgressiveness, but then it encourages audiences not to take the punishments imposed in response to those transgressions, or the uncertainty of her final situation, too seriously.

Milady’s objectification serves the narrative purpose of developing Carmelo’s character. His physical abuse, his locking her up, and his prohibition against her continuing to work at the local bar, all stem from the perception that his own masculinity, once confirmed and strengthened by her sexuality, is now being threatened by the fact that he cannot control her. This motivates Carmelo, a man who never before mentioned children, to suddenly suggest to Milady that they have some children of their own. At this suggestion, Milday's face and body language lets the viewer know that neither force nor persuasion will make her accept Carmelo’s continuing attempts to domesticate her into his patriarchal world. The next morning she hitches a ride out of town with Carmelo's assistant, who mistakenly assumes that she is leaving Carmelo for him. Milady realizes that she's fallen into the same kind of trap (the assistant's German shepherd signals that he too may turn violent), and she promptly escapes again.

All these twists and turns are part and parcel of melodrama, as is the presentation of these twists and turns within a narrative structure of parallel plotting. Given these two conventions of melodrama, the fact that the viewer does not know what happens to Milady’s character is a signal not to think about it and instead direct one’s attention to another line of action. (Bordwell 1985, 71) In this case, we are first directed to think of Marirrosi, whose relationship with Alfonso ends quite melodramatically at the town’s bus station, and then to pause on Patricia, who is shown celebrating her daughter’s first communion with a slightly visible belly. In other words, the successive de-centering of Milady’s and Marirrosi’s narratives works towards the centering and privileging of Patricia’s narrative trajectory, the only trajectory, the film makes clear, that is both productive and reproductive.

Same bed, different positions: With Carmelo now in charge, all playfulness in sex is gone. He tries to domesticate Milady and suggests they have children as a way to end what he calls her boredom. His attempt to acculturate her is underscored visually by his invitation to dance the Spanish pasodoble while Milady’s facial expression and body language emphatically indicate that she rejects both offers

Conclusions

Flowers from Another World belongs to a growing number of independent films worldwide that dramatize South-to-North migrations.[5] In Spain, which that has only recently become an immigrant-receiving nation for the first time in over five centuries, somewhere in the order of thirty such independent films have been produced since 1990. Foremost among these fictions are

  • Cartas de Alou (Letters from Alou, dir. Montxo Armendáriz, 1990) a drama about a Senegalese economic migrant who falls in love with a Spanish woman;
  • El techo del mundo (dir. Felipe Vega, 1995), about a Spanish migrant in France who, during his first visit to Spain in over three decades, encounters an African migrant;
  • Bwana (dir. Imanol Uribe, 1996), a tragedy about two African male refugees;
  • Tomando té (Two for Tea, dir. Isabel Gardela, 2000), a romantic comedy about an South Asian immigrant who falls in love with a Catalan writer of erotic novels;
  • Salvajes (dir. Carlos Molinero, 2001), about a group of young neo-nazis in southern Spain; and
  • Poniente (dir. Chus Gutiérrez, 2002), a love story set against the racial violence that exploded in El Ejido in 2000.

In Cartas de Alou (Letters from Alou, dir. Montxo Armendáriz, 1990) a Senegalese economic migrant falls in love with a Spanish woman.

In Poniente (dir. Chus Gutiérrez, 2002), the kind of racial violence that exploded in El Ejido in 2000 provides the backdrop to a love story between two white Spaniards.

More recently, documentarists have taken the lead in highlighting the immigrant experience in Spain, with works such as

  • Extranjeras (dir. Helena Taberna, 2003), on women migrants who live in the Madrid neighborhood of Lavapiés;
  • Si nos dejan (dir. Ana Torres, 2005), on migrants who live in Barcelona’s old neighborhoods, and
  • Pobladores (dir. Manuel García Terrano, 2006), which centers on immigrant children in a public school in the Madrid neighborhood of Vallecas.

Documentaries aside, what unites these films is that they represent the process of interculturation as a problem that is solved through the immigrant's narrative death, deportation, or assimilation into mainstream Spanish culture. In Flowers from Another World, the most critically acclaimed and commercially successful of this group of narrative fictions, interculturation is presented as a complex dynamic that is transforming both the receiving and the immigrant communities as they become increasingly dependent on each other. Yet like the other films in the group, it is ambivalent in its characterization of immigrant others, and it ends up reproducing an ideology of exclusion.

In the fictional world created by the film, only the ideology of the patriarchal family can trump race, as when the affirmation of the family overcomes racial prejudice in Patricia’s favor. This is the narrative’s strength and its Achilles heel, for while it is true that Santa Eulalia accepts Patricia, a racial Other, as one of its own, it does so only after it is patently clear that she will reproduce its conservative patriarchal structure. From the perspective of narrative form, we could paraphrase this by saying that, while it is within character, in a family melodrama, for a mother like Patricia to sacrifice herself for the future of her children, and we as spectators of that melodrama find it next to impossible to fault her character on this point, the discourse of sacrifice and subsequent reward is here inexorably linked to a patriarchal and colonialist ideology, rather than to an ideology of sexual liberation and economic equality represented, respectively, by Milady and Marirrosi.

Icíar Bollaín, the director, and co-sciptwriter with Julio Llamazares, of Flowers from Another World, has impeccable credentials as a progressive artist and director. She began her filmic career as an actor in El sur (The South, dir. Víctor Erice, 1983), and in 1995 managed to both act in Land and Freedom (dir. Ken Loach, 1995), and direct her first feature, the critically acclaimed Hola, ¿estás sola? (Hello, Are You Alone?). This was followed four years later by Flowers from Another World, winner of the Critic's Award for best feature at Cannes in 1999, and Best Film at the 1999 International Film Festival in Bogotá, Colombia; by work as co-scriptwriter in Poniente, and more recently, by a return to directing in Te doy mis ojos (Take My Eyes, 2003), about a woman’s struggle to break free from domestic violence. A powerful indictment of machismo and nationalism at the time when domestic violence made headlines almost daily in Spain, the film earned seven Goyas, Spain’s version of the Oscars, for best film, director, actor, actress, supporting actress, original script, and sound. Given this background, my critique of the film may seem harsh and even off the mark, especially considering that internal to the narrative, there are many critiques to conservative ideology.

Yet ultimately, even taking these internal critiques into account, and in spite of the director’s credentials, the film fails to transcend the ideological limits of a kind of patriarchy that is inseparable from a nationalism built on 500 years of exclusion and exploitation. In this sense, Flowers from Another World very clearly reveals the inseparability of current interculturation within the metropolis from past and ongoing colonialism. The film, for example, reproduces racial and sexual categories of Spain’s colonial past, even though Spain lost its last colonies in the Americas over a hundred years ago. Some of these categories include the figure of the mulatta (Patricia) as successful mediator between an African Other and a Self defined as European, the figure of the runaway slave (Milady) as independent and uncompromising, and the figure of the deadbeat Black man (Patricia's husband) as a burden and impediment to economic development. We could also take a more allegorical approach to the characters, by following Fernández Retamar’s reading of Latin America in his 1971 essay “Calibán: Notes Toward a Discussion of Culture in Our America.” That is, we could read Milady as a gendered and racialized embodiment of the rebellious Caliban, Patricia as a gendered and racialized embodiment of the subservient Ariel, and Damián and Carmelo as willing Prosperos of their respective "isles."

These categories and metaphors are, like the patriarchy they reflect, ultimately prescriptive, and therefore limiting. As identities, moreover, they smack of essentialism, a central feature of patriarchal cognitive structures and of mainstream cinema. If, on the other hand, we emphasize the temporal and spatial contexts within which these identities emerge, it becomes very clear that these and other identities are not immutable but rather position-dependent, and that they change in response to historically specific circumstances. In Flowers from Another World, the emphasis is clearly not on transformation but on the reproduction of the status quo through the conventions and patterns of a patriarchal drama that privileges the integration of Patricia into Spain’s patriarchal culture over the exclusion of both Milady and Marirrosi from that enclosed narrative space. Central to this conventionalism is the creation of male — and to a lesser extent, female — characters whose essentialist epistemology privileges confrontational over relational strategies, thus sabotaging repeated attempts on the part of the female characters to radically transform their interpersonal and intercultural relations. In this sense, Patricia, Milady and even Marirrosi represent, quite literally, flowers from an Other world in a patriarchal, capitalist and colonialist Self-ordering that stunts the development and sustenance of relational Selves.

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