León’s Cathedral and the cinema

Thanks to Gonzalo González Laiz, professor of Language and Literature and film critic from Leon, we propose you to discover the relationship between León’s Cathedral and the cinema; From the first “electro-mechanical projections” of films in the Pulchra after its reopening to worship in 1901 up to the recent production of ‘Onyx, los reyes del grial’ (2018).

Juan Manuel Álvarez Benito points out in his study about the Leonese cinema (Leonese   Institute of Culture: 2005) that the pioneering brothers Manuel and Julio Pradera —during a tour through northwestern Spain— arrived to León in 1904 where they shot ‘Salida de la misa del domingo de la Catedral de León y Paso del Regimiento de Burgos por la calle de San Marcelo y del paseo que allí se formó de doce a una’. The expressive nature of the title shows that this should be the first time that the Cathedral appeared in the cinema and, according to the chronicles, its exhibitions were a great success. Unfortunately, we only keep the titles of Pradera brothers’ work but no sample, so we can only imagine the result due to its similarity to the first film in Spanish cinema, which was, precisely, ‘Salida de misa de doce del Pilar de Zaragoza (1897)’ by Eduardo Jimeno: a fixed shot in front of the door and many people leaving the temple.

Cinema started slowly in Spain and, mainly,  it took place in Mediterranean cities or in Madrid. However, cinemas began to multiply throughout Spain in cafes, casinos and the first theaters. Shooting a movie in León was still a dream, but documentary cinema without excessive commercial echo was the one that first wanted to capture the greatness of the Cathedral and to show it around the world.

In 1934, Daniel Jorro from Madrid filmed ‘León. Ciudades de Castilla’, a documentary probably part of his series ‘Tipos y costumbres de España’. His look at Segovia and Talavera are preserved.

The Spanish Civil War was an important change in the film industry as well. On the one hand, the propaganda power of cinema comes into play and documentaries were combative and simplistic; On the other hand, since the most industrial cities like Barcelona, Madrid and Valencia are under Republican control, more documentaries will be shot there than in the rebel zone. There is no news of León’s Cathedral on the big screen, as the few cameras that passed through León were focused on the Virgen del Camino aerodrome.

In 1943, the first Documentary Newsletter of Spain (NO-DO) was projected. It broadcasted news and reports before the exhibitions of films. In these 1940s, documentary pieces of León like ‘Ciudades viejas de Castilla (1941)’ or ‘Catedrales españolas (1944)’ by Arturo Ruiz Castillo; ‘León monumental (1943)’ by Francisco Mora; ‘La Catedral de León (1948)’ by Jesús Fernández Santos; or ‘Torres, almenas y cumbres (1949)’ by Francisco Centol appeared, although we do not keep all of them. In the digital archive of RTVE Spanish Television we can find some examples, such as the monograph of ‘Revista Imágenes’ about León and its traditions on January 1, 1949 (QR), or the NO-DO documentary ‘Torres, almenas y cumbres’ also available at Youtube under the title ‘León y su entorno’ (QR): “Above ancient glories and evocative streets, the superb towers of the Cathedral rise. That of the bells of the 13th and 14th Centuries, vigilant, strong and severe. That of the clock, graceful work of the 15th Century, with its graceful needle of French taste. On the southern façade, it appears the apse with its portentous filigree embroidered in the stone, while on the western gable there is a portico with Dantean scenes in contrast to the sweet image of the Virgen Blanca, illuminated by the sweetest of smiles. ”

It is an anecdote, but the fact that León’s Cathedral appeared in the film ¡Bienvenido, Míster Marshall! (Luis García Berlanga, 1953) deserves to be highlighted. Yes, Berlanga’s immortal classic was filmed in Guadalix de la Sierra, but the curiosity is that inside the Town Hall of Villar del Río —next to the famous balcony where Mr. Pablo (Pepe Isbert), the mayor, came out to give explanations to its neighbors— we can see a poster of León’s Cathedral.

Already in the 50s and 60s, the audacious pioneers from León who wanted to dedicate themselves to the cinema had to develop their dream in Madrid or Barcelona. This was the case of Gerardo Marote Alba from Bercia who created Eurofilms S.A. production company, through which the restless writer and filmmaker, Jesús Fernández Santos, shot the documentary ‘Catedral de León (1961)’. The NO-DO continued to be the main source of images of León’s Cathedral in documentaries and news, as we can see in the news of RTVE Spanish Television about the Auto Sacramental that the Leonese University Association of Spanish Theater played on the Cathedral’s façade on July 14, 1958, or the famous two minutes about the 1966 Cathedral’s fire: “The night moves in the city of León …”.

In 1971, NO-DO broadcasted in cinemas throughout Spain and on national television one of the first color images of the Pulchra again, which are also preserved and can be seen in the RTVE Spanish Television Digital Archive.

It will be from the 80s when the Pulchra comes in fiction cinema, although it never leaves the unavoidable documentary cinema. Several laws and political and structural changes in the ministries and on television facilitated the filming in provinces and León soon will become a movie set. ‘El filandón (1984)’ by José María Martín Sarmiento was quite an event and still is an excellent film.

Entirely filmed in León —capital and province—, it featured the meeting of several writers to reproduce a filandón, telling stories to St. Pelayo in an hermitage. The saint was the actor Magín Mayo, but the first great achievement of the film was to have as protagonists the own authors of the stories: Luis Mateo Díez, Pedro Trapiello, Antonio Pereira, José María Merino and Julio Llamazares, already then key names in the Leonese and Spanish literature. The story of Díez, ‘Los grajos del sochantre’, is the first we see and takes place in the surroundings of León’s Cathedral. A canon becomes obsessed with the rooks of the temple, hunts them, feeds on them, even metamorphoses and ends up dying, falling from the Cathedral’s top. With differences from the original story, Sarmiento underlines the metaphor with the canon, showing him with his long black cassock, shrugging his shoulders, bushy eyebrows and a twangy voice almost to the point of parodic. In addition, I think that the film version rightly adds a spectacular final fall from the Cathedral’s top which, in a very visual way through an aerial view, further evokes the absurdity of the canon in his last impossible flight.

Luis Mateo himself (Breviarios de la Calle del Pez: 1984) commented that, when he saw his story in images, he had been struck by how León’s Cathedral became one more character and in contrast with the canon and the rooks introduced another theme, mixing grotesque and expressionism: the struggle for the possession of the most beautiful object in the world. The magical and mythological brightness of the Pulchra against the darkness of the voracious canon. Sarmiento filmed outside and inside, but he also had access to the Cathedral’s roof for the final shot, so the image shown looked spectacular for its beauty and its symbolism.

Very shortly after, an international production was shot in León which brought to the Cathedral one of the most prestigious English actors in history: Sir Alec Guinness. ‘Monsignor Quixote’ (Rodney Bennett, 1987) adapted the homonymous novel by Graham Greene in which a priest, supposedly a descendant of Don Quijote de La Mancha (Alec Guinness), traveled through Spain accompanied by a former communist mayor named Sancho (Leo McKern), aboard his old car that he affectionately calls Rocinante. On their trip they will arrive to León and, how could it be otherwise, they will visit the Cathedral. The car is parked right in front, as the square was not yet pedestrianized, and they will walk through the temple retiring to pray in the chapel of St. Teresa. Although produced for television, the film deserves to be remembered, not only by Leonese people, but for its fidelity to the original story or for including an emotional final mass in which Guinness shines with his interpretation.

At the end of the 1980s we can also point to the filming in León of two relatively similar titles in which we see the Cathedral: ‘El Lute (camina o revienta)’ (Vicente Aranda, 1987) and ‘Matar al Nani’ (Roberto Bodegas, 1988). In the first, the escaped protagonist (Imanol Arias) reaches León and we see him strolling along Paloma Street with the Cathedral in the background, while we hear the bells ringing. In the second, we see more Cathedral’s shots from Paloma Street and, in addition, Nani (Frédéric Deban) waits for a call leaning out of the window in a pension in front of the Cathedral’s south façade, to later steal in a jewelry store in Ordoño Street. “These small towns are like mousetraps”, the protagonist will say, showing his blindness. León as a refuge for criminals and the Cathedral in the background, who knows if as a metaphor that it would have been better for them if they had come to visit it.

In the 80s and 90s it is also worth mentioning the name of various short filmmakers who are going to start their careers in León and who will shoot in the city: Enrique Torán, Julio Suárez, Florencio Aparicio, Fernando Jover

In 1991, Julio Sánchez Valdés was filming ‘La fuente de la edad’ in León, adapting the novel of the same name by Luis Mateo Díez. Manuel Alexandre, Agustín González or Antonio Resines headed a prestigious cast for a film that, unfortunately, is discontinued. León’s Cathedral, in any case, only appeared during the credit titles, when Enrique San Francisco walked in front of it.

At the end of the 90s de Regla Square was paralyzed again due to the filming of an international co-production for television that promised a lot. Charlton Heston, Anthony Quinn, Anne Archer, Robert Wagner, Joaquim de Almeida, Imanol Arias, Juan Echanove, José Sancho, Anabel Alonso…, among many others, starred in ‘Camino de Santiago’ (Robert Young, 1999), a miniseries in three episodes about an idea by Arturo Pérez Reverte, shot along the Way of St. James. A wooden stage was set up in front of the Cathedral to film an avant-garde fashion show, while a murder occurred in Puerta Obispo Square. Unfortunately, only this reference to León at the end of the first episode attests to the poverty of the series: not a general shot allows us to see the Cathedral, which is only glimpsed behind the models in supposed artistic photographs. As if that were not enough, the crime in Puerta Obispo Square does not place the scene behind the Cathedral, probably to make it seem a more distant place. The lack of this counter plane prevents us from seeing the ambulatory, inexplicably avoiding the beauty of a unique location. The series went totally unnoticed and today it is certainly forgotten.

In 2000, another film was going to take advantage of the splendor of the Cathedral. ‘A galope tendido’ (Julio Suárez) was a naive adventure comedy in which a young western lover (Aitor Merino) fought with the aim to avoid the closing of the narrow gauge railway (FEVE) in León. His uncle (Sancho Gracia), a former specialist in western movies, teaches him to ride a horse in Plaza del Grano Square (!) And so, we arrive at one of the most unusual shots in which the temple has ever been involved . In a night chase, the young man leads the girl (Ana Álvarez) on the back of a beautiful white horse and stops before the night illumination of the Cathedral, entering from Sierra Pambley Street. The director enjoys himself and even the protagonist explains: “Isn’t it beautiful? Do you know what they call (sic) the Pulchra Leonina? ”.

In 2001 Vicente Aranda returned to León to shoot ‘Juana la Loca’ with Pilar López de Ayala as the main character in the role for which she would win her only Goya award to date. However, Aranda would only shoot in the Cathedral’s choir, where an important meeting of dignitaries takes place trying to demonstrate the supposed madness of Queen Juana… in Burgos!

One of the last looks at León’s Cathedral has been provided by another international co-production with prestigious actors. ‘Onyx, los reyes del grial’ (Robert Girault, 2018) mixed fiction and documentary trying to explain the arrival of the chalice of the Last Supper to León, according to the investigation of the historian Margarita Torres. Filmed inside and outside the Cathedral, we could see very beautiful shots like the one that lit the interior with candles. It is worth noting the admiration that the Pulchra caused in the American actor Jim Caviezel (protagonist of Mel Gibson’s ‘The Passion of Christ’ and a faithful Catholic), who listened to mass and frequently walked alone through the Cathedral during filming, anonymously and with absolute discretion.

In 2020 we could see how the Cathedral’s Square was once again filled with cameras for the filming of the eight-episode series in international co-production ‘3 caminos’ (Norberto López Amado, Iñaki Mercero), which premiered in 2021. The story focused on five friends who made the Way of St. James in three different periods of their life. As they passed through León, it could not miss the general shot of the Cathedral’s western façade (chapter 6), although later the filming continued in Plaza del Grano Square.