For 39 years, under General Francisco Franco’s repressive regime, it was almost impossible for Spain to create a vibrant film industry and for talented film-makers to express themselves freely. However, after the death of the Generalissimo in 1975, there was a burst of creativity, with Pedro Almodóvar paving the way for directors such as Bigas Luna, who has died of cancer aged 67.
After some years as a conceptual artist who experimented with new audio-visual media, Luna became known internationally for his “Iberian passion” feature film trilogy: Jamon Jamon (1992), Golden Balls (1993) and The Tit and the Moon (1994), which explored the darkest depths of eroticism and stereotypical Spanish machismo. The first film introduced Penélope Cruz to audiences and launched Javier Bardem as the embodiment of the Spanish stud. “I owe my career to Bigas Luna,” Bardem said in 2001.
In the trilogy, Luna, like Almodóvar, mined the subversive potential of melodramatic excess, a tradition that can be traced back to Luis Buñuel’s surrealist classics. However, Luna’s films are more extreme than Almodóvar’s, mainly because they are populated not by emancipated lovers but by emotionally stunted characters whose sexuality turns pathological. Luna also seems to question whether Spain’s shift to democracy and consumerism was really as liberating as presumed.
Luna was born in Barcelona and became interested in painting and design at an early age. After the 1977 law ending censorship in Spain, he made several erotic low-budget films, which demonstrated a fascination with the manipulation of images and sexual symbolism. In Bilbao (1978), a lonely man living with a domineering wife whom he does not love becomes obsessed with the eponymous stripper and prostitute.
Reborn (1981), Luna’s first and last film in English, was a religious cult thriller shot in Italy, with an international cast headed by Dennis Hopper playing a fake TV evangelist who joins up with a woman (Antonella Murgia) with real healing powers. Another kind of cult has since grown up around Anguish (1987), a bizarre horror-film-within-a-horror-film.
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