Tate Modern looks inside the mind of Pere Portabella

The veteran Catalan director has a season of films on show at Bankside


Tate Modern has programmed a season of films by the polymath Catalan film-maker, producer and activist Pere Portabella (15 May-31 July). Ostensibly timed to coincide with the current Miró show (until 11 September)—this season includes a number of collaborative shorts—it’s also a rare chance to see a wider range of the films made by this almost impossible to categorise artist.

Portabella first came to public attention as the producer of Luis Buñuel’s “Viridiana”, about a young nun’s fall from grace, which despite winning honours at the Cannes film festival in 1961, scandalised Franco’s government and was subsequently banned. Portabella’s own directing career produced little as directly accessible as his friend Buñuel.

The companion pieces “Umbracle” and “Cuadecuc-Vampir”, 1970, both feature the British actor Christopher Lee, albeit in strikingly different guises. “Cuadecuc…” was filmed while Lee and the other cast members were making “Count Dracula”, an over-the-top gothic horror directed by Jesus Franco, in a similar vein to Lee’s previous outings for Hammer films. Portabella’s take is notionally a documentary, but has little sound and what there is rarely directly relates to what is on screen. The film is also in black and white, in contrast to Franco’s Grand Guignol colour scheme. Portabella films rehearsals, behind-the-scenes preparation and the actors out of role, seemingly disjointed but with the whole producing a far more unnerving experience than Franco’s main attraction.

“Umbracle”, shot simultaneously and also featuring Lee, is a film that is far harder to fathom at face value. While the Dracula myth could be directly interpreted as a critique of the Spanish regime (Portabella had his passport removed after “Viridiana”, and became a senator on the restoration of democracy in 1977), “Umbracle” is highly experimental. Lee walks the streets of Barcelona, witnessing a (presumably political) kidnapping. Spanish film-makers speak directly to camera about revolutionary politics and censorship. Two clowns perform a stage routine. Lee returns and sings to an empty opera house then reads from Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven. The presumption of the film’s critique of the Franco government is reinforced by the insertion of a sequence from a pro-Franco melodrama.

The short films about Joan Miró are a little less rigorous but still demand that the viewer pay attention. “Aidez L’Espagne”, 1969, collages documentary scenes from the Spanish Civil War with work from an exhibition where Miró tried to distance himself from the government. “Miró L’Altre”, also 1969, sees the painter creating an external mural that is later removed by cleaning ladies, to an increasingly shrill, but not entirely unappealing, sung soundtrack. “Miró Tapis” and “Miró La Forja”, both 1974, follow the production of large-scale works, the former featuring a tapestry that would be destroyed in the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York.

If all that seems like a mental workout too far, then among the other films in the season is 2007’s “The Silence Before Bach”, a part-documentary, part-experimental, part-dramatised exploration of J.S. Bach’s music, that is both accessible and fascinating while remaining distinctly in the director’s non-conventional canon. A wind-instrument playing truck driver, an underground train full of cellists, a self-propelled player piano, the Bach family at home, the unproven story that Mendelssohn discovered the score for Bach’s “St Matthew Passion” wrapped around meat he had bought from the market and a wig-wearing tour guide all interpret the composer’s work in support of the assumed thesis that, for Portabella, what came before was not really proper music at all.

In March, the main prize at the ArtFifa arts film festival in Montreal went to Peter Krüger’s “Antwerp Central Station”. The film will have its US debut in May, at the Chicago incarnation of the Architecure and Design Film Festival (which will also show “How Much Does Building Weigh, Mr Foster?”, reviewed last month).

It’s a film not dissimilar to Portabella’s “Silence…” in that it contemplates great art, in this case architecture, by way of documentary footage, imagined scenes and surreal juxtapositions. An actor plays a traveller, who is inspired by the novelist W.G. Sebald, reading from his book Austerlitz, which was partly set in the station.

The film lays out the striking building’s history, from its construction between 1895 and 1905 by Louis Delacenserie and Clement van Bogaert, to its refurbishment and underground extension in 2009 by Jacques Voncke.

While the traveller holds court in various parts of the concourse, a dance group is glimpsed behind closed doors, while a guide leads a tour group high under the building’s roof. A girl from the era of the station’s construction appears, while in the station at night a lion—one of the building’s stone symbols of the empire of King Leopold— comes to life and prowls the deserted central atrium before sleeping, also referencing the nearby Antwerp Zoo.

Archive footage invites us to consider Belgium’s colonial history in Africa which provided the wealth that enabled the station’s construction, and to contemplate its situation next to the city’s historic diamond district and its large Jewish population, who were carried to the death camps on the same railway lines.

o Portabella Season, 15 May-31 July, details at /www.tate.org.uk/modern/eventseducation/film/pereportabellaam11.htm

Architecture and Design Film Festival, Chicago, 5-9 May, details atwww.chicago2011.adfilmfest.com/

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Inside the mind of Pere Portabella'