Boogie noches: how erotic cinema boom in 1970s helped shape modern Spain

Soon after the death of dictator Franco, Spain began an experiment with censorship that brought graphic sex and nudity to mainstream cinemas. Here's why it played an important role in shaping the Spanish culture we see today.

Boogie noches: how erotic cinema boom in 1970s helped shape modern Spain
From poster of The Marvellous World of Sex.

Madrid, June 1978. A sweltering heatwave is matched by the tensions bubbling through newspaper headlines. Nearly three years since the death of dictator Francisco Franco, politicians are intensely debating the new constitution at the Palacio de las Cortes. Will the Left accept the monarchy or demand a republic? Will the Right accept abolishing the death penalty and omitting any reference to the Catholic church? Will regions such as the Basque Country and Catalonia receive the sovereignty they demand?

Around the corner, people queue for the latest hit film. Is it Grease, newly premiered in New York and on its way to becoming a global colossus? No. Spanish audiences won’t be introduced to Danny, Sandy and the gang until September. Today’s crowd awaits a much more explicit celebration of cinematic sexuality: Las eróticas vacaciones de Stela (Stela’s Erotic Vacations).

Played by Azucena Hernández, the reigning Miss Catalonia, Stela has returned from her strict Catholic boarding school and is set on disrupting this peaceful Castilian town. Unlike the negotiators in the congress, Stela is not diplomatic towards the guardians of Catholic morality. She sexualises everything – even a banister becomes an erotic toy as she slides down in ecstasy. She seduces a priest, a maid and her stepfather – she even flashes her own mother.

Such films became possible after Spain abolished censorship in December 1977. This was monumental – it is hard to convey how much censorship shaped public consciousness during the dictatorship. It created such hunger for erotic images that many made pilgrimages to France to see Last Tango in Paris (1972), among other films. Group tours of x-rated cinemas were even organised.

Rated ‘S’ for sexual

In Franco’s day, some Spaniards believed the world outside was freer than it was. When audiences saw Rita Hayworth’s famous scene in Gilda (1946), where she provocatively removes a long white glove onstage, many in Spain assumed she did a full striptease in the uncut version.

Occasionally censorship even made things more lurid. In Mogambo (1953), Spanish censors changed the script to conceal the adulterous relationship between Grace Kelly and Clark Gable’s characters, turning Kelly’s husband into her brother. When she later shares a bed with him, they appear to be committing a much greater sin.

Ending censorship gave free rein to what was known as the destape, literally “the undressing”. The “S” rating was created, allowing films with soft porn elements to infiltrate the mainstream.

S-rated films were generally cheap and big money makers. Stela’s Erotic Variations alone sold 600,000 tickets, and was followed by other great successes such as El mundo maravilloso del sexo (The Marvellous World of Sex), Trampa sexual (Sexual Trap) and La orgía (The Orgy). The 17 S-rated films screened in 1978 probably attracted more customers than the four million people that went to see Grease.

Neither was the destape limited to cinema. The magazine Interviú, formed in 1976, was creating waves with revealing covers of famous actresses, including a nude photo of Franco-era child star Marisol – sadly without her permission.

In February 1978 another iconic photograph appeared. It shows future Madrid mayor Enrique Tierno Galván giving actress/stripper Susana Estrada – star of El mundo maravilloso del sexo – a prize for being the most popular actress of the year. Her jacket has moved, revealing a breast, while she smiles unconcerned. The picture became an emblem of Spain’s transition to democracy, showing it was much more than a political process.

Susana Estrada (right) and Enrique Tierno Galván (left) Marisa Flórez

The S rating endured until 1983, when it was replaced by the more permissive but more marginalised X rating. Where the 1970s releases often included good scripts and serious social commentary, the destape was becoming more purely gratuitous by the early 1980s.

Since then the genre has often been considered an embarrassing footnote in Spanish cinema. But that risks missing something important. As one writer has put it, Stela, like other young S-rated protagonists, “embodies the myriad ironies of the transition to democracy, for she does not merely awaken the village sexually, but reveals what was always simmering under the surface of franquista repression”.

Sex and nudity have been especially pervasive in the nation’s cinema over the past four decades. A recent book, Spanish Erotic Cinema, argues convincingly that sensual pleasure on Spanish screens is bound up with historical, political and social issues.

Priests and politics

A good example is El sacerdote (The Priest), another S-rated success during that sultry summer of ‘78. It shows a priest torn between conservative ideology and sexual desires, awakened by a billboard of a woman in a bikini and the steamy confessions of an unhappy housewife. His inner turmoil reaches such a frenzy that he eventually castrates himself.

Director Eloy de la Iglesia’s films are often criticised for being heavily didactic. Yet some argue that movies such as El sacerdote helped broaden the moral horizons of the audience. In October 1978, de la Iglesia premiered El diputado (Confessions of a Congressman), one of many films that featured gay characters and arguably contributed to Spain’s widespread acceptance of homosexuality.

The same summer also saw Bilbao, a landmark in the genre by director Bigas Luna. His work over the next two decades would blur erotic and art-house cinema. Penélope Cruz and Javier Bardem were launched to stardom in his 1992 send-up of Spanish stereotypes, Jamón jamon (Ham Ham), where they famously make love under one of the country’s emblematic bull-shaped highway billboards.

More recently, the popular films Torremolinos 73 (2004), Los años desnudos (The Naked Years, 2008) and Kiki, el amor se hace (Quickie, Love is So, 2016) all pay homage to the genre. In this #MeToo era, many might prefer it was buried instead. Yet in contrast with the female sexual objects of the original destape, it has been argued that the women in Kiki, for example, are “utterly in control of their sexuality, well informed about various practices, open-minded and confident in their pursuit of their preferences and desires”.

The Spanish people approved today’s constitution in the referendum of December 1978, founding a political order that now appears in disarray. The Catalan conflict is rooted in that constitution’s negation of the right of Spanish regions to self-determination. The former president, Mariano Rajoy, was recently forced out of office over party corruption.

READ MORE: Crooks, Clubbers and Commies: British cinema’s love affair with Spain The Conversation

Many now question the entire political culture that was forged in the transition years after dictatorship. If we consider the conscientious undressing of old morals and sexual hang-ups another of the founding acts of democratic Spain, this parallel process is arguably in much better health. To give just one example, Spain was one of the first countries to legalise same-sex marriage, preceded only by Holland and Belgium. While the difficulties with the destape are obvious, we should concede it has played an important role in creating the culture we see today.

By Jesse Barker, Lecturer in Hispanic Studies, University of Aberdeen

This article is originally published in the The Conversation. Read the original.

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Why Spain is still in the wrong time zone because of Hitler

As Spain again prepares to put the clocks forward on Saturday night, we look at the fascinating reasons why the country has been in the wrong time zone for the last 75 years, the possible effects of this historical blip on Spanish society, and why there's still no sign of it changing.

Nazi leader German Chancellor Adolf Hitler (R) shakes hands with Spanish Generalísimo Francisco Franco at Hendaye train station on the French-Spanish border in October 1940. (Photo by AFP)
Nazi leader German Chancellor Adolf Hitler (R) shakes hands with Spanish Generalísimo Francisco Franco at Hendaye train station on the French-Spanish border in October 1940. (Photo by AFP)

Why is Spain in the wrong time zone?

Madrid lies directly south of London. Spain is geographically in line with the UK and Portugal. It makes sense, then, that Spain was in the Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) zone until around 75 years ago.

But that all changed in 1940. With Nazi Germany occupying Belgium, Holland, and recently invading France, Spain’s own facist dictator, Francisco Franco, travelled to the French border to meet with Hitler, the man he and many other believed would go on to dominate Europe.

The momentum was clearly with the Nazis, at the time, and Italy had already pledged its support to Hitler. Although he wanted the same from Spain, Franco, however, didn’t have much to offer. With the country ravaged by its own recent Civil War – in which Franco’s victory was heavily supported by Hitler –  Franco felt obliged to make a gesture of some sort.

Although ultimately remaining neutral in the war, Franco decided to show his support for Hitler by agreeing to put Spain’s clocks forward by an hour in an act of solidarity with Nazi Germany. 

Spain has remained in the Central European Time zone ever since, in line with countries as far east as Poland. That means that Madrid currently has the same time as Warsaw in Poland 2,290km away but is one hour ahead of Lisbon which is only 502 km away. 

The consequences of Spain being in the wrong time zone

But Franco’s decision all those years ago isn’t just a quirk of Spanish history, or testament to the extent to which the legacy of that period still looms over Spanish society, it was a decision that, experts say, has had a lasting impact on Spanish culture and society that underpins everything from Spaniard’s sleep cycles and meal times to the country’s birth rates and economic growth.

In recent years there have been calls to make the switch back to GMT because many believe the time zone quirk is affecting Spaniard’s productivity and quality of life. In 2013 a Spanish national commission concluded that Spaniards sleep almost an hour less than the European average, and that this led to increased stress, concentration problems, both at school and work, and workplace accidents.

Some experts believe this explains the Spanish dependence on siestas – that is, that the lack of sleep makes them necessary – but in reality the siesta has been a consistent feature of Spanish life for centuries for many of the same reasons it still is today: in southern Spain, the fierce summer temperatures make it necessary to stay at home during the afternoon. 

Spain's most famous clock is the Puerta del Sol in central Madrid. Photo: Jorge Franganillo/Flickr
Spain’s most famous clock is at the Puerta del Sol in central Madrid. Photo: Jorge Franganillo/Flickr

One effect of the siesta however is that the break in the day means Spaniards work the most hours in Europe yet at one of the continent’s lowest levels of productivity. A lack of sleep contributes to siesta taking which, in turn, means Spaniards work later into the evening and could partly explain Spain’s notoriously nocturnal lifestyles and late meal times. 

Despite the country running on CET, Spaniards’ eating patterns roughly mirror GMT. Many Spaniards eat lunch at what would be 1 or 1.30pm in London (the traditional 2 or 2.30pm in Spain) and dinner at a reasonable 8pm in London (but 9pm or even 10pm as is customary in many parts of Spain).

Making the change and returning to GMT would, according to Nuria Chinchilla, professor at Spain’s IESE business school, help Spaniards “return to the natural order of our circadian rhythm (our 24-hour physiological cycle) that goes with the sun… and the sun in Greenwich, not Germany”.

“If we don’t (change to GMT) we lengthen the day, eat very late and then don’t sleep,” she added.

Why hasn’t Spain moved to the right time zone yet?

The debate about which time zone Spain belongs in was reinvigorated following recent proposals at the EU level to scrap entirely the daylight savings custom. 

In 2018 the EU Commission announced a proposal to abolish the custom after polling showed that 80 percent of Europeans are in favour of staying permanently on summer time.This debate naturally had many in Spain wondering about whether they were in the right time zone.

But owing to a combination of the COVID-19 pandemic, Brexit, and various other bureaucratic difficulties, the proposal was shelved. Member states cannot decide unilaterally on the question of daylight savings, but they can decide which timezone they want to be in. 

Spain has had various commissions over the years exploring the impact of daylight savings and timezones, but no concrete proposals over a return to GMT have ever been made, despite the benefits experts claim it could bring.

Although the government’s focus has been drawn by more pressing issues in recent years – and the issue of time and daylight savings shelved at the European level – expect discussion of whether Spain is actually even in the right time zone this weekend when the clocks do go back, or if the linked issue of daylight savings is eventually taken off the shelf at the European level.

Article by Conor Faulkner