After So Many Years

The Gutting Sequel to the Legendary Documentary El Desencanto

For the Fall 2015 issue of The Believer, I wrote an essay about El Desencanto, a cult-classic documentary in Spain that was released there in 1976, and will soon play in theaters in the US for the first time. The film is a kind of choral audiovisual memoir “written” by the Paneros, a family of writers whose deceased patriarch, the poet Leopoldo Panero, was a communist before the Spanish Civil War, only later to become a poet celebrated by the Franco dictatorship. He was survived by Felicidad Blanc, his seductively loquacious and resentful widow who had harbored literary ambitions of her own that were blotted out by her husband’s, as well as their three literature-obsessed sons: Juan Luis, the eldest, also a poet, who styled himself as part dandy and part Hemingway-esque macho; Leopoldo María, the middle son, yet another poet, but of the mad-genius, locked-in-an-asylum, multiple-suicide-attempt variety (he appears in three Roberto Bolaño novels); and Michi, the youngest, a playboy and dilettante, who was the invisible “guiding hand” driving the themes and drama of the documentary, as its director Jaime Chávarri put it. The film is a strange and singular work of art, just like the Paneros themselves.

El Desencanto means “the disenchantment,” and while Felicidad and her brood certainly ooze their pains and poisons on camera as they recall their sundry disenchantments (the father Leopoldo’s drunken temper, poetic rivalries between the brothers, Felicidad’s questionable parenting choices, the violent repressions of the dictatorship, and the ravages of prisons and institutionalizations, among other miseries), the family members are darkly enchanting. The film becomes a kind of myth-making performance art piece through which the Paneros rewrite their history, framing it as a novelistic saga of decline. Their incendiary poetic pronouncements and insistent literary allusions layer a mystique onto what otherwise might seem like simply an artistically eccentric dysfunctional family. And all the while, their poet-paterfamilias, whose legacy they savage, is robbed of his voice in the familial retelling that the documentary becomes. The Paneros’ “killing” of their father figure was read as a metaphor for Spain’s relationship to Franco’s legacy when El Desencanto was released the year after the dictatorship’s death. The film turned them into national legends.

The thing with legends, though, is that they are usually better left as just that—legends. These crafted hybrids of fact and fiction preserved by the amber of history are culture-tested narrative final products, polished and complete, unlike reality. When you revisit real-life characters after the time and place that created them has vanished, you risk not just deflating their residual stature in the present but also retroactively recasting their hold over the past. This risk was certainly involved in the case of the sequel to El Desencanto, whose title evokes the vulnerabilities involved in subjecting a myth to the passage of time:

Después de Tantos AñosAfter So Many Years.

“Memory is the cruelest thing in the world,” Michi says in his dismally lucid rambling that opens the film. As he stumbles around the shadowy Panero family apartment in Madrid, he’s no longer the handsome, cocky golden boy of the mid-1970s, with Franco’s health in decline and Spain’s transition to democracy hovering a few years offstage. It’s 1993, the country has vaulted into the future on free markets and individual freedom, and the forty-one-year-old Michi looks old beyond his years, resembling a graying Count Dracula shriveled by daylight. He has recently recovered from pre-cirrhosis alcoholic hepatitis and has trouble walking because of a disease of the nervous-system. His voice has grown deeper, like a gravel road leading to fatalistic navel-gazing, especially about the meaning of memory:

“It reminds you permanently that everyday you’re older and everyday you’re closer to death, but of course the tool of nostalgia is the easiest thing. Let’s just say it’s what I messed up so badly. But before it was like everything was so lovely, but no, it wasn’t lovely… It was all a lie. One lies to himself. Maybe to hide that everything was a failure, no more, no less. It wasn’t lovely then nor is it lovely now and possibly it will be much more the day after tomorrow. The past is always mythologized. Lovely? Memory isn’t the least bit lovely.”

Part of El Desencanto’s draw was its willingness to bathe in nostalgia—“that fatal nostalgia of the Paneros,” as a former girlfriend of Michi’s, the gallerist Marta Moriarty, described it to me. “Nostalgia not only for the most tenuous happiness, but for every misfortune.” Felicidad had been the mother, both literally and literarily, of this melancholily poetic family sensibility, but she isn’t present in front of the camera this time around, having died of cancer in 1990. And now it is as if her absence drains the Panero narrative of its novelistically romantic notes of 19th-century storytelling. (Felicidad had come into her own as a young woman reading Dickens, Tolstoy, and Hugo.) It is replaced by the late 20-century death-obsessed Sturm und Drang of her sons in the 1990s. Después de Tantos Años argued for the end of nostalgia, though perhaps this also had to do with the film’s director.

The filming of El Desencanto back in the mid-1970s had nearly unraveled in a storm of alcohol and arguments between and with the family, so when Michi had approached Jaime Chávarri about a sequel he passed on riding the Panero bull a second time around. Undeterred, Michi sought out another director, an on-again-off-again friend and cousin of Javier Marías, Ricardo Franco. Known for his trademark round glasses and wide-brimmed hat, the kind, quiet Franco had had early success in the 1970s, like Chávarri, followed by uneven work and a frustrating stint in Hollywood. When Michi got in touch with him, Franco’s mother was dying and he thought that reflecting on mortality via the Paneros might be a useful exercise. Before taking on the project, however, Franco called Chávarri. In a cinematic sense, the Paneros still belonged to him, so Franco wished to be deferential. Chávarri was more than glad to hand them off. “They’re all yours,” he told Franco.

Franco filmed Juan Luis in the small town on the Catalonian coast where he lived, and Leopoldo María in his home at the Mondragón Asylum in the Basque Country. Michi isn’t the only brother who had changed both physically and cinematically since their last family film. Formerly thin, Juan Luis has grown into a portliness suggesting many an afternoon of good food and fine wine, and his grouchy arrogance was sincerer and less actorly now. He mostly seems pissed that Franco is more interested in his biography than his poetry. Leopoldo María, meanwhile, has undergone a more dramatic transformation. Forty-four years old but looking a toss well past fifty, he has devolved from stylish, visionary truth-teller into a pitiful mental patient submerged in the narrow, bitter woes of institutional life and familial disappointment.

“I’ve been here six years without any company,” Leopoldo María says, standing in a hall of his asylum, “because with insane people you can’t talk about anything except pussies and dicks. They’re a bunch of disgusting donkeyfuckers because I thought they were little angels because they had suffered a lot… They’re the biggest damn sons of bitches I’ve ever crossed paths with in my life.” Just as the liberating illusion of nostalgia has imploded for Michi, the liberating illusion of locura, or insanity, has collapsed for Leopoldo. “So this is the hell that I suffer,” he goes on.

“There are days that I feel happy because someone comes to see me and days that I feel sad, irritated, grief-stricken, desperate…No one loves a crazy person, that’s the point. Being in an asylum keeps away even your best friends…In the end, to be crazy or not is to have friends or not…My two dear brothers, Michi and Juan Luis, I do love them a little bit. The thing is, all in all, six years without them coming even one day to bring me chocolate bars, that can’t be understood…I am their brother and even if there weren’t blood ties, at the very least I’m their friend and they could come and see me and bring me chocolate bars, like my mother.”

In The Disenchantment, Leopoldo had proclaimed that all enjoyment began with self-destruction. Now, after two decades of such self-destruction (drugs, alcohol, fights, poor hygiene, periodic homelessness) apparently all enjoyment begins—and ends—with chocolate bars. He seems to know he is being humorously pathetic, but he nevertheless stands by what he has said about the ethics of chocolate treats as if defending his once-fiery political ideals. Without Felicidad as the target for his brilliant rage, Leopoldo’s brilliance seems to dim.

In contrast to his two brothers, Juan Luis is more matter-of-fact about the lacerations of time. “In the days of The Disenchantment,” he says, sitting in a sunny garden, “when I evoked memories and things, they were still very alive. This is to say, twenty years have passed and so many of the memories have fossilized and suddenly what remains is a photo album but it is a beautiful cemetery of instants. But it’s missing the magic of memory and this I have lost considerably, a sign of old age.” He is just as dry when talking about his brothers. He claims to feel no affinity whatsoever with them, so why maintain the fiction of family? “We don’t have much to say to each other, not now but always,” he says, referring to Leopoldo. “I’ve felt more like a brother to Octavio Paz than to my brothers. I’ve felt closer to Vicente Aleixandre than to my father. That’s how it is. You don’t choose parents and brothers…” You do, however, choose to make a film and then a sequel about your brothers and parents, so the viewer is left wondering why the Paneros have chosen to submit themselves to such (self-)scrutiny for a second time.

My best answer is this (beyond, of course, the fact that they got paid for participation): if twenty years ago the Paneros were determined to use their family story as a vehicle for turning life into literature, now they can’t help but examine the lives their collective literary work left them with. Or perhaps more poignantly, they want to reflect on how literature failed their family, or how framing one’s experiences inside of art doesn’t transcend the blunt artlessness the passage of time imposes on human lives. While all three brothers seem to be reckoning with this problem, it is only Michi who does so explicitly. This is most apparent in what turned out to be the most famous moment of Después de Tantos Años, one of his tirades about his brothers while recalling his nerve illness and convalescence: “The worst thing you can be in this life is un coñazo”—a pain in the ass, though in Spanish this literally means a cunt—“and my two brothers are a pain in the ass that have tortured me my whole blessed life with this whole thing about literature and they’re literary personas! I wish they’d leave me alone! You can’t get all literary when you’re in a bed and they tell you that you’ve become paralytic. No matter how much literature you read, you’re going to be paralytic.”

When Michi pitched Jaime Chávarri, then Ricardo Franco, his idea for a second film about his family, he already had the titled picked out: El DesconciertoThe Disconcertment, or The Bewilderment. Sure enough, watching the documentary that eventually emerged from that pitch, one can’t help be feel both disconcerted and bewildered by the sad decline of the Panero brothers, as if the family’s previously finely crafted narrative were collapsing under the weight of brutal fact, without the sufficient buoyancy of fiction. And yet this punching through the wall of theater into real experience leads to the most affecting sequence of Después de Tantos Años, with which the film closes. Ironically, this genuine moment was staged by Franco, so the Paneros never truly escape the realm of performance, though this seems fitting, as if authentic emotion isn’t a matter of removing one’s mask, but admitting there was no real face to begin with. Not for this family, and maybe not even for the viewer.

The sequence takes place at the ground zero of the Panero mythology, in the provincial town of Astorga where their father is from, and where most of El Desencanto was filmed. Michi sits in the municipal cemetery, smoking a cigarette next to the family crypt that holds his father’s remains, as well as those of many other ancestors. “In these three empty tombs,” he says, “very symbolically, hides a little bit of the hypothetical enigma of the Panero family, which isn’t one.” This is where the stagecraft of theater intervenes as Franco breaks the agreement he had made with the three brothers that none of them would have to be filmed together: Leopoldo María suddenly appears at the edge of the cemetery and walks toward Michi, who nevertheless responds by acting unfazed and keeping up his monologue: “The Panero family is a normal family from which all of a sudden emerges a generation of three absurd brothers, which is the three of us, and where my brother Leopoldo appears to give me the new year’s surprise…”

Then Michi drops his cool-customer act and allows himself to become one of the things he most loathes: a member of a family, part of a story he can’t fully control. “But enough,” he says to his brother. “I’m happy to see you, in the cemetery. I’d been wanting to see you.”

“Me too,” Leopoldo María says, patting his little brother tenderly on the back. “I’d been wanting to see you.”

They joke a bit, then discuss people from Astorga who have died.

“Everyone’s dead,” Michi said, “including us. We’ve got a foot in the grave.”

The film ends with Michi and Leopoldo María strolling together through the ruins of the family’s country home in Castrillo de las Piedras, the lost paradise of their childhoods and the ancestral fountainhead of memory. Walking with a frail, stilted stride, Michi rests his hand delicately on the shoulder of Leopoldo, who all at once seems solid, like he can casually bear the impossible burden of the past for both of them. As they stand between pillars of the abandoned house, they each slip an arm around the back of the other, and embrace. In spite of the staging of the moment, it holds all the power of family and all the grief of time. They take in the crumbling structure, like two old men looking back on their lives.

What happens when you revisit a legend?

In the case of the Panero family, by undocking these mythical creatures from the moorings of the past that created them, we remove them from the curated display case of history and deposit them back into the merciless, erosive current of time. Yet instead of retroactively washing out the mystique the family once radiated in El Desencanto, Después de Tantos Años adds depth to their narrative, as if bridging these two points in time were the same as lifting them out from a perfect painting and inviting into the messy animation of real life. The second documentary about the Paneros might not in fact be a sequel, per se, but rather a deconstruction of cultural myth in general. It lays bare the fact that, before and even after legends take shape, their characters were always simply, painfully human. Después de Tantos Años wouldn’t exist without its predecessor, but it’s an altogether different story.

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