Better late than never: A legendary figure and film-festival phantom, Pere Portobella is finally getting his New York retrospective. The 78-year-old Catalan director will be present at the Museum of Modern Art to introduce the U.S. premiere of his new film, The Silence Before Bach—a high-tone experimental feature that creates a dialectic between sound and image, as well as between a costumed 18th-century and contemporary Europe, to reflect on the social history of music.
Initially a producer, Portobella was responsible for subtly anti-Franco features directed by Marco Ferreri and Carlos Saura, as well as Luis Buñuel’s not so subtly blasphemous Viridiana, which represented Spain at the 1962 Cannes Film Festival. Six years after Buñuel’s international comeback—or, perhaps, payback— embarrassed the Franco regime (and made its producer persona non grata), Portobella began making his own films: quasi-underground social allegories, fragmented narratives, political documentaries, and collaborations with Catalan musicians and artists, including Joan Miró.
The 1972 16mm feature Umbracle is a sort of distended surrealist provocation. The Spanish censor’s code, which is read aloud during the course of the action, bans movies that are politically offensive not in their parts, but in the juxtaposition of those parts. Portobella proceeds to demonstrate: A long passage from a ’50s Falangist Civil War drama is rendered blatantly absurd because it is followed by a clownish vaudeville performance. Christopher Lee, apparently on leave from a horror film being filmed in Spain, haunts the proceedings as a possible Franco surrogate.
Lee also stars in Vampir Cuadecuc, the only one of Portobella’s films to have any previous local exposure. Shown at Cannes in 1971 (and written up in the Voice by Jonathan Rosenbaum), Vampir Cuadecuc received a Cineprobe at MOMA and then a run at Film Forum. Although New York Times reviewer Roger Greenspun called it “so distinctly worth seeing as to be almost mandatory,” the film did nothing to establish Portobella’s American reputation.
Appearing soon after Ken Jacobs’s structuralist epic Tom, Tom the Piper’s Son established a precedent for creating a new movie out of an old one,
Vampir Cuadecuc “adapted” Jesus Franco’s The Nights of Dracula, a Christopher Lee vehicle shot in Spain in 1970. Present on the set, Portobella fluidly documented aspects of the production, including the creations of cobwebs, the application of bloody makeup, and the arrangement of actors in coffins. These off-moments, with the actors out of character, punctuate Portobella’s meditations on the Franco film’s atmosphere and several of its dramatic scenes. With the ambient sound almost entirely suppressed in favor of the ominously rolling thunder of Carles Santos’s musique concret score, Vampir Cuadecuc is like the ghost of Jesus Franco’s film, but it also enters into a dialogue with F.W. Murnau’s silent Nosferatu and Carl Dreyer’s early talkie Vampyr.
What’s remarkable is not that the familiar Bram Stoker narrative remains intelligible in the experimental filmmaker’s hands, but that Portobella is able to get its cinematic essence: the vampire-like attachment that motion pictures have to life. September 26 through October 6, Museum of Modern Art.