10 great films set in Madrid

Pedro Almodóvar is just one of the many filmmakers to have been inspired by Spain’s great capital. Viva Madrid!

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988)

Barcelona may have Gaudí and the glamour, the Ramblas and the sea, but it’s Madrid that has served as a more potent protagonist for some of Spanish cinema’s most resonant directors. It’s a den of spies and scandals that the attractive cuplé singer Charito has to flee from in Rafael Gil’s First World War drama La reina de Chantecler (The Queen of Chantecler, 1962) and a city scarred by the civil war in Jaime Chávarri’s Las bicicletas son para el verano (Bicycles Are for the Summer, 1984).

Franco may have sought to control the image of Spain circulated in cinema through censorship, but the Madrid-set films of the post-civil war years present a run-down space of struggle, poverty and danger – as in José Antonio Nieves Conde’s Lavapiés-set neorealist drama Surcos (Furrows, 1951) and Jerónimo Mihura’s noir thriller Siempre vuelven de madrugada (They Always Return at Dawn, 1949). The claustrophobia of the gloomy Madrid family house in Carlos Saura’s Cría cuervos (Raise Ravens, 1976), which the sisters leave at the end of the school holidays, functions as a metaphor for a secluded nation opening up with the death of Franco.

The new spirit of Spain under democracy was embodied in Pedro Almodóvar’s Madrid – fun, fresh, and a space of limitless possibilities. In his 20 films to date, Almodóvar has given us multiple Madrids: from the cramped housing estates in the working-class district of La Concepción, along Madrid’s artery the M30 in What Have I Done to Deserve This? (1984) to the shining floors of the Richard Rogers T4 extension to the city’s Adolfo Suárez airport in Volver (2006); from the stylish Museo Chicote cocktail bar of Gran Vía street in Broken Embraces (2009) to the 1930s Segovia viaduct where a distressed Alba attempts suicide in I’m So Excited! (2013); and from the hustle and bustle of the densely populated Lavapiés of Labyrinth of Passions (1982) to the now gentrified Barrio de las Salesas of Julieta (2016).

Elsewhere, it is the city of the flâneur in Jonás Trueba’s Los ilusos (The Wishful Thinkers, 2013), which takes in a number of recognised historical sights, including the central Plaza Mayor, and a desecrated metropolis in Alex de la Iglesia’s El dia de la bestia (The Day of the Beast, 1995), in which the hypermodern towers of the Puerta de Europa symbolise the diabolical.

In the following list, critics, filmmakers, curators and academics join me in celebrating the celluloid identities of the Iberian peninsula’s geographical heartland.

Maria Delgado

Muerte de un ciclista (Death of a Cyclist, 1955)

Director: Juan Antonio Bardem

Death of a Cyclist (1955)

Juan (Alberto Closas), a university professor, and María José (Antonioni favourite Lucia Bosé), a wealthy socialite, are returning to Madrid by car after an adulterous tryst when they accidentally knock a cyclist to the ground. Fearful that their affair will be discovered if they call for help, they drive away, leaving the cyclist to die. A tense blend of neorealism with noir, Death of a Cyclist charts their unravelling through guilt and paranoia.

With this film, director Juan Antonio Bardem (uncle of actor Javier) dared to explore the polarising effects of the Spanish civil war on the national psyche. Madrid is bathed in melancholic gloom, not only in the bombed out tenements where the cyclist’s family lived, and in the site of the battlefield close to where the accident happened and where Juan articulates his crisis of conscience, but also in the brightly lit rooms and brittle laughter at the parties of the postwar ruling classes.

  • Sarah Wright is Reader in Hispanic Studies, Royal Holloway, University of London

Las chicas de la cruz roja (The Red Cross Girls, 1958)

Director: Rafael J. Salvia

The Red Cross Girls (1958)

Las chicas de la cruz roja is an urban pastoral celebration of Madrid. A characteristically frothy 1950s romantic comedy, it follows a tour through the capital city’s iconic landmarks taken by four young and pretty madrileñas (Madrid ‘girls’) who join forces to raise funds for the Red Cross: Conchita Velasco, Mabel Karr, Luz Márquez and Katia Loritz.

Conchita Velasco was on the verge of major stardom, and paved the way for the spirited heroines played by ‘chicas Almodóvar’ like Carmen Maura. Katia Loritz actually appears in What Have I Done to Deserve This?, Almodóvar’s homage not only to her role in Las chicas de la cruz roja but also to the whole genre of feather-light, colourful indigenous comedies. Madrid has never been as bright, cheerful, innocent and carefree as when the four madrileñas drive through its streets singing the film’s catchy theme song: ‘The Red Cross girls/ Spring brides/ Open their hearts/ singing songs/ and find love…”

  • Peter Evans is author of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (BFI Classics 1996)

Los golfos (The Hooligans, 1959)

Director: Carlos Saura

The Hooligans (1959)

Shot in black and white in a brash vérité style, Carlos Saura’s first feature is a neorealist drama focusing on a gang of boys engaged in a range of illegal pursuits in the hope of raising enough money to enable one of the group, Juan, to debut as a bullfighter in the ring.

Like the 1951 classic Surcos, it illustrates the plight of Andalusian migrants, eking out a living on the margins of the city. Breaking with the studio-shot films of the 1940s and 50s, Los golfos took Spanish cinema firmly into the streets, providing a new model of filmmaking that Saura was to build on in his later Deprisa, deprisa (Fast, Fast, 1981). The use of untrained actors, a raw documentary feel and recognisable outdoor locations – the Legazpi market, the slums around the Manzanares river and Almudena cemetery known at the time as ‘La China’ (China) – give the film both immediacy and resonance. All to the sound of a bastardised flamenco guitar score.

  • Maria Delgado is a critic, curator and academic at Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, University of London

Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios (Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, 1988)

Director: Pedro Almodóvar

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988)

In just 24 hours, modern-day heroine Pepa (Carmen Maura) is abandoned by her lover, Ivan (Fernando Guillén); she confronts Iván’s ex-lover, who has just left a mental institution and is determined to kill him; she welcomes a young couple – Marisa (Rossy de Palma) and Carlos (Antonio Banderas), the latter is Iván and Lucia’s son – to see the flat she is planning to sell; and also offers refuge to her friend Candela (María Barranco), who has been used by her ex-lover, a Shiite terrorist.

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown is mostly studio shot, but the city is unequivocally Madrid. José Luis Alcaine’s cinematography offers hyper-bright visuals and an enhanced sense of Madrid’s unique light. Pedro Almodóvar’s detail is pure luxury: a land of fantasy and mayhem, a city of contradictions and imperfections populated by a rich array of characters – including Pepa’s gossipy Jehovah’s witness caretaker and a mambo-taxi driver who holds a stock of gossip magazines, snacks, gin and a ‘Thanks for Smoking’ sign.

  • Joana Granero is Director of London’s Spanish Film Festival

Bajarse al moro (Going Down in Morocco, 1989)

Director: Fernando Colomo

Going Down in Morocco (1989)

Imagine Pulp’s ‘Common People’ with a touch of Willy Russell in a film set in 1980s Madrid; you’re not far off Bajarse al moro. Chusa (Verónica Forqué), a free-spirited young drug smuggler introduces Elena (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón), a middle-class runaway, to the apartment she shares with cousin Jaimito (Juan Echanove) and boyfriend Alberto (Antonio Banderas), a rookie policeman. The result is chaos in their previously disorderly but happy lives in Lavapiés, the enduringly ramshackle neighbourhood home to the Rastro flea market.

With standout lead performances from Almodóvar regulars Banderas and Forqué, this film adaptation of José Luis Alonso de Santos’s critically and commercially acclaimed play explores what it means to come of age during a period of radical social change. Making his name with the so-called new Madrid comedies of the early post-Franco period, director Fernando Colomo here pays tribute with compassionate good humour to the poetry and pain of democratic urban life.

  • Duncan Wheeler is Associate Professor of Spanish at the University of Leeds

El sol del membrillo (The Quince Tree Sun, 1992)

Director: Víctor Erice

The Quince Tree Sun (1992)

The Quince Tree Sun narrates the attempt of the hyperrealist artist Antonio López to paint a quince tree in the garden of his house, in a grey, peripheral and melancholy Madrid. This melancholy comes from the very theme of the film: the impossibility of capturing time on a canvas, the failure of representing life and the world.

Víctor Erice shows us the work of a painter to portray the impact of two art forms in the process of disappearing: painting and cinema. This is probably because The Quince Tree Sun is shot at a moment which it is no longer part of, and thus articulates that process of loss. And it is for this reason that it shows us that Madrid illuminated at night, with its television sets in the beehive-like edifices whose hypnotic blinking light shows a distant indifference to the struggle of the two authors (the painter and the filmmaker) to hold back time.

  • Alberto Morais is an award-winning filmmaker whose most recent work, La madre (The Mother), premieres later this year

Tesis (Thesis, 1996)

Director: Alejandro Amenábar

Thesis (1996)

Set in Madrid’s Complutense University, Alejandro Amenábar’s psychosexual thriller debut positioned the young director as an exciting voice in the emerging genre-savvy Spanish cinema of the 1990s. Ana Torrent – little seen on-screen since appearing as a girl in the classics The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) and Cría cuervos (1976) – plays Ángela, a film student exploring society’s morbid fascination with on-screen violence for her thesis. Her research takes her out of the theoretical and into the real when she unveils a snuff conspiracy that leads her right to the heart of her faculty, unearthing complex feelings of her own along the way.

Amenábar was a student at Complutense at the time, which lends this debut a narrative meta-flourish and, though working inside a recognisable international generic mode, the film echoes the national fascination with the 1993 murder of three teenage girls in Valencia, while also reflecting the contemporaneous rise of reality television in Spain.

  • Will Massa is the Senior Programme Manager for Film at the British Council

The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

Director: Paul Greengrass

The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

Unlike James Bond, whose legacy is a trail of wrecked luxury cars, the other JB – Jason Bourne – leaves a more modest global footprint. In keeping with the series’ low-key reinvention of the action-hero genre, Jason Bourne may have super-strength and a piercing intellect, the results of a clandestine CIA experiment, but he also has a talent for anonymity, which is why his vehicle of choice is the humble train.

In Paul Greengrass’s tense, edgy paranoia-thriller The Bourne Ultimatum, the third outing for Matt Damon’s deadly soldier-spy, Madrid’s bustling Atocha station is the first landmark Bourne passes in his worldwide search for answers after an investigative journalist is shot dead during rush hour at London’s Waterloo. The fight that ensues after Bourne meets a face from the past at the fictitious 334 Calle Norte is a masterclass in brutal economy as Bourne casually dispatches two hitmen trying to stop him in his bid to – finally – get to the roots of Operation Treadstone and the conspiracy that erased his memory.

  • Damon Wise is a film writer and contributing editor with Empire

Los ilusos (The Wishful Thinkers, 2013)

Director: Jonás Trueba

The Wishful Thinkers (2013)

Madrid, with its exquisite light, and the magic of its cafés and squares, has often been the charged space in which a character’s emotional journey unfurls. Its winding streets and hidden corners have been strolled along and revealed to the viewer by two generations of the filmmaking family Trueba: from the carefree comedy of Trueba senior’s debut Opera prima (1980) to Jonás’s Todas las canciones hablan de mí (Every Song Is about Me, 2010). But it’s the city’s less advertised melancholic beauty that Jonás’s second feature, The Wishful Thinkers, pays homage to, using it to underscore a disappearing way of experiencing cinema.

Filmed on discarded black-and-white stock, Trueba junior’s film is permeated by the all-too-real effects of the economic crisis, as the characters visit the cinemas, bookshops and other cultural landmarks that are literally closing down around them. Yet, this is also a film about the capacity to change, about adapting to the possibility of seeing things anew, like the two little girls we see at the end playing carelessly with much beloved film stock – or indeed like the city itself.

  • Mar Diestro-Dópido is a film critic and researcher at Sight & Sound

Truman (2015)

Director: Cesc Gay

Truman (2015)

It’s ironic that director Cesc Gay and scriptwriter Tomás Aragay, the foremost chroniclers of contemporary Barcelona middle-class life with films like En la ciudad (In the City, 2003), Ficciò (Fiction, 2006), V.O.S. (2009) and Una pistola en cada mano (A Gun in Each Hand, 2012), should attain their first major breakthrough with Truman, their first foray outside Catalonia. Rather than simply set in Madrid, Truman is very much a film about the Spanish capital, offering an outsider’s view of a city in which most people come from outside and nobody asks where you come from.

With their polished chamber piece, these masters of the low-key effortlessly capture the transnational in the everyday and find in Madrid a natural environment for their quiet celebration of cosmopolitan tolerance. At a time in which so many are magnifying difference, separation and hostility, this movie has a very different lesson to teach: Madrid never looked more like Barcelona, and, at the same time, more like itself. Utterly uninterested in the usual tourist landmarks, Madrid is defined in Truman through the diversity of its people, their constant mobility and their refusal to subscribe to any sense of narrow identity.

  • Celestino Deleyto is the author of From Tinseltown to Bordertown: Los Angeles on Film, forthcoming from Wayne University Press
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