Social realism in Spanish cinema: Fernando León de Aranoa

This article was originally published on Issue number 2 of literary magazine Thi Wurd.

No me importa que al morir no haya otra vida,

lo que me preocuparía es que si hubiera otra fuera igual que esta”

Well, the worst thing wouldn’t be if there was nothing after death.

The worst thing would be if there was another life, just like this one

Princesas (2005)


Written by Raquel Martínez

When thinking about contemporary Spanish cinema, one name usually springs to mind: the highly talented and internationally celebrated director Pedro Almodóvar. However, to what extent does his cinema depict Spanish life and culture? Although not everyone outside Spain is aware of it, a more realistic film tradition has existed there since the early 1950s. It was born under the influence of Italian Neorealism and was mainly represented by the great directors Luis García Berlanga and Juan Antonio Bardem (uncle of actor Javier Bardem) in films such as Welcome Mr. Marshall (1953) and Death of a Cyclist (1955). Many more followed; those who continued capturing the complex socio-political situation of a confused country and its people during the post-war era and the subsequent decades until Franco’s death in 1975.

If we think about the situation today, we can almost regard Spain as a different country with its own issues and idiosyncrasies. These continue to be tackled by a new generation of Spanish artists and filmmakers. Fernando León de Aranoa (born 1968, Madrid) is one of the leading talents in this group. Both as a writer and as a director, he creates stories which not only Spaniards but people from other countries can also identify with. His films tackle social problems such as immigration, domestic violence, unemployment, the sex industry, among other modern themes. His stories are predominantly local, based on small communities that his characters have never left but intend to escape from at some point in their lives. These are tales of men and women who are trying to come to terms with pain, loss and with life itself.


Barrio (1998)

Strangely, Fernando León de Aranoa started in the world of cinema by chance; an administrative error forced him to change from an art degree to a film degree. It was a twist of fate which marked his future as a director, a career that he had not previously considered or even felt attracted to. This idea of fate is present in some of his stories and often leaves the characters little choice or none at all. They live their lives stoically, although they are not always prone to accept what destiny has planned for them. This sense of rebellion creates a struggle, which brings a feeling of general dissatisfaction to the characters.

De Aranoa’s characters are the driving forces in his films. Considered as social outcasts, they are also wise and cunning, strongly resembling the stereotype of the Spanish rogue. Working class philosophers and daydreamers, who constantly plot their escape to more enticing destinations. In Barrio (1998), Rai is a 14 year-old boy who feels trapped in his concrete neighbourhood but dreams of spending some time on the Spanish coast. The unemployed protagonist in Mondays in the Sun (Los Lunes al Sol, 2002), Santa, wishes to move to Australia, where “everyone has got a job”. Nevertheless, reality usually takes over in order to remind us that we cannot always escape our own fate.

Los lunes al sol

Mondays in the Sun (2002)

Despite having received prestigious critical awards for his previous feature films, Mondays in the Sun represents De Aranoa’s first real success among the Spanish public. The main theme of the film is unemployment, a recurring subject in the Spanish news which today affects more than a quarter of the population. Thus, we follow the lives of Santa (brilliantly portrayed by Javier Bardem), José (played by Luis Tosar) and a few other men who have lost their jobs at the local shipyard. For them, life is a battle against depression and, above all, aimlessness. Lack of work has a striking effect not only on their professional situation but also in their personal relationships and the way they relate to the world in general. As the story unfolds, we can see that some of them cope better than others.

On the other hand, despite their apparent hopeless condition, these characters are not alone. Santa and his friends “solve the world’s problems” in the local bar while Caye, the main character in the film Princesas (2005), and her fellow prostitutes discuss political affairs at the hairdressers. The people who inhabit De Aranoa’s films display loyalty and generosity, and support their friends through hard times by means of every possible resource. Caye is a full-time prostitute who takes both her status and profession very seriously. It is perhaps no coincidence that her name phonetically resembles the Spanish word “calle” (“street”) proving once again that some characters created by De Aranoa follow fate’s path almost unyieldingly. Her life changes when she meets her natural antagonist, Zulema, a Dominican immigrant who has become a prostitute in order to support her family. Although Zulema and other immigrants, who are forced into their tragic situation by economic necessity, are regarded with suspicion by the local “professionals”, Caye’s big heart and sense of protection melt the social barriers that might exist between them, in favour of a true and lasting friendship. This odd relationship is another example of how in De Aranoa’s films, the characters seem to be able to overcome social barriers and difficulties by means of affection and a sharp, and at times dark, sense of humour – even in the most difficult moments.


Princesas (2005)

Although Fernando León de Aranoa’s work portrays extreme examples within Spanish society, they also carry a very local flavour that most Spaniards will identify with; the kindness of its characters, the urban landscapes and the small communities that often define the Spanish working classes. Moreover, it is the affection and humanity with which de Aranoa tells these stories that the viewer often finds the most enthralling. After all, he does not focus on the social problem itself but on how real people try to carry on with their lives, in spite of the grim environment that surrounds them.

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