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.
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.
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.