The House of Bernarda Alba

English Title: The House of Bernarda Alba

Original Title: La casa de Bernarda Alba

Country of Origin: Spain

Studio: Paraíso Films

Director: Mario Camus

Producer(s): Jaime Borrell, José Miguel Juárez, Antonio Oliver

Screenplay: Mario Camus, (Based on Federico García Lorca’s play), Antonio Larreta

Cinematographer: Fernando Arribas

Art Director: Rafael Palmero

Editor: José María Biurrún

Runtime: 103 minutes


Language: Spanish

Starring/Cast: Ana Belén, Enriqueta Carballeira, Florinda Chico, Irene Gutiérrez Caba

Year: 1987

Volume: Spanish / Portuguese

After the death of her second husband, widow Bernarda Alba imposes an eight-year mourning on her five daughters, who will have to stay indoors at the family home embroidering and fulfilling other household chores, accompanied by housekeeper Poncia, maid Prudencia and Bernarda’s insane mother, who is locked up in the attic. Only the eldest daughter, Angustias, who inherited a large sum of money from her father, Bernarda’s first husband, is allowed to be wooed by one Pepe el Romano. When Adela, the youngest, confronts the strict mourning rules, it is revealed that Pepe is wooing her as well, confirming the assumption that he was only interested in Angustias’ money. The secret dates Adela and Pepe have at night are disrupted by another daughter, Martirio, also in love with him and, as a result, the repressed sexual tension explodes and will eventually lead to tragic consequences.

Together with Bodas de Sangre (Carlos Saura, 1981), The House of Bernarda Alba is the most effective cinematic adaptation of a García Lorca play. Its director, Mario Camus, knows very well how to transfer the playwright’s symbolism to the screen, and theatre buffs will recognize several canonical visual features. The original play is located entirely within the family home, though the film starts with the funeral at church, where mother, daughters and acquaintances pray while the maids prepare a reception. The typical Andalusian white plastered walls are the claustrophobic background for the young female figures dressed in black, under the oppression of their tyrannical mother, who is determined to prolong the patriarchal regime of her deceased husband. Tragedy ensues when the youngest daughter, Adela (played by Spanish star singer and actress Ana Belén) does not fulfill her duty of filial obedience; she stands out among the rest of the mainly interchangeable sisters by wearing a pale green dress, which makes an impact against the grim interior setting. She seduces Pepe el Romano, who we shall never see clearly: in a play with no male characters, all men are faceless figures in extreme long shots.
The repressed sexual tension involves an audience who, as the daughters, are not allowed to see much of what is happening beyond the walls. The darkness they live in is emphasized by the backlighting of the windows; freedom is outside, they are shut away inside. They take baths in their clothes in order to prevent any impure feelings, they must not talk to strangers and they dare not talk to one another for fear of being betrayed; but they hear a lot, and so does the audience. Their ageing grand-mother screams from the attic that she wants to get married and warns against bearing white-haired (i.e. dead) babies; the wedding dress she wears portrays her as the id of her repressed grand-daughters. There is a stallion that kicks against the walls of the stable next door as a loud reminder of the virility the sisters are missing in their lives of reclusion. And we can hear harvestmen singing at the local women to open up their doors and windows, while the Alba household listens quietly behind drawn curtains; only the hens in their own backyard cackle and rustle at any hint of life, voicing their owners’ repression.
We do see, through the eyes of Martirio, how Adela and Pepe passionately embrace in the bluish nights that evoke the melodramatic canon, and we also see later on in the broad daylight how an unwedded local female is lynched in the street after she has got rid of her unborn child; Adela’s shocked reaction makes us suspect that she is pregnant by Pepe. Bernarda produces various weapons to impose order, and even though the housekeeper Poncia (like Pontius Pilatus, she is a traitor, here, to the patriarchal system) takes away from her the whip with which Bernarda beats up Angustias and, later on, Adela breaks her walking stick in two pieces, nobody can get hold of the rifle with which Bernarda shoots at Pepe. The recurrent surrendering silence of the film is restored in the end.

Author of this review: John D Sanderson