Calle Mayor


Calle Mayor
Main street (1956)
   Juan Antonio Bardem's Calle mayor is one of the best examples of an attempt to introduce some aspects of neorealism (and an awareness of social ethics) into Spanish cinema, during a time of political and economic pressures that stifled creativity and drastically restricted the range of topics allowed to filmmakers. Chronologically, it has been discussed as a film in tune with discussions on the state of the film industry and issues of artistic responsibility that found expression in the Salamanca Conversations of 1955. It was based on a comedy by Carlos Arniches, La señorita de Trévelez, but where the latter worked within the comedy conventions of costumbrismo (making fun of an unattractive spinster), Bardem opted for earnestness, setting up the protagonist's troubles as a critique of the stifling cultural context.
   Isabel, a plain single woman in a provincial town, played soul-fully by American actress Betsy Blair, is the victim of a cruel prank organized by a group of young men: the most attractive among them, Juan (José Suárez), will pretend to be in love with her, just to laugh as they see her building her hopes up. The inspiration for this group was Federico Fellini's "vitelloni," a group of lazy provincial young men who lead similarly unproductive lives. At one point, Juan explains how much he needs to leave the place to find a more inspiring life in the big city, and there is an awareness throughout the film that the town, with all its rituals and apparent coziness, is oppressive. At the same time, the narrative shows the characters firmly in the grasp of those rituals (visualized mostly in terms of religious parades and the Sunday habit of walking up and down Main Street) that push them to hurt another human being. In a convincing twist, Juan will increasingly become interested in the woman, but at that point there are too many obstacles for the relationship to develop.
   Rather than being outright unattractive (as in the original play), Isabel is portrayed as sweet and timid, and it is deeply moving to see her slowly falling in love with Juan and gaining self-awareness in the process. In the end, her dignity triumphs over the cruelty of the other men, but as we last see her we cannot help feeling that her outlook is dreary: she will have to live in those conditions, as a spinster, for the rest of her life. The film was shot in real locations and engaged with aspects of reality, most remarkably with the actual situation of women as victims of the system: the other main feminine character was the prostitute played by Dora Bell, who is also unable to escape the restrictions imposed on her. Of course, politics could not be hinted at, but the film pushes a certain critical attitude by making the small town a kind of metaphor for the Spanish situation.
   Historical Dictionary of Spanish Cinema by Alberto Mira

Guide to cinema. . 2011.

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