Dominican women at the back of the bus.
What the prospective wives encounter on arrival — a welcome or a trap?
Marirrosi and Alfonso hit it off.
Damián and Patricia check each other out.
Milady arrives with Carmelo.
Establishing shot summer: first bus arrives.
Establishing shot autumn: Tumbleweed cues spectator to one of the film’s intertexts, the Western Westward the Women (dir. William Wellman, 1951, USA), about the colonization of California by Anglo farmers after the Mexican American War.
After an establishing shot of an abandoned town in the fall, Alfonso and Marirrosi discuss how to save Santa Eulalia from the same fate, in effect foreshadowing the coming death of their relationship.
Establishing shot winter.
Marirrosi and Alfonso’s relationship grows as cold as the snow framing them.
Patricia and Damián find warmth in the family’s hearth, identified here with the stable of Christ’s birth.
Flores de otro mundo (Flowers from Another World, dir. Icíar Bollaín, Spain, 1999) tells the story of Santa Eulalia, a small Castilian town that is losing many of its jobs and young people to corporate agriculture and the lure of big cities. The older men of the town, desperate to find mates, organize a three-day celebration for prospective single women from all across Spain. The women arrive in a single bus. About half of them are light-skinned Spanish women, while the other half is made up of younger, darker-skinned women from the Dominican Republic.
During a weekend of dancing, eating and drinking, two couples emerge from this get-together: one between Alfonso (Chete Lera), a plant nursery owner, and Marirrosi (Eleana Irureta), an economically independent Basque nurse from Bilbao; and another one between Damián (Luis Tosar), a farmer who tends to his land but also sells his labor-power to other landowners, and Patricia (Lissete Mejía), a Dominican mulatto domestic worker with two small children of her own. A third couple emerges later in the film, between Carmelo (José Sancho), the local building contractor, and Milady (Marilyn Torres), a young, college-educated, and sexually liberated black Cuban woman whom he brings back from one of his trips to the island, not as wife, but as his fiancée. In the end, only Damián and Patricia work things out through a marriage of convenience that reaffirms patriarchal structures of power, while Marirrosi returns to Bilbao and Milady hitchhikes her way out of rural Spain. In a sort of epilogue, the process begins all over again, when another busload of women arrives into town to be subjected to yet another round of legal and emotional transactions.
Flowers from Another World alternates between the celebration of women's economic and sexual liberation through the respective characters of Marirrosi and Milady, and the reaffirmation of patriarchal values through Patricia's incorporation into a nuclear, extended and ultimately, national family. The film sustains the ensuing tension between liberation and dependence through a combination of melodrama and realism, and in the end, resolves that tension in favor of Patricia’s narrative and the values of patriarchy.
As a family melodrama, the film's narrative structure works towards the restoration of the status quo, in particular through the use of circular time. Indeed, restoration is narratively underscored and foreshadowed by linking the progress of the couples' individual narratives to the seasons of the year: first summer, when the bus arrives; then fall, as the couples settle into an uncertain routine of ups and downs where downs get progressively more pronounced as winter approaches; winter, when all three relationships enter a period of cold tension and/or rupture; spring, a single sequence celebrating Patricia’s incorporation to the closed patriarchal order through her daughter’s baptism; and summer again, when the second bus arrives and the process begins all over again. The melodramatic impulse to restoration, which such circular time frames as natural and inevitable, can be linked, as Peter Brooks has shown, to collective anxieties towards the unknown:
In Flowers, the frightening new world that causes such anxiety for Santa Eulalia is not limited to the fact that Patricia, Marirrosi and Milady bring with them very different experiences, worldviews, and expectations from what is common for men and women in that town, but also to the fact that Patricia and Milady are neither Spanish nor White, and therefore doubly Other. From this perspective, how Santa Eulalia (and by extension, Spain) deals with the anxiety generated by the presence of these double Others may be said to be the film's central narrative concern. In terms of cinematic style, on the other hand, the film’s use of realism (achieved through techniques such as continuity editing, natural lighting, and non-stylized acting and gestures) complements the melodramatic impulse to restoration by creating the illusion that what happens is not one of many possible realities, but reality itself. The two main effects of this combination of realism and a circular narrative structure is that audiences are not encouraged to imagine alternative outcomes, and that the outcomes that are presented seem as natural and inevitable as the passage of the seasons.
The complimentary relation between melodrama and realism, so central to this film, was at the heart of a prolonged debate throughout the 1980s over whether realist melodramas were subversive of, or complicit with, patriarchy. In a piece that summarizes many of the positions in this debate, E. Ann Kaplan identified three categories of “melodramatic/realist mainstream texts”:
Flowers from Another World lies somewhere between the first two of these categories. Insofar as Patricia never resists or questions patriarchal structures, Flowers belongs to the first category of films identified by Kaplan, those that are complicit with patriarchy. On the other hand, the fact that Milady and Marirrosi resist and ultimately reject that order suggests that Flowers also belongs to the second category identified by Kaplan, where women’s inferior positioning within patriarchy is exposed but not consciously criticized, and where the patriarchally constructed feminine is still valorized as the desirable standard (Kaplan 1986, 51-52).
The next two sections of this essay are organized around these two divergent readings. In the section “Transatlantic Dreams,” I explore how the film is complicit with patriarchy. First, I situate the film’s fictional narrative of migration within the concrete history of recent migrations from Latin America to Spain, and then I focus on how Patricia’s integration into Spanish culture reproduces the patriarchal and colonial categories of gender and race linked to that history. This section is followed by another, “Peninsular Nightmares,” where I focus on how the film exposes struggles within the status quo through the way it depicts embodied repression against women, and especially women of color, even as it valorizes them for embodying the patriarchally constructed feminine. (Kaplan 1986, 52) Finally, in the conclusions, I will situate the film’s mis-representation of women of color within a history of such mis-representations in the Hispanic tradition, and within the context of other Spanish films on migration.