Francisco Franco

The Depiction of Disability in Almodóvar’s Live Flesh (Part One)

Part One: Franco Y Almodóvar

“According to Amnesty International, Spain has the highest numbers of mass graves in the world after Cambodia.” Guy Hedgecoe (Seguin 2019)

One cannot explore the films of Pedro Almodóvar without considering how his art was molded by Spanish dictator Francisco Franco. It is also necessary to explore Franco to understand contemporary views of disability as well as Almodóvar’s portrayals.

Coup and Dictatorship

During the 1920s there was significant labor unrest, which was exacerbated by the Great Depression in the 1930s, and these things polarized Spanish citizens. The February 1936 election brought the leftist Popular Front government to power. Extreme-right wing fascists responded in July of 1936 with a coup attempt that eventually fostered a civil war. One side had the conservative Nationalists, led by Franco, who were largely made up of devout Roman Catholics, military leaders, landowners, and businessmen; the other side, were the leftist Republicans, who were largely made up of urban workers, agricultural laborers, and the educated middle class. With the help of Hitler and Mussolini, Franco marched across Spain leaving a colossal trail of death, encouraging his army to brutally kill anyone who was leftist. Picasso’s famous painting, Guernica, notably captures the death and destruction on the Basque town of the painting’s namesake. After the civil war ended in 1939, Franco remained in power until he died in 1975. (Seguin 2019)

Franco’s reign was marked by sheer terror. The first two decades of Franco’s rule following the civil war saw continued repression and the killing of an unspecified number of political opponents that is estimated to be between 15,000 and 50,000 individuals. (Antonio 2010) Documents were discovered in 2010 showing that he ordered his provincial governors to compile a list of Jews while he negotiated an alliance with the Axis powers to later facilitate efforts to deport and destroy them. Other atrocities committed by his government included kidnapping the babies of leftist women (known as the lost children of Francoism) and having them raised by Catholic families and monasteries. (Reverte 2010)

Economic Policy and Disability

Franco’s economic policy of autarky, envisioned self-sufficiency through the state control of prices and industrial development within an insulated national economy severed from the international market. Labor, considered a fundamental factor for economic development, was given an important position Franco’s political agenda. Projecting a putative Catholic work ethic provided the means by which the regime could exercise its power. The Fuero del Trabajo (Jurisdiction of Labor), taking cues from FDR’s New Deal, operated in Spain as the fundamental legislation that the Franco regime was going use to address the “problem” of disability. (Del Cura 2021)

Industrialization in Spain was a noticeable phase in the historic development of addressing disability. Franco considered disability to be an obstacle to performance of work and had to be included in the general measures directed at regulating and controlling the performance of productivity. Evidence of this can be seen in the steps adopted regarding health and safety in the factories and the recovery of victims of accidents that had occurred at work. Regulations were largely aimed at preventing and addressing disability via workplace accidents. The regulations fostered occupational medicine which reinforced the idea of disability as being congruent with the medical model (The medical model of disability says people are disabled by their impairments or differences, while the social model says that disability is caused by the way society is ordered). It also fostered the idea that the human factor had an important responsibility in the making of accidents and encouraged an image of the victims as being guilty of their invalidity. (Martínez-Pérez 2017)

Interestingly, the most powerful contemporary disability organization in Spain dedicated to a physical disability was formed during the Franco dictatorship. The Organización Nacional de Ciegos Españoles (Spanish National Organization of the Blind), or ONCE, was formed after the Spanish Civil War as a way of supporting the wounded and those who became disabled because of the war. Over the years it has become an umbrella-organization for the needs and rights of the physically disabled. (Newtral 2019)

“Jefe del Estado” Franciso Franco

Post Franco Spain and Almodóvar

Spain transitioned to a democracy after Franco’s death in 1975 and the change from dictatorship to parliamentary democracy saw the adoption of a new constitution, reforms, and an influx of younger people into politics and trade unions. Not surprisingly, democracy proved to be a more tolerant for those who had had suffered marginalization and exclusion under the Catholic and machoistic Spanish society of Franco. Censorship was gone and there was a significant increase in the production of literary, musical, and cinematic works. During the 1980s, identities of gender and sexuality that were excluded by Franco, notably women and the LGBTQ community, were celebrated, in the films of Pedro Almodóvar. (Sotinel 2010)

When Almodóvar arrived in Madrid in 1967, Franco was still in power, and, of course, the repression was also cultural. Franco’s rancorous regime had been inimical to the avant-garde movie aesthetics of the 1960’s. However, by the time Almodóvar showed up in Madrid, Franco was in his mid-seventies, and the stranglehold on artistic expression was loosening in the major cities and universities. (Sotinel 2010)

Almodóvar began directing feature films in the late 1970s. He was part of La Movida, a post-Franco counterculture movement, and we can see this time reflected in early films such as Pepi, Luci, Bom y otras chicas del montón (Pepi, Luci, Bom and Other Average Girls); Laberinto de pasiones (Labyrinth of Passion); and ¿Qué he hecho yo para merecer esto! (What Have I Done to Deserve this?) His early films were transgressive, not unlike John Waters’ early work, and featured transgender people, bondage, rape, and a lot of drug use and sex. They often blurred the lines between funny and repulsive as well as high and low art. As Almodóvar’s career continued to progress, his films continued to blur the lines between comedy and drama as well as LGBTQ and straight. In 1985, Almodóvar and his younger brother set up their production company, El Deseo (The Desire). Almodóvar’s films are produced on very humble budgets and creating his own production company allowed him the freedom to shoot scripts chronologically, which is not a common practice. Almodóvar feels that a chronological approach produces more convincing performances. (Duncan 2017) The first film he produced via El Deseo was Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios (Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown) which was nominated for the 1988 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Almodóvar would win an Oscar and a Golden Globe a decade later for 1999’s Todo sobre mi madre (All About My Mother). (Sotinel 2010)

Pedro Almodóvar’s films reflect Spanish culture in passionate amatory and quixotic terms through a filter of studied cinematic philosophy: Hitchcock, Fassbinder, and Sirk are the benchmarks for Almodóvar to convey Spanish identity. This is embodied in Carne trémula (Live Flesh), which was loosely adapted from a Ruth Rendell novel (Almodóvar’s first time adapting material) and released in October of 1997. 

Next month, in part two, we will delve into the film.

Works Cited

Antonio, Sánchez Cazorla. 2010. “The Politics of Fear.” In Fear and Progress Ordinary Lives in Franco’s Spain, 1939-1975, by Sánchez Cazorla Antonio, 18-49. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell.

Bogdan, Robert, and Taylor, Steven. 1987. “Toward a Sociology of Acceptance: The Other Side of the Study of Deviance.” Social Policy 34-39.

Del Cura, Mercedes, and José Martínez-Pérez. 2021. ““Childhood, Disability and Vocational Training in Franco’s Spain during the 1950s and Early 1960s.”.” History of Education Review 50 (2): 241–57.

Duncan, Paul. 2017. The Pedro Almodóvar Archives. Köln: Taschen.

I Wanna Grow Blog. 2018. Cuantas plantas de maría puedo tener legalmente en España. July 5.

Juridicas, Noticias. 2013. Real Decreto Legislativo 1/2013, de 29 de noviembre, por el que se aprueba el Texto Refundido de la Ley General de derechos de las personas con discapacidad y de su inclusión social. November 29.

Malaga, Sociedad Federada Personas de. n.d. Nuestra Historia.

Martínez-Pérez, José. 2017. “Work, Disability and Social Control: Occupational Medicine and Political Intervention in Franco’s Spain (1938-1965).” “Work, Disability and Social Control: Occupational Medicine and Political Intervention in Franco’s Spain (1938-1965).” 28 (4): 805-24.

McMahon, Christopher. 2006. “Fecundity and Almodóvar? Sexual Ethics and the Specter of Catholicism Catholicism.” Journal of Religion & Film 10 (2).

Newtral. 2019. Esto con Franco no pasaba: bulos sobre la dictadura. November 20.

Orgánica, Confederación Española de Personas con Discapacidad Física y. 2019. Confederación Española de Personas con Discapacidad Física y Orgánica. June 12.

Reverte, Jorge M. 2010. “La Lista De Franco Para El Holocausto.” El País, June 20.

Seguin, Christopher Blow & Denis. 2019. The Dictator’s Playbook: Francisco Franco. Directed by Mark Stevenson. Produced by David, Kate Harrison, Michael Rosenfeld, and Matt Boo Brady.

Sotinel, Thomas. 2010. Masters of Cinema: Pedro Almodóvar. Paris: Phaidon Press.

UNESCO, Fundación Mutua de Propietarios. 2018. La accesibilidad de las viviendas en España. Madrid: Fundación Mutua de Propietarios / UNESCO.

United Nations. 2019. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. New York: United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.