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Cultural Recognitions and Nostalgic Evocations: The Cinematic Experience of Costumbrist Films

In: Studies in World Cinema
Author:
Nicolás Medina Marañón Faculty of Arts (Arts, Culture and Media Department), University of Groningen, Groningen, The Netherlands

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Abstract

This article concentrates on costumbrist cinema, an approach to filmmaking characteristically concerned with the accurate representation of the customs, habits and cultural idiosyncrasies of a particular society or group of people. After defining and contextualizing the concept of costumbrismo, the article draws on Jean-Pierre Meunier’s modes of filmic identification to describe the experiential structure of costumbrist cinema, characterized by the existent or non-existent recognition of the specific cultural representations. Following this, the potentially evocative feature of costumbrist cinema is considered with regard to its nostalgic dimension. To conclude, Volver (Pedro Almodóvar, 2006), A Separation (Jodâyi-e Nâder az Simin, Asghar Farhadi 2011), Still Walking (Aruitemo aruitemo, Hirokazu Kore-eda 2008) and Happy as Lazzaro (Lazzaro felice, Alice Rohrwacher 2018) provide the basis on which to outline different approaches to cinematic costumbrismo and their functions within the film’s narration: (1) costumbrismo as narrative imperative; (2) extensive dimension; (3) cinematic contemplation and (4) costumbrist framework as subversive potential.

Some years ago, I attended a screening of Asghar Farhadi’s Everybody Knows (Todos lo saben, 2018) in a local theater in the Dutch city of Groningen. The Iranian director’s eighth feature film tells the story of Laura (Penélope Cruz), a Spanish woman living in Buenos Aires, who returns to her hometown with her two children for her sister’s wedding, during which Laura’s teenage daughter is kidnapped. Regardless of the plot, there was something that immediately attracted my attention: the costumbrismo of the film, that is, the meticulous representation of the customs and cultural idiosyncrasies of the villagers of Torrelaguna, the small village in which the film is set: the depiction of their everyday life, their ways of speaking, their body language, as well as the music, contributed to the creation of a vivid feeling of Spanish rural life. Sitting in the dark movie theater, as a Spaniard fairly familiar with the customs depicted, I could not help feeling a certain delight at identifying these traits.

However, considering the geographical location of the film theater, I also recognized that most of the audience would likely experience these features differently, as they did not share my knowledge of the culture and manners depicted. Hence, I slowly started to experience a separation from my co-viewers. I therefore felt an urge to mediate between the film and my Dutch partner sitting next to me, in order to fill up the unfamiliarity gap and help him appreciate this aspect of the film as well. But beyond my recognition of the local customs and manners, there was something about the film that stood out even more strongly to me: its evocative nature. It was actually not so much the events and people onscreen that captured my attention, but rather the events and people they brought back to memory. Thus, walking back home commenting on both the content of the film and its heavily costumbrist dimension, I was surprised to realize that I had been left with a feeling of what I could only characterize as nostalgia.

In the following pages I will, first, briefly define the concept of costumbrismo in cinematic practice. Secondly, drawing on Jean-Pierre Meunier’s modes of filmic identification from The Structures of the Film Experience (Meunier 2019), I will describe the experiential structure afforded by costumbrist films. Finally, I will propose some possible functions of the costumbrist approach in cinema.

Defining Costumbrist Cinema

Costumbrismo in cinema is, broadly speaking, a stylistic approach highlighting the manners and customs of a particular society or group. The term is rooted in the seventeenth century Spanish theatrical form of sainete costumbrista, “a sort of comical interlude depicting lower-class characters in urban settings” (Buse, Triana and Willis 2007, 126). For the costumbrist filmmaker, Claver Esteban notes, it is the distinctive aspects and typical customs that are to be captured by the camera, whose attention is centered on “the representative, the characteristic, the peculiar from a group, country or region” (2012, 20, my translation). Thus, costumbrismo refers to the faithful representation of the customs, habits, and lifestyles of the protagonists’ social milieu. It was transferred to cinema in the 1960s through films like The Executioner (El verdugo, Luis García Berlanga 1963), which “appropriated the sainete costumbrista, painted its comedy several degrees darker and created a formal language […] to censure the social and moral order in the [Franco] dictatorship” (ibid.). Within the tradition of costumbrismo, we can distinguish two main stylistic features that characterize the vast majority of these films: an ensemble cast and a careful mise-en-scène. Costumbrist films will typically use costumbrismo to add an extra layer to the plot.1 As Ríos Carratalá explains, costumbrismo in cinema is to be understood “as a framework, an ensemble of details setting the appropriate tone for the film, capturing the peculiar in order to facilitate the insertion of the story in a specific reality” (2006, 2, my translation). In light of this, it is not uncommon for the viewer to forget certain seemingly essential plot events while retaining a vivid memory of costumbrist details. The focus of attention would then be on the camera’s ability to capture these peculiar details or on the “supporting roles, who […] breathe meaning and reality into these films” (ibid.).2

Some films falling under the conceptual umbrella of costumbrismo include Volver (Pedro Almodóvar, 2006), Still Walking (Aruitemo aruitemo, Hirokazu Kore-eda 2008), A Separation (Jodâyi-e Nâder az Simin, Asghar Farhadi 2011), and Happy as Lazzaro (Lazzaro felice, Alice Rohrwacher 2018).3 Across their different stories, they share the detailed depiction of the cultural context surrounding the main characters. While a meticulous mise-en-scène is important to any film production, what stands out in costumbrist films is how heavily culture-laden their production design is.

The Experiential Structure of Costumbrist Cinema

When discussing the experiential structure of these films, it is essential to consider the individual viewer’s familiarity – or lack thereof – with the customs depicted by the film. Before embarking on this topic, it should be noted that “the costumbrist gaze” can be utilized to legitimize a discourse where “reality is replaced by an exclusive part of it” (Claver Esteban 2012, 20), as when an overemphasis on cultural idiosyncrasies and nationalism are used to demarcate the limits of national identities in an exclusionary manner. Here, however, my interest lies solely in the appreciation of the detailed cinematic representations of customs and cultural idiosyncrasies and the viewing effects derived thereof, not in arguing that they represent the entire reality of said group, region or social milieu.

We can speak of an existent recognition in cases where the viewer shares a certain degree of existential knowledge with the film’s costumbrismo, recognizes it, and perceives it as part of an existing reality. By contrast, there will be viewers who, while appreciating the customs depicted do not recognize them in the same way as those in the first category; we will refer to their experience as a non-existent recognition. Within the existent recognition group, a further distinction is in order, depending on whether the viewer evaluates the customs positively or negatively. In cases of positive recognition, the peculiarities depicted are not only familiar, they are also appealing and might therefore kindle positive feelings in the viewer. Conversely, a viewer might be familiar with the cultural practices and react negatively to their portrayal in the film. This type of negative evaluation can come in two different forms: first, we find a negative recognition caused by a portrayal which the viewer assesses as unfaithful to their lived experience of that reality. To illustrate this type of negative recognition caused by what the viewer might deem an unfaithful representation, think of the over-the-top exaggeration of, say, regional differences, such as they are depicted in, e.g., Spanish Affair (Ocho apellidos vascos, Emilio Martínez Lázaro 2014). The film tells a love story between an Andalusian man and a Basque woman, both represented as straightforward clichéd members of their respective regions, which are stereotypically considered as opposed poles within Spanish culture. While the cultural antithesis is devised for comedic purposes in the film, I remember identifying the representation of their idiosyncrasies while, simultaneously, feeling unease and embarrassment at the overblown characterizations. Second, negative recognition may also arise because of a connection the film establishes between a particular custom the viewer condemns and the group they feel part of. Though this will for the most part be determined by the individual viewer’s ethics, a quick illustration could be the inclusion of bullfighting in a costumbrist Spanish film. Unlike positive recognition, which can be evocative and expansive in character, negative recognition frequently comes with anger, disapproval, or embarrassment.

If we apply this classification to actual viewers in a film theater, a series of interesting interrelations appear. As mentioned in the introduction with regard to the screening I attended of Everybody Knows in a Dutch cinema, my familiarity with what was being depicted onscreen brought about an experience of phenomenological distancing from the rest of the audience. Temporarily, the film moved away from the core of my consciousness as I instead focused on my relationship with the rest of the audience, relegating the story events and characters to the fringe of my attention. According to Hans Bernhard Schmid, “we take our conscious states to be our own only where we have reason to think that our conscious states might be different from anyone’s.” (2008, 78) In realizing that my perception of the customs onscreen might be different from that of the rest of the audience, I initiated a shift from the “plural pre-reflective self-awareness” of the group of viewers, and placed the collective experience as the intentional object (Hanich 2017, 150). An I-you relationship with my co-viewers was established (ibid., 148),4 but, as Julian Hanich nuances, “the phenomenological distance of A to B is not necessarily that of person B to person A” (ibid., 162). In the theater in Groningen, the gap I felt between myself and the rest of the audience who did not recognize the film’s costumbrist elements was not shared by the other viewers. In other words, person B may be aware neither of the costumbrist dimension of a film nor of person A’s recognition of it.

This asymmetric relationship between viewers, however, could be easily broken depending on the attitude of the individual experiencing the existent recognition. They could, for instance, simply approach the viewer sitting next to them to share an illustrative comment about the costumbres on the screen, thereby leading the co-viewer to potentially also focus on their phenomenological distance. Unless the viewer familiar with the costumbrismo were to stand up and repeat the same process with every member of the audience, a certain degree of asymmetry would most likely prevail. That said, it is impossible to ascertain the “phenomenological weight” of every audience member (ibid., 160). ‘Phenomenological weight’ here refers to the significance we have for each other as co-viewers in a shared experience, not as determined by interpersonal familiarity, but by our shared cultural backgrounds and experiential knowledge. While we cannot corroborate this for every audience member, usually there are contextual cues that can provide degrees of certainty.

So, the individual familiar with the events and customs depicted in the film might choose to enjoy the, as it were, advantage granted by their existential knowledge of the reality portrayed onscreen. Alternatively, they might attempt to surpass this perceptual divergence in order to achieve experiential attunement. Discussing the affective dimension of the mind, Schmid explains how “emotional attunement between people can be a source of great solace and indeed pleasure” (Schmid 2008, 66). Considering that the core feature of a collective experience is “some kind of affective attunement between people that is sustained by the pleasure that flows from the awareness of this affective attunement” (ibid., 67), it is reasonable to expect that in such instances the viewer, in becoming aware of a separation from their co-viewers, would seek to bridge the gap in order to reach a collective experience of the film’s costumbrismo. These bridging attempts, however, are usually insufficient. It is not as simple as explaining the punch-line of a joke to elicit laughter, or the poignancy of an action to yield tears, as it involves the cultural background, existential knowledge and experiences of the individual, which usually cannot be summarized in a couple of remarks. Confronted with this somewhat futile task, the viewer might feel frustrated, resulting in their focus of attention triangulating between the film, themself and the co-viewer’s lack of familiarity.

Let’s now assume the perspective of a person in the category of non-existent recognition, for which I will rely on another personal anecdote. I must have been about sixteen years old when I first watched Almodóvar’s Volver (2006) with my mother in a local theater in Granada (Spain). The film tells the story of Raimunda (Penélope Cruz), a small-town woman now living in Madrid, her sister Sole (Lola Dueñas), and their (assumed) deceased mother Irene (Carmen Maura) who returns to their hometown in rural Castile-La Mancha to attend to unfinished issues. In the opening scene, a dolly shot tracks laterally through the village cemetery where dozens of elderly widows fight the wind while taking care of the graves of their deceased relatives (Fig. 1). I remember turning to my mother and seeing her smiling face illuminated by the screen, presumably not because of any humorous details in the scene. At that point – and for a significant part of the screening – I felt that her reaction was caused by something on the screen that brought back some memories (she was raised in a small town resembling the one portrayed onscreen); maybe it was something in the women’s clothing and way of talking, in combination with the set design and overall mise-en-scène that made her react this way.

Figure 1
Figure 1

Volver: The women of the village maintain the gravestones in the local cemetery. Frame grab.

Citation: Studies in World Cinema 4, 1 (2024) ; 10.1163/26659891-bja10037

I didn’t recognize the costumbrist dimension of this opening scene, but I did recognize my mother’s recognition of it. Akin to what Schmid refers to as a metaphorical sense of sharing a feeling: “person B […] approves of A’s feeling to a degree in which she might be called to share her feeling” (ibid., 65). I experienced only a certain sharedness, however, inasmuch as for my mother the intentional object was the film, and, more specifically, the evocations triggered by it, whereas for me it was her feeling that occupied the focus of my experience. This exemplifies a particular case in which viewers, while belonging to the different categories mentioned above (non-existent and existent recognition), may establish a kind of cinematic relationship in the somewhat blurred spectrum between I-you antagonism and we-connection. Here, the recognition of the costumbrismo is not really shared while, at the same time, there is a certain (albeit fairly weak) sharedness derived from the appreciation of the other’s recognition.

Furthermore, I believe that this recognition can lead to a particular appreciation of another individual’s existential knowledge (my mother in the example). Introducing the enlightening contribution of Jean-Pierre Meunier’s modes of filmic consciousness and film phenomenologist Vivian Sobchack’s analysis thereof will enrich our understanding of the cinematic experience at stake here (Meunier 2019; Sobchack 1999). Following Meunier’s classification, when viewing a film, consciousness is an active element in determining the nature of the filmic object, and this is done through a constant flux along the spectrum of identification, from the film-souvenir (or home movie) consciousness,5 to the documentary consciousness and the fiction consciousness (Sobchack 1999, 243). Throughout the length of one film, our consciousness is not fixed to any one of these modes, but mutates depending on the images onscreen as well as on our relation to them. It is essential to consider how our consciousness is not empty when viewing a film – as Sobchack explains, “our personal embodied existence and knowledge give our consciousness an existential attitude or bias toward what is given for us to see on the screen and how we will take it up” (ibid., 242). Therefore, what we have experienced in our life as well as our knowledge of the world we inhabit will play a determining role in any filmic experience. From this perspective, when the viewer recognizes certain customs and manners in the film, this might stimulate a shift in their filmic consciousness from that of the fiction film to the film-souvenir consciousness, mainly defined by its evocative nature (ibid., 244). For both my mother (in the above cited example of Volver) and me (watching Everybody Knows in a Dutch theater), the relevance of the characters and events onscreen decreased. They were momentarily relegated to the background of perception, functioning mainly as catalysts for memories of episodes or periods of our own lives. These recollections, then, came to occupy the core of our consciousness, the foreground of our attention.

Conversely, a viewer who is not personally immersed in the costumbrismo of a film can perfectly appreciate such idiosyncrasies even if they are not part of their own experience. Imagine a Western viewer watching Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Still Walking (Aruitemo aruitemo, 2008), where a Japanese family gathers to commemorate a deceased son and brother. The events of the film, which occur almost entirely inside the family’s rural house, revolve around food, conversations at the table and different costumbrist rituals. An outsider to this reality may approach the film with an attitude of apprenticeship, that is, a documentary film consciousness. In that case, there is a lack of existential and cultural knowledge which “modifies the nature of our identification with the image” (ibid., 243). Were this viewer to be surrounded by people intimately related to these Japanese customs or familiar with the places depicted onscreen, this individual’s documentary manner of accessing the film might be accompanied by an I-you antagonistic relationship to the rest of the viewers. In such a situation, the culturally distant viewer, while aware of the costumbrist representation, would experience a separation from the rest of the audience members, whose knowledge would place them in the category of existent recognition. Thus, the ‘alien’ viewer’s dependence on the screen would be greater than that of their co-viewers for whom the customs represented by the film might trigger personal memories that would divert their attention from the film’s plot.

The Nostalgia of Costumbrist Cinema

With regard to the viewer positively recognizing the costumbres of a costumbrist film, an important qualifier of the experience is its nostalgic dimension. In a film-souvenir consciousness, the filmic images are perceived as “intermediary, mnemonic, and channeling devices” yielding the evocation of an absent past (ibid., 247). More specifically, as Meunier explains, they are “intermediary between the reality perceived and my current consciousness of this reality” (Meunier 2019, 88). This constitutive activity of consciousness opens up the doors to potentially nostalgic recollections.

Nostalgia is etymologically formed of nostos – which refers to a return or a going back – and algos, in that “this return has some pain attached to it,” not necessarily because of the return as such, but because of the separation from this past (Hart 1973, 398). Nostalgia, insofar as it involves a shift in the intentionality of consciousness from the immediate present to the experienced past, shares certain features with homesickness. However, whereas homesickness is ‘curable’ – one can in theory simply go back home – in nostalgia, the individual experiences a world to which they cannot return, for, as Hart points out, “the nostalgic noema presents itself as not recapturable” (ibid., 399), noema being, in phenomenological terms, the object apprehended, what is being thought about, as opposed to the noesis, referring to the act of apprehension or thinking in itself. That is, the nostalgic noema (the past events) is experienced with a certain longing and regret. In view of this, it should come as no surprise that the past and the idea of returning form the thematic core of a considerable number of costumbrist films.

As argued before, while watching Farhadi’s Everybody Knows, the separation I felt was rooted in the difficulty of sharing all the emotions and experiences the film’s costumbrismo was bringing back to my personal memory (Hart 1973, 402). On this note, Dylan Trigg acknowledges how throughout our lives, “places define and structure our sense of self, such that being dis-placed can have a dramatic consequence on our experience of who we are,” which is why “the memories we acquire of the places we inhabit assume a value that is both immeasurable and vital” (Trigg 2012, 1). The different details effectively portrayed by a costumbrist film slowly foster a re-awakening in consciousness of different moments, which together produce the unity of the nostalgic experience (ibid., 57). Trigg further supports this by saying that in a nostalgic attachment to a place, “[w]hat I experience is the gradual unfolding of concurrent events, each of which is bound within a singular constellation. While the nostalgic experience is anchored with a central point of fixation, this same point is surrounded on all sides by a mutually edifying aura” (ibid., 185). The viewer’s intentional object, triggered by the costumbrismo of the film, is therefore displaced from the filmic events and directed to nostalgically remembered past experiences.

To further explore the relation between cinematic costumbrismo and nostalgia, it is appropriate to emphasize the latter’s duality in which “the spatiotemporality of the present is haunted by the superimposed appearances of the past” (ibid., 190), or, as James Hart has it, “the past present coincides with the actual present by including it in some way” (Hart 1973, 404). This accounts for the bittersweet experience of nostalgia because, in returning from the world of nostalgia, the body “become[s] partly colonized through its own internal disjunctions (Trigg 2012, 190). In the context of film viewing, this temporal superimposition can be seen as influenced by a third one: the diegesis of the costumbrist film. Interestingly, the cinematic experience of costumbrist films can reinforce a characteristic of nostalgia: that of the preservation of past events as well as their amplification or idealization. Trigg argues that the object of nostalgia “protrudes” into the present, allowing the imagination to wrap the object in an idealized light (ibid., 175). In this sense, the nostalgically recalled past, which on its own lends itself to amplification, might be further magnified by the film aesthetics, setting the grounds for a “playful reworking of the past in the present” (ibid., 46). Costumbrist films and their evocative dimension would then possess the ability to trigger the creation of a certain nostalgic aura, which accounts for both the feeling of nostalgia characterizing the afterlife of the costumbrist cinematic experience – in which the nostalgically cherished world is no longer in the past, but sitting “alongside me in the present, felt in its immediate reality” (ibid., 185) – and for the viewer’s potential reworking of their past.

Although, of course, the recognition of costumbres in a film does not necessarily prompt nostalgic reverie, the chances are high enough that it makes sense to consider it part of the experiential structure of costumbrist cinema.

The Costumbrist Approach to Filmmaking

Let us now move on to the way filmmakers can put costumbrismo into practice. Returning to Everybody Knows, Farhadi opted for a rural location which to him was the only setting in which the story would work. In order to achieve this, the Iranian director stayed for an extended period of time in a small village in Castile and León, similar to the one depicted in the film, with the intention of absorbing as much as possible from the culture and habits of its people and thus get closer to the reality he wanted to portray.6 In the following, I will discuss some of the possible approaches to cinematic costumbrismo and their functions within the film’s narration. These functions do not preclude each other, and within a given film, the choice of a costumbrist style may have several causes.

Firstly, and here Farhadi’s work will serve as an excellent example, there are films in which the cultural background plays an essential role for the unfolding of the plot. In A Separation (Jodâyi-e Nâder az Simin, 2011), The Salesman (Forushande, 2016) and About Elly (Darbareye Elly, 2009), culture is key in shaping the background against which the stories are set, affecting the characters’ feelings and behaviors throughout the film. The opposition between the Iranian middle-class and more devoutly religious groups establish the basis for the conflicts in these films. Accordingly, the carefully constructed portrayal of these groups of people, each with their own culture and customs, is essential to the whole composition of the film. Costumbrismo here emerges as a narrative imperative, the costumbrist style granting the spectator an easier access to comprehending the story.

A Separation, for example, tells the story of Simin (Leila Hatami) and Nader (Peyman Moaadi), a middle-class Iranian couple who have filed for divorce. Simin moves out while the couple’s daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi) stays with Nader hoping to reunite the couple. Nader hires Razieh (Sareh Bayat), a deeply religious woman (who is concealing her pregnancy), to tend to his Alzheimer’s-stricken father during the day. Early on, the film features situations where the cultural and religious aspects of the diegesis are made prominent, and which prove fundamental to an understanding of the unfolding events. When Simin drives away from the family house, she sees Razieh and her daughter Somayeh (Kimia Hosseini) walking home and offers them a ride. Razieh expresses how uneasy she feels being the only woman in the house when tending to Nader’s father. Simin tells her not to worry about “these things,” disclosing how trivial they are for her, whereas they are of deep concern to Razieh. This dissimilar understanding of the situation is reinforced by another cultural signifier that highlights the difference between the two women: Simin’s loose hijab barely hides her brightly dyed red hair, while Razieh wears a more concealing black chador (their respective daughters wear corresponding garments). Another instance of key cultural contextualization occurs during Razieh’s first day at work when Nader’s father wets himself. Razieh repeatedly asks him to wash himself, but his Alzheimer’s condition prevents this. Faced with this faith-challenging situation, Razieh seeks advice from a religious helpline, inquiring whether changing his clothes would be sinful. After explaining the situation, she is granted permission to proceed while her daughter promises not to tell her dad. The shame attached to her caretaking job is repeatedly foregrounded through Razieh’s insistence on concealing her employment from her husband Hojjat (Shahab Hosseini), and in her lowering of the blinders before her working shift begins (Fig. 2).

Figure 2
Figure 2

A Separation: Razieh (Sareh Bayat) lowers the blinders of Nader and Simin’s house. Frame grab.

Citation: Studies in World Cinema 4, 1 (2024) ; 10.1163/26659891-bja10037

All this attention to the depiction of the cultural difference between the two families serves the main narrative conflict, which involves a confrontation between Nader and Razieh, and her miscarriage. Nader and Simin eventually discover that Razieh has kept her situation hidden from Hojjat, which subsequently escalates the conflict between the families on the grounds of religious beliefs and honor.

In this manner, as Iranian film scholar Parviz Jahed explains, Farhadi creates a set-up providing a “sensitive look at a family facing problems and divisions that are so typical for an Iranian family,” focusing on issues of class, gender, prejudgment, lawfulness, faith, and conflict resolution in contemporary Tehran (Jahed 2017, 140). Jahed explains that while this might be seen as a political issue from an outsider’s perspective, “for the people inside of Iran it is a social issue, relatable to nearly all families” (ibid., 141). The degree of these social issues’ perceived relatability will be dependent on the viewer’s position vis-à-vis the aforementioned recognition or non-recognition of the cultural customs and idiosyncrasies presented by the film. Both the documentary film mode – in non-recognition cases – and the film-souvenir mode – in recognition cases – will be the forms of consciousness most likely activated by this film. Even when an oscillation between the two modes exists (for people in the recognition group), it is the cultural knowledge that becomes prioritized within this approach to costumbrismo. Because the cultural background heavily informs the socially complex nature of the story events, the detailed presentation of customs and culture becomes key to the viewer’s understanding of the narrative.

Costumbrismo may also be employed by a filmmaker with the intention of leaving it up to the spectators to ‘complete the task,’ expecting the recognizable peculiarities of the characters and places to induce a nostalgic revival of memories in the viewer. In costumbrist films, family and the idea of returning are recurring themes – as seen for example in Kore-eda’s Still Walking, Almodóvar’s Volver, and Farhadi’s Everybody Knows. This is particularly relevant considering not only the importance of the place evoked in triggering a feeling of nostalgia, but also “the time in which that memory occurred” (Trigg 2012, 161). These films seem to be directly addressing the viewers, inviting them to undertake a journey in time, which would then result in the nostalgic viewer adding a personal tone to the film. This would be costumbrismo understood in its extensive dimension, where the customs and manners depicted in the film function as canvases on which the viewer collaborates to paint a more nuanced picture.7

For illustrative purposes, let us return to Volver. It should be noted that my intention here is not to present Almodóvar’s film as merely nostalgic which, as Gutiérrez-Albilla explains, would encourage the spectator to consume the past through glossy images detached from any historical referent, as part of the culture industry of nostalgia that ignores the complexity of collective history and emphasizes “superficial commemoration” (2017, 54). In fact, as Guitiérrez-Albilla argues, part of Almodóvar’s cinema is noteworthy and prominent for its ability to “recycle some of the Spanish cultural referents that Francoism instrumentalised” (ibid.). What interests me here, however, is mainly the evocative potential of the overall style of the film, which could be regarded as a preliminary step toward understanding those particular “post-traumatic working-through processes” of historical events that Pérez Melgosa (2013, 179) speaks of in relation to Almodóvar’s films.

The film title itself, Volver, is already an invitation to return, to come back: from city to village, from present to past – a reference to the nostalgia associated with Raimunda’s hometown as a site of unsolved mysteries and a powerful source of love. As mentioned earlier, the film opens in the small village cemetery, where dozens of women fight the wind to tend the gravestones of their relatives while nondiegetic music from a zarzuela (Spanish opera) fills the soundtrack. Raimunda, together with her teenage daughter Paula (Yohana Cobo) and her sister Sole, are visiting the place to look after the grave of their mother Irene, who died in a fire. While the three women scrub the gravestone, Agustina (Blanca Portillo), a friend from the village, arrives to give her own grave a once-over. As the women greet enthusiastically, Agustina effusively smothers them with kisses, a custom somewhat common in family circles but particularly frequent in rural Spain among older generations, which Agustina enacts throughout the film. Leaving the cemetery, Paula asks confusedly about Agustina’s habit of looking after her own grave, which Raimunda explains, “it’s the custom here.” The first sequence thus already presents a range of traditional idiosyncrasies specific to Raimunda’s hometown – and many similar Spanish small towns – which elicits in Paula, who represents a younger generation, expressions of amused puzzlement.

As Adrián Pérez Melgosa notes, there are numerous instances in Volver where the “camera looks attentively at the most humble details of everyday existence,” underscoring the “things, spaces, or actions that display the material supports of our lives” (ibid., 187). One such example occurs right after the cemetery scene, this time in the home of Aunt Paula (Chus Lampreave), the elderly and forgetful sister of Raimunda’s deceased mother. While the women eat wafers in a dining room furnished with a distinctly traditional decor, a panning shot of the sideboard presents, next to an immaculate porcelain tea service, several sets of reused jars and plastic containers filled with traditional home-cooked meals prepared by Aunt Paula for Raimunda and Sole to take with them. The containers are tied with rubber bands and capped with paper notes with the names ‘RAIMUNDA’ and ‘SOLE’ written on them. Pérez Melgosa, comparing the lighting and composition in this shot to the still-life paintings of Francisco Zurbarán (a prominent figure of the Spanish Golden Age), highlights how this shot “conveys a sense of the everyday, of the work of cooking, preserving, and organizing that makes our existence possible” (ibid., 191). While older relatives preparing food for their offspring’s occasional visit is something that can be found in many cultures, here it is presented and underscored in a delicately authentic and affectionate way, visually as well as through the dialogue’s expressions of contentment.

Another example of the film’s costumbrist rendering of the village occurs when Sole attends the vigil service for Aunt Paula. Raimunda leads Sole into a room crowded with grieving women mourning the passing of Aunt Paula, softly praying in an unintelligible murmur. As Sole enters the room, an overhead shot shows the women standing up to surround her, energetically pulling her closer to kiss her in turns and offer their condolences. The vigil’s typical solemnity is disrupted by this hilariously peculiar situation forced upon Sole, who seems overwhelmed by the suffocating display of affection. This situation, my nostalgia-affected mother commented while we sat in the theater, was commonplace in the way funerals were conducted in her hometown. The relatability of this and other customs depicted in the film, particular to the rural life in Castile-La Mancha and similar rural regions in Spain, affords, first, the recognition of such idiosyncrasies in the personal experience of the viewer and, second, the activation of the extensive dimension of nostalgic evocations. In other words, engaging with the costumbrismo of the film with a film-souvenir consciousness. For my mother, sharing Raimunda’s existential knowledge of migration from rural to city life in a similar time period and in geographically close locations, the plot created by Almodóvar was susceptible of being broadened by her personal experiences, enabling her to further nuance the meticulously rendered filmic details and to complement them with her own personal recollections.

As the film progresses along these lines, and once the grounds for nostalgic remembrances have been firmly established, a musical performance further emphasizes these sentimental reveries. Back in Madrid, Raimunda has temporarily taken over her neighbor’s bar which serves as catering headquarters for a film crew. With the help of her daughter, sister and some friends they throw an end-of-shooting party. The opening chords of a song played by a flamenco quartet prompts Raimunda to sing the first lines, asking Sole whether she remembers the song, “How could I forget?” she replies. Raimunda approaches the quartet and together they perform the entire song (Fig. 3). The song, ‘Volver’ by Carlos Gardel and Alfredo La Pera, talks about an individual’s feelings and relation to her past:

I notice the flickering of the lights that, in the distance, will be marking my return. I am afraid of the encounter with the past that returns to confront my life. I am afraid of the nights that, filled with memories, chain my dreams. […] To return … with a withered forehead, the snows of times have silvered my temple […] To live … with the soul clinging to a sweet memory that I cry for once again.

My translation.
Figure 3
Figure 3

Volver: Raimunda (Penélope Cruz) performs with a flamenco quartet. Frame grab.

Citation: Studies in World Cinema 4, 1 (2024) ; 10.1163/26659891-bja10037

During this musical passage, the camera focuses on Raimunda’s poignant performance and her affected mother, who listens to the song hidden in Sole’s car representing the initially impossible fusion of past and present, considering Raimunda’s unawareness of her mother’s ‘return from the death.’ Meanwhile, the lyrics accentuate ideas of cherished memories and the simultaneous pain and fondness attached to earlier life periods. For the viewers already sharing experiential grounds with the plot, these lines provide an invitation to reminisce. The potential evocations may, in turn, add to the mood (or affective tone) of the film, enriching the overall experience and extending it beyond the actions explicitly depicted onscreen, blending them with personal experiences of a similar nature.

Another function of a costumbrist approach can be to make the ordinary extraordinary – for this, much of Kore-eda’s body of work may serve as an illustration. Still Walking, Our Little Sister (Umimachi diary, 2015), and After the Storm (Umi yori mo mada fukaku, 2016), to name but a few, are films in which the Japanese director tells relatively simple stories framed against a background of family life where ordinary activities and the manners of the everyday are at the center.

Still Walking will serve as an example. It tells the story of a visit the protagonist Ryota (Hiroshi Abe) pays to his parents, accompanied by his wife Yukari (Yui Natsukawa) and his stepson Atsushi (Shohei Tanaka), in keeping with the family’s annual traditional gathering in commemoration of Ryota’s brother Junpei, who tragically died in an accident fifteen years earlier. Made soon after the passing of the filmmaker’s own mother, the film has an unmistakable nostalgic aura and can be seen as an attempt, as film scholar John Berra notes, to “recapture memory […] revisiting the recent past by reconstructing a family gathering that takes place over twenty-four hours” (Berra 2012, 96). Kore-eda approaches this delicate story with “the eyes and ears of a skilled documentarian; his camera maintains a detached distance so that the audience feels as if it is eavesdropping on the family” (ibid., 97). The documentary-like approach is combined with the simplicity of the actions depicted. This is not to say that the characters’ underlying struggles and tensions are simple, only that the activities carried out by them are: in addition to the rituals in honor of Junpei, the film focuses on the preparation of meals in the kitchen and the family’s consecutive enjoyment at the table eating, drinking, and talking, along with other activities like taking baths, long walks, or knitting.

This underscoring of domestic activities is presented from the very beginning: the film opens with several seconds of black screen over which can be heard the sounds of sizzling oil and a repetitive metallic rasping, introducing the first lines of dialogue: “Radishes are genius,” “What about potatoes?” A slow fade-in shows a close-up of two people peeling a carrot and a radish, gradually revealing their faces in a medium shot: Toshiko (Kirin Kiki), the grandmother of the family, and her daughter, Chinami (Yukiko Ehara), are discussing cooking tips. Next, a sequence of the grandfather, Kyohei (Yoshio Harada), strolling around the area to the soft and peaceful music of a non-diegetic acoustic guitar is intercut with shots of food: close-ups of a pot with simmering pieces of pork being stirred with chopsticks, potatoes being mashed with a wooden pestle, the chopping of a shallot onion, and edamame beans being placed on a mesh strainer before they are seasoned and mixed. Later in the film, the preparation of food retains prominence through close-ups and direct references in the dialogue. Such is the moment in which the family is busy in the kitchen preparing corn tempura. Ryota, Yukari and Atsushi scrape the corn off the cobs onto a wicker basket, as Ryota shares his secret technique, “This always used to be my chore.” Once they are done, Ryota shakes the basket, creating a wave of corn kernels flowing up and down, which prompts his sister Chinami to gleefully exclaim, “How pretty. It brings back memories!” (Fig. 4).

Figure 4
Figure 4

Still Walking: Atsushi (Shohei Tanaka) stares mesmerized at Ryota (Hiroshi Abe) as he shakes the basket full of corn kernels. Frame grab.

Citation: Studies in World Cinema 4, 1 (2024) ; 10.1163/26659891-bja10037

These descriptions highlight some of the numerous instances throughout the film in which such everyday tasks are stylistically amplified, shifting constantly from context to the narrative’s forefront. The costumbrismo of the film lies in the attentiveness and delicacy with which these tasks are underscored and presented in a new light through cinematic contemplation. Akin to the case of costumbrismo as a narrative imperative in Farhadi’s films, the degree of recognition of these cultural idiosyncrasies will determine the viewer’s film consciousness, oscillating between the documentary and film-souvenir mode; however, unlike in Farhadi’s films whose costumbrismo is key to the viewer’s understanding of the narrative, here the salient dimension is not one of comprehension but of the appreciation of cultural idiosyncrasies.

To conclude, I would like to consider a less common approach to costumbrismo as a means to subvert preconceptions about a group of people. One film that can be analyzed from this perspective is Alice Rohrwacher’s Happy as Lazzaro (Lazzaro felice, 2018) which constructs a costumbrist framework for its story of Lazzaro (Adriano Tardiolo), an invariably kind young farmer living in the isolated estate of La Inviolata who, together with other farmers, is exploited on a tobacco plantation owned by the Marquise Alfonsina de Luna (Nicoletta Braschi) (Fig. 5). The film contains numerous depictions of the cultural idiosyncrasies of this remote Italian community, yet this approach is subverted by the inclusion of magic realist elements in the narrative (most notably, with a disruption of temporal linearity). This point of narrative inflection may prompt a change from a documentary (or film-souvenir) mode to a fiction film consciousness, inviting the viewer to reassess the film’s costumbrismo and thus potentially leading to a greater focus and dependence on the filmic object. Furthermore, this approach to costumbrismo may have a subversive effect when functioning as a tool for comparing the social, political and power dynamics of the somehow merged past and present times presented by the film. Proposing a retrospective understanding of the present by providing a costumbrist portrayal of past times, “a past which,” as Rohrwacher argues, “is not over yet, which can still be turned into a potential future” (cicae Art Cinema 2018).8

Figure 5
Figure 5

Happy as Lazzaro: Lazzaro (Adriano Tardiolo) operates the straw chopper with the rest of the farm workers. Frame grab.

Citation: Studies in World Cinema 4, 1 (2024) ; 10.1163/26659891-bja10037

While the costumbrist nature of a film may create an experiential division in the audience, it is in the recognition of its cultural idiosyncrasies that the potential of the film will flourish fully. Some approaches to cinematic costumbrismo were examined here to propose possible functions within the film’s narration, including costumbrismo as narrative imperative, extensive dimension, cinematic contemplation, and subversive potential. Further research into the phenomenological distinctiveness of costumbrismo, and its interplay with nostalgia, is needed to further develop our understanding of the role played by the viewer’s existential and cultural knowledge for the film experience.

Filmography

  • About Elly (Darbareye Elly, Iran/ France 2009, dir. Asghar Farhadi)

  • After the Storm (Umi yori mo mada fukaku, Japan 2016, dir. Hirokazu Kore-eda)

  • Everybody Knows (Todos lo saben, Spain/ France/ Italy/ Germany 2018, dir. Asghar Farhadi)

  • The Executioner (El verdugo, Spain/ Italy 1963, dir. Luis García Berlanga 1963)

  • Happy as Lazzaro (Lazzaro felice, Italy/ Switzerland/ France/ Germany 2018, dir. Alice Rohrwacher)

  • Our Little Sister (Umimachi diary, Japan 2015, dir. Hirokazu Kore-eda)

  • The Salesman (Forushande, Iran/ France 2016, dir. Asghar Farhadi)

  • A Separation (Jodâyi-e Nâder az Simin, Iran/ France/ Australia 2011, dir. Asghar Farhadi)

  • Spanish Affair (Ocho apellidos vascos, Spain 2014, dir. Emilio Martínez Lázaro)

  • Still Walking (Aruitemo aruitemo, Japan 2008, dir. Hirokazu Kore-eda)

  • Volver (Spain 2006, dir. Pedro Almodóvar)

References

  • Berra, John. 2012. Directory of World Cinema. Vol. 11, Japan 2. Directory of World Cinema Series. Bristol and Chicago: Intellect.

  • Boym, Svetlana. 2001. The Future of Nostalgia. New York: Basic Books.

  • Buse, Peter, Triana, Nuria and Willis, Andy. 2007. The Cinema of Alex de la Iglesia. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

  • cicae Art Cinema. “Alice Rohrwacher talks about LAZZARO FELICE.” October 19, 2018. Video, 8:00. http://y2u.be/bTefLKHkZtY.

  • Claver Esteban, José María. 2012. Luces y Rejas. Estereotipos Andaluces en el Cine Costumbrista Español (1896–1939). Seville: Centro de Estudios Andaluces.

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  • Faulkner, Sally. 2013. A History of Spanish Film: Cinema and Society 19102010. London and New York: Bloomsbury Publishing.

  • Guitiérrez-Albilla and Julián Daniel. 2017. Aesthetics, Ethics and Trauma in the Cinema of Pedro Almodóvar. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

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  • Hanich, Julian. 2017. The Audience Effect. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

  • Hanich, Julian. 2019. “When Viewers Drift Off: A Brief Phenomenology of Cinematic Daydreaming.” In The Structures of the Film Experience by Jean-Pierre Meunier: Historical Assessment and Phenomenological Expansions, edited by Julian Hanich and Daniel Fairfax, 336352. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.

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  • Hart, James G. 1973. “Toward a Phenomenology of Nostalgia,” Continental Philosophy Review, 6 (4): 353487.

  • Jahed, Parviz. 2017. Directory of World Cinema. Vol. 35, Iran 2. Bristol and Chicago: Intellect.

  • Martínez, Beatriz, 2018. Todos lo Saben y el Sueño de Rodar en España de Asghar Farhadi.” Fotogramas, September 11, 2017. https://www.fotogramas.es/noticias-cine/a23059950/asghar-farhadi-entrevista-todos-lo-saben-rodaje-espana/.

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  • Meunier, Jean-Pierre. 2019. The Structures of the Film Experience: Filmic Identification.” In The Structures of the Film Experience by Jean-Pierre Meunier: Historical Assessment and Phenomenological Expansions, edited by Julian Hanich and Daniel Fairfax, 32156. Translated by Daniel Fairfax. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.

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  • Pérez Melgosa, Adrián. 2013. “The Ethics of Oblivion: Personal, National, and Cultural Memories in the Films of Pedro Almodóvar.” In A Companion to Pedro Almodóvar, edited by Marvin D’Lugo and Kathleen M Vernon, 176199. Chichester: Wiley.

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  • Ríos Carratalá, Juan A. 2006. El Costumbrismo en el Cine Español [Costumbrism in Spanish Cinema]. Alicante: Biblioteca Virtual Miguel de Cervantes.

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  • Schmid, Hans Bernhard. 2008. “Shared Feelings Towards a Phenomenology of Collective Affective Intentionality.” In Concepts of Sharedness: Essays on Collective Intentionality, edited by Hans Bernhard Schmid, Katinka Schulte-Ostermann and Nikos Psarros, 5986. Berlin and Boston: De Gruyter.

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  • Sobchack, Vivian. 1999. “Toward a phenomenology of nonfictional film experience.” In Collecting visible evidence, edited by Jane M. Gaines and Michael Renov, 241254. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

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  • Trigg, Dylan. 2012. The Memory of Place: A Phenomenology of the Uncanny. Athens: Ohio University Press.

1

What characterizes the costumbrist form of filmmaking can be found not only in Spanish films but in films from everywhere. Since I have not been able to find an equivalent term in English, however, I have decided to keep the term costumbrismo here. Some conceptual approximations could be social realist cinema or comedy of manners, or middlebrow cinema as discussed by Sally Faulkner in her study of Spanish Cinema (2013), all of which could in fact be understood as variations of costumbrismo. In short: costumbrismo (noun) refers to the overall artistic approach under consideration here, costumbrista (which I have anglicized as costumbrist) is the adjective derived thereof, and costumbres (noun) refers to the customs and manners specific to a particular group, social milieu, or region.

2

One emblematic example of a supporting role in costumbrist films is that of actress Chus Lampreave who, playing roles of under 10 minutes in Almodóvar’s films, left a deep impression on audiences because of the vivid realism (in the costumbrist sense of the word) of her performances. Similarly for the Japanese actress Kirin Kiki in Kore-eda’s films.

3

Considering the definition of costumbrismo as a style of filmmaking, unsurprisingly some of these directors maintain a somewhat costumbrist approach throughout their oeuvre.

4

The I-you relationship refers to instances in which the spectator experiences a phenomenological distance from the rest of the audience (due to a conscious awareness of their significantly different approach to the film viewing). Contrastingly, the we-connection accounts for moments in which the spectator feels a phenomenological closeness with the rest of the audience.

5

Vivian Sobchack has proposed the English term home movie as a translation of film-souvenir, not without noting that the French one is better suited conceptually (Sobchack 1999). Similarly, Daniel Fairfax, translating Meunier’s text into English, emphasizes Sobchack’s nuancing to underscore film-souvenir as a more apt term for a memento of the individual’s life and its closer relationship with the function of memory (Meunier 2019).

6

In an interview, Farhadi explains: “I was very insistent with everyone, constantly asking people to clarify all the doubts I had. Everybody was very kind to me, people’s contributions to the project surpassed any possible expectations. This was one of my main concerns, for Spaniards not to feel this film as theirs; for this I put special emphasis on getting rid of all the clichés about this culture that people abroad could have, such as bullfighting or flamenco” (Martínez 2018: n.pag., my translation). This case of Spanish customs being meticulously depicted by a non-Spanish (Iranian) director – thanks to the work of location scouts, dialogue coaches and set and costume designers – invites a series of questions regarding authorship, potential risks of exoticism (reverse orientalism), and the phenomenological experience of the film (e.g., distancing effects due to the inclusion of elements disturbing this supposed cultural authenticity). These are questions worth further consideration but, due to space constraints, I will focus instead on the potential functions of costumbrismo.

7

This is similar to the concept of “extensive daydreams” posited by Hanich in his discussion of cinematic daydreaming (Hanich 2019, 347).

8

This echoes Svetlana Boym’s notion of reflective nostalgia which, in opposition to restorative nostalgia – focused on “rebuild[ing] the lost home,” a “total reconstruction of the monuments of the past” and characterizing “national revivals all over the world” –, focuses “on the meditation on history and passage of time” looking at the past as a place opening up “nonteleological possibilities of historic development” (Boym 2001, 41, 49). Not a recovery but a calling into question of the past for the present.

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