Ventura Pons obituary: leading and prolific Catalan filmmaker

Often referred to as the Catalan Woody Allen, Pons hopped between genres as he forged new paths for filmmaking in Catalonia – queer, modern, irreverent and with a global outlook.

16 January 2024

By Maria Delgado

Ventura Pons during the filming of Be Happy! (2019) © Andrea Resmini/Els Films de la Rambla

Filmmaker Ventura Pons, who has died at the age of 78, changed Catalan cinema forever. Scriptwriter, stage and film director and producer, he kept watch over the development of his film projects through Els Films de la Rambla, the production company he established in 1985, naming it after Barcelona’s famous thoroughfare. Always placing his work on the point of difference between his beloved Catalonia and the rest of Spain, he was a dogged ambassador for Catalan independence. He was also a countercultural figure, who was proudly queer at a time when behaviour was policed and homosexuality a criminal offence until 1979.

His 32 features, straddling comedy, farce, road movies, romance, thrillers, noir, philosophical drama and creative documentary, have proven influential both in his native Catalonia and further afield. Between 1998 and 2001 he was a vocal vice president of the Spanish Film Academy (Academia de las Artes y las Ciencias Cinematográficas) and once boasted to me in 2018 that his features had screened in more than 760 international festivals.

Ocaña, an Intermittent Portrait (1978)

His first film, Ocaña, an Intermittent Portrait, premiering at Cannes in 1978, offered a dynamic portrait of the queer Andalusian painter and performance artist José Pérez Ocaña. The film’s defining image has Ocaña strolling defiantly down la Rambla in performance attire, defiantly appropriating both religious and flamenco iconography. The irreverent energy that ran through both the film and its protagonist captured the spirit of a society emerging from Franco’s repressive dictatorship while shaping a new democracy with sexual and political freedom at the core. With Ocaña, Pons forged a queer cinema for Catalonia that was playful and bold, consolidating its aesthetic in films such as Ignasi M (2013) – a portrait of his close friend the art restorer Ignasi Millet — and Cola, Colita, Colassa (2015), a conversation with the photographer Colita and her friends.

Many of his films are a love letter to Barcelona, the city where he was born and where he lived until his death; a celebration of a vibrant, modern, plural, changing metropolis where, post-dictatorship, anything and everything was possible. Indeed, Pons was simultaneously the most Catalan of filmmakers and resolutely international in his influences and outlook. A prolific linguist – he spoke five languages – his sensibilities and style were decisively shaped by extensive periods spent in London as a teenager and young man. He was particularly influenced by the British New Wave and went on to forge a firm friendship with Lindsay Anderson. Like Anderson he embraced both theatre and film. It was in theatre that he first cut his teeth as a director, staging Anne Jellicoe’s The Knack in 1969 and The Rocky Horror Show in 1977. Crafting character-driven films, he retained a strong affinity and affection for actors, often casting performers from his theatre days, as with Joan Pera in Forasters/Strangers (2008) and Rosa Maria Sardà in Anita Takes a Chance (2001).

Caresses (1998)

A significant number of the actors he deployed were primarily known for their theatre work – as with Josep Maria Pou (Barcelona, a Map, 2007) and Núria Espert (Actresses, 1997). Pons remained to the end an avid theatregoer, and it is arguably for the films that he adapted from Catalan plays by the leading dramatists of the day – Josep Benet i Jornet, Sergi Belbel, Lluïsa Cunillé and Josep Maria Miró – that he will be best remembered. In works like Caresses (1998) and To Die (or Not) (2000) he crafted a cinematic language for plays that were redefining the Catalan stage. Pons gave them an international platform through the visibility the films enjoyed across the global festival circuit.

During a productive 20-year period beginning with the inventive portmanteau What It’s All About (1994), he averaged a film every 15 months and was often referred to as Catalonia’s Woody Allen. A brain haemorrhage and cycling accident in 2014 seriously affected his health, but he remained as indefatigable as ever in terms of his enthusiasm for cinema, shooting two films in English, Miss Dalí (2018) and Be Happy! (2019), as well as the magical documentary Univers(o) Pecanins (2019) about the influential Catalan-Mexican Pecanins sisters.

Ventura Pons during filming
© Els Films de la Rambla

Pons was a larger-than-life figure – stylish, funny, generous, immensely loyal to his friends and family, and with a restless enthusiasm and passion for cinema. After his husband Narcis Fernández Nogales died in 2019, Pons never completed another film, although he had several projects in development. He leaves behind a distinctive body of work that foregrounds the experiences of those so often marginalised by the mainstream, asking profound questions about what it means to belong and providing a model for independent filmmaking in Catalonia.