Film Studies

Catalan beauty and the transnational beast


How many ways can you describe the same place? Celestino Deleyto and Gemma López look at facets of how Barcelona is represented and experienced, focussing on two relatively recent films that take the city as a driving force of their narrative: Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008), and Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Biutiful (2010)

Catalan beauty and the transnational beast: Barcelona on the screen
by Celestino Deleyto and Gemma López
in Transnational Cinemas : Volume 3, Issue 2

IQ Overview

How many ways can you describe the same place? Celestino Deleyto and Gemma López look at facets of how Barcelona is represented and experienced, focussing on two relatively recent films that take the city as a driving force of their narrative: Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008), and Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Biutiful (2010). Though shot in the same location, these films depict entirely different worlds. At the end of their paper, Deleyto and López reference Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, in which the explorer Marco Polo describes a succession of fantastical, newly discovered cities to Kublai Kahn, all of which are, in fact, Venice. This reference is particularly apt, as at the heart of these two films are the sharply disparate experiences of new arrivals. Barcelona, like any major international metropolis, is a vastly different place for tourists—who are seduced, coddled, and desired—than it is for largely impoverished immigrants who are generally marginalised and increasingly met with animosity throughout Europe.

As the title of their article suggests, the authors are looking at contrasts between idealised and marginalised versions of Barcelona, but they are also tracking an intentional transformation of central Barcelona from beast to beauty, or as they put it, “The fairy tale of the grey, ugly Barcelona turned as if by magic into the belle of the ball.” They cite the Olympic Games of 1992 and  the Fòrum de les Cultures of 2004 as instrumental events in process of Barcelona’s beautification (i.e. gentrification). The results have not been universally appreciated:

More recently, [anthropologist] Manuel Delgado has complained that the city has become a model, an example for urban planners and architects around the world to imitate, a paradigm of growth and harmony; but also a model in the sense of top model – a person who has been trained to remain permanently attractive and alluring.

On more basic, functional level:

At [a recent] meeting with the mayor, one of the most controversial issues was the problem of shopping for groceries: both nearby markets have become popular tourist enclaves which sell products designed exclusively for tourists.

The area in question regarding the groceries is el Raval, an historic neighbourhood of tangly alleyways that over time had transitioned from the “home of the Catalonian labour movement and Bohemian hub” to “a collection of sordid streets where a marginal segment of the population tried to survive”, until the 1990s when it began to be subjected to “systematic process of rehabilitation brought about by Barcelona’s local authorities and urban planners.”

Today, at the Rambla del Raval, the casual visitor may see an old building beautifully decorated by squatters opposite the luxury hotel; Pakistani children playing baseball in front of the same hotel’s main entrance  while groups of undocumented African citizens hover around; a homeless woman sleeping under the enormous Pedro Botero Cat sculpture in the middle of the promenade; curious passers-by stopping in front of construction sites, mixed with the local prostitutes displaying their wares and sizing up potential customers; all surrounded by banners hanging from numerous flats demanding dignity for the neighbourhood.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona (VCB) offers the tourists’ version of Barcelona, while Biutiful represents the immigrants’. Though the authors note that both films were criticised at the time of their release for creating caricatured versions of the metropolis, they claim:

Taken together, they constitute a privileged diptych of the successful projection of the Barcelona trademark as a global, transnational city and provide a joint map of an imagined yet familiar city. They make spectators aware of the generally invisible, but sometimes very visible, borders that such phenomena as globalization, gentrification, immigration and tourism create inside cities.

VCB follows two American tourists, Christina (Scarlett Johansson) and Vicky (Rebecca Hall) through romantic encounters with a local artist, Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), as well as, once, with his ex-wife, María Elena (Penélope Cruz).  Their Barcelona is, “A clean combination of architectural landmarks, sunny street markets, designer shops and restaurants and trendy contemporary art forms, a Barcelona which comes close to the trademark imagined and promoted by local and regional authorities and built by global capital.” Despite having two main Spanish characters, VCB, the authors state, is a film about middle-class Americans, for middle class Americans.

The main character of Biutiful is Uxbal: “An ambiguous and multifaceted character, Uxbal is, at once, the affectionate single father of two children, a middleman who does business with illegal immigrants, and a spiritual medium for the recently bereaved.”  The film was shot in the “underworld” of the densely populated peripheral towns into which Barcelona’s lower economic brackets have been pushed; its plot turns on Uxbal’s discovery that he has terminal cancer.

Deleyto and López give an attentive and extensive analysis of both films, focussing particularly on how language functions both in evoking a sense of place and also in demarcating borderlands between class, culture and ethnicity. In this respect, the absence of Catalan in both films (entirely absent, in VCB and almost entirely in Biutiful) is a significant aspect of their perceived failure to represent a ‘real’ place, as the authors claim, “It is difficult to visit the city, even for the briefest period of time, without coming into contact with Catalan and without witnessing the fluid and sophisticated way in which locals mix both languages.” In VCB‘s use of Spanish and English they note, “Language alternation constitutes the central representation of borders and borderlands in VCB, apparently as a barrier to communication but increasingly propelling the free flow of desire and representing the hybridity of national identity.”

Uxbal’s linguistic realm is different version of hybridity. “Around him, most of the other important characters are immigrants from southern Spain, Africa, China and Latin America. The Catalan language is mostly absent; Spanish, on the other hand, is only one of the channels of communication, uttered in a great variety of fluent and less fluent ways.” The use of Spanish is not only varied, but often inexplicably inconsistent, with two brothers, as an example, having different accents. Deleyto and López assert that “Although these national factors may go unnoticed for most non-Spanish viewers of a global film which is a Spanish Mexican co-production, they certainly contribute to the hybridity and transnational flavour of the final product.”

Though the juxtaposition of these two films might seem to produce a flat and somewhat depressing dichotomy in which gentrification oppressively splits the haves from the have-nots, Deleyto and López look to theorists including Saskia Sassen and Jennifer Jordan who present more nuanced and ultimately more hopeful perspectives on the persistence of the local when confronted with the global:

For them, gentrification and globalization produce certain urban designs but the dynamics created by these transformations do not always reproduce what was originally intended by those in control, and the outcomes may be surprising. These authors point to the micro-level of the global city, that which is inhabited by human beings rather than by powerful corporations and movements of capital in virtual space.

Ultimately, as must almost necessarily be the case, the fixations of the characters reflect those of the directors, and in this case, the authors claim, infectiously so:

While the characters of VCB and Biutiful never meet, they all appear fascinated by the energy irradiating from the invisible barriers erected between them, and fascinate us, in their turn, with the stubbornness of their negotiations of the borderlands from which they derive their identities and inform their most intimate encounters.


The full article is available on Ingenta Connect

Celestino Deleyto is Professor of English Literature and Film at the University of Zaragoza. He belongs to the research group ‘Cinema, Culture and Society’ and is currently working on the Project ‘Humpty Dumpty on the wall: Transnationalism and the border in contemporary cinema’. He is the author of The Secret Life of Romantic Comedy (Manchester University Press, 2009) and co-author, with María del Mar Azcona, of Alejandro González Iñárritu (The University of Illinois Press, 2010).

Gemma López teaches English Literature at the University of Barcelona. She is currently working on the project ‘Humpty Dumpty on the wall: Transnationalism and the border in contemporary cinema’. She is the author of Seductions in Narrative: Subjectivity and Desire in the Works of Angela Carter and Jeanette Winterson (New York: Cambria Press, 2007).

Transnational Cinemas has emerged in response to a shift in global film cultures and how we understand them. Dynamic new industrial and textual practices are being established throughout the world and the academic community is responding. Transnational Cinemas aims to break down traditional geographical divisions and welcomes submissions that reflect the changing nature of global filmmaking.

Principal Editors
Armida de la Garza
Xian Jiaotong – Liverpool University

Deborah Shaw
Portsmouth University

Ruth Doughty
Portsmouth University