November 30, 2011

Film: Lázaro de Tormes (2001)

So this film recommendation is less about the movie itself, and more about the cultural significance of the story it tells. Lázaro de Tormes (2001) is based on a classic Spanish novella, La vida de Lazarillo de Tormes y de sus fortunas y adversidades (1554). Published anonymously (because of its heretical content) in the "Edad de Oro," Lazarillo de Tormes is considered an important work within the canon of Spanish literature and has a timelessly entertaining satirical humor which shifts to modern media (like film) more easily than many other equally important literary works (such as the curse of filming Don Quijote).

The movie loosely follows the plot of the book. It tells the story of a boy from Salamanca "of humble origins" who is apprenticed to a wily blind beggar. (It is from the character's name in this book that the term "lazarillo" was coined to mean a person or animal that guides a blind person ("ciego"), e.g. a seeing eye dog, or "perro lazarillo".) The devious blind man teaches the boy the art of deception ("engaño"), and in subsequent chapters/scenes he uses this cunning to make the most of his new situations and each of his various new masters: a priest, a squire, a friar, a pardoner, a chaplain, and finally a bailiff and archbishop. Through these vignettes, the story offers a glimpse of different professions and levels of 16th-century society, while also undercutting their nobleness and authority.

Goya's Lazarillo de Tormes (painted from 1808-1812, previously known as "El Garrotillo").

The novel is widely credited for founding a new literary genre, the picaresque ("picaresca") novel. The term picaresque comes from the word "pícaro" ("rogue" or "rascal"), and part of what makes the novel/film so incredibly entertaining is how the protagonist, both at the same time charming and troublesome, somehow manages to reveal the hypocrisy and duplicity of those around him even as it is he who is pulling the wool over their eyes. Using humor to underscore the stark reality of power and social structures. On one level this style of humor touches on some kind of universal human nature. It fits in with what 19th-century American ethnologist Daniel Brinton categorized as the trickster myth or archetype, embodied in the Coyote stories of Native American mythology or the fox in present-day Anglophone children's fables.

And indeed the picaresque would become wildly popular internationally as a literary style, influencing Henry Fielding's The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling (1749) (also made into a wonderful movie) about a naive and charming protagonist, whose dumb luck saves the day, and Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), whose naughtiness and many adventures undresses the 19th-century Antebellum South much as Lazarillo does 16th-century Castillian Spain… and is arguably present in even darker more twisted works, such as the Marquis de Sade's Justine (or The Misfortune of Virtue) (1779), whose protagonist's naiveté functions as a kind of inverted pícaro, leaving her consumed by the corruption of society around her as she passes among different masters. It's a tradition of storytelling that lives on in today's "anti-heros".

The Navajo myth of the Coyote,
one of many tricksters throughout time
But I also think this kind of humor, as played out in this particular novel/film is a typically _Spanish_ style of humor, what we would call in contemporary American parlance: stickin' it to the man. I can't help but hear the same tone of indulgent sarcasm that runs through this film, and the book that inspired it, in the voices of my friends or neighbors when they gossip or complain with each other about the latest political corruption scandal or how they managed to sidestep the steep sales tax by paying in cash on some recent purchase or repair service. This humor touches on a worldview here that may help explain why most continental Europeans Spaniards are not nearly so startled or disturbed as many Anglophones by the near universal _fact_ of bribery, corruption, black markets, and "paying under the table". ("I'm shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on here!")

The lead in the 2001 film version is a famous contemporary theater actor, Rafael Álvarez, a.k.a. "El Brujo", whose substantial stage background helped to lend artistic credibility to the film adaptation. El Brujo is well known and well respected in Spain for his unique stage presence and style, and he, along with a star-studded cast of cinema _and_ stage-tested supporting actors, offers one more reason for watching what is a very entertaining movie and a classic tale.

Living legend Rafael Álvarez (1950- ), "El Brujo," in one of his many stage performances.

3 comments:

saracita said...

Oh Lázaro. Fond memories of struggling through this in my early days of University Spanish Classes.

Just want to say that I love your blog. While I´m living here in Spain it has been a welcome perspective - and very well written and informative. I just read your post on Jamón - via my Google Reader - and was disappointed that it appears to be deleted since I wanted to share the link with others who (like myself) have been mystified with the Jamón Phenomenon... or the Phenomjamón?

Keep up the good work.

An Expat in Spain said...

Hi Saracita! I'm glad you're enjoying the entries, and greatly appreciate the encouragement.

As you can see, the Jamón entry is back up. I inadvertently posted a draft of it early, and for some reason with blogger it is not possible/easy to fully remove an entry once posted. I had intended for it to post today (Dec. 2nd). Please do share! Thanks!

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