Art Direction by Antonio Gaudi

La Sagrada Familia, the iconic masterpiece by Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi in Barcelona, is still a work in progress after more than a century.

Anyone who has seen a few movies filmed in Barcelona, Spain, has undoubtedly caught a glimpse or maybe even a close-up of one of the architectural wonders created by Antoni (aka Antonio) Gaudi or one of his contemporaries such as Lluis Domenech I Montaner or Josep Puig I Cadafalch in the “Modernisme” movement of 1888-1911. This brief period resulted in awe-inspiring buildings and structures with designs based on organic forms or taken directly from nature – beehives, mushrooms, stalactites – that broke away from conventional design and accented curves and rich ornamentation (broken pieces of colorful ceramic tile worked into wall mosaics). This unique architectural style is an art director’s dream and a natural for the screen, which is why it has been the co-star in countless movies filmed in Barcelona such as Susan Seidelman’s Gaudi Afternoon (2001) and L’Auberge espagnole (2002), in which Gaudi’s still-in-progress La Sagrada Familia (it was started in 1883) is prominently featured.

My first exposure to Gaudi’s work wasn’t in an art history or architectural survey course but Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger (1975) starring Jack Nicholson and Maria Schneider, best known for her controversial appearance in Last Tango in Paris. I first saw The Passenger in the fall of 1975 at The Criterion Cinema (built in 1932 and on the National Registry) in Bar Harbor, Maine. Although I found the storyline fascinating – a journalist switches identities with a gunrunner after the latter dies unexpectedly and ends up being pursued by the man’s adversaries – the sequences filmed in Barcelona were mesmerizing, mostly due to their settings.

Maria Schneider and Jack Nicholson in a scene from Michelangelo Antonioni’s THE PASSENGER (1975) filmed on the rooftop of Gaudi’s La Casa Mila.

Particularly memorable was a long conversation between Nicholson and Schneider that was played out on the rooftop of Gaudi’s Casa Mila. The wild, unpredictable design seemed a perfect compliment to Nicholson’s identity-switching protagonist. La Casa Mila, which is more famously known as La Pedrera, was built for the married couple Rosario Segimon and Pere Mila between 1905-1907 but is open to the public today. Other Barcelona Gaudi landmarks include Casa Batilo, Park Guell, Casa Calvet, Palau Guell and Casa Vicens. Unfortunately, Gaudi died prematurely in 1926 from injuries suffered in a tram accident (he was run over). 

The Darth Vader inspiration for STAR WARS (1977) can be glimpsed in Gaudi’s unique designs for La Casa Mila in Barcelona, Spain.

La Casa Mila’s famous rooftop features a magnificent array of curving peaked structures which were said to have inspired George Lucas in his creation of Darth Vader in Star Wars (1977) and looking at them, it’s hard to deny the resemblance. This surreal location was also used in the 1966 exploitation picture The Hallucination Generation, which I first saw on VHS a few years after The Passenger, and is currently available in a remastered Blu-ray from Vidcrest featuring both the original black and white version and a sepia version featuring color psychedelic effects. 

The plot – an American drifter gets seduced into a drug-taking cult presided over by Eric the Pusher (played by George Montgomery!!) – isn’t nearly as memorable as the Barcelona and the Ibiza location footage. But both The Hallucination Generation and The Passenger were buzzing in my head when I finally climbed the staircase to the La Casa Mila rooftop with my wife in November 2007 and experienced it for myself. The only question I had was why did the staff at this World Heritage site insist on using ugly chain-link fencing to border the roof instead of using something more aesthetically pleasing as a barrier for tourists? It’s been there at least since 1975 – because it’s visible in The Passenger – and maybe longer.

My self portrait on the rooftop of La Casa Mila when I worked for Turner Classic Movies in 2007 and wrote for their official blog Movie Morlocks (now defunct). You’ve seen THE TIME MACHINE (1960), right?

La Casa Mila is also spotlighted in The Unknown Man of Shandigor (L’inconnu de Shandigor, 1967), the debut movie from Swiss filmmaker Jean-Louis Roy. A Cold War espionage satire, the film is a delightfully playful and stylish visual treat that virtually disappeared shortly after its initial release and has only recently been unearthed and restored to its original glory by the boutique Blu-ray label Deaf Crocodile. Singer/songwriter Serge Gainsbourg, Howard Vernon and Daniel Emilfork are among the eclectic cast members and there are even some sequences filmed at Gaudi’s Parc Guell.

The soundtrack album for THE UNKNOWN MAN OF SHANDIGOR features the young lovers of the film (Marie-France Boyer & Ben Carruthers) against the architecture of La Casa Mila.

If any of the Modernista architecture stirs your interest, then you should definitely check out the ultimate Antonio Gaudi film which is a non-traditional documentary portrait of his work by Japanese director Hiroshi Teshigahara. Made in 1984 and simply titled Antonio Gaudi, this imaginatively photographed and directed documentary has no narration, except for a few brief scenes of overheard conversation, and is highlighted by Toru Takemitsu’s strange, haunting score.

An overview of the exterior of Antonio Gaudi’s La Casa Mila in Barcelona, Spain.

Teshigahara specialized in documentary filmmaking in his early career and moved over to feature films in 1962 with his experimental feature debut, Pitfall (Japanese title, Otoshiana). Film scholars and movie buffs are more familiar with his peak sixties achievements Woman in the Dunes (1964) and The Face of Another (1966) but Teshigahara continued to make short and long form documentaries through the 1980s with Antonio Gaudi as his final effort in this genre. Regarding the Catalan artist, Teshigahara once said about the filming of his documentary: “Gaudi’s use of space fractured all my previous concepts of architecture, drawing me in with overwhelming magnetism. Dali called it “terrifying and edible beauty,” a truly apt description….I spent the short time I had in a daze, clicking the shutter again and again. This was a prodigious discovery, one that left me humbly grateful that such works were ever created, that such a master ever lived.”

The film is currently available from the Criterion Collection on Blu-ray and DVD and includes a host of wonderful extras such as a Ken Russell short on Gaudi, Visions of Space: Antonio Gaudi (a one hour documentary), an interview with architect Arata Isozaki and more.  

The Spanish film poster for Pedro Almodovar’s ALL ABOUT MY MOTHER (1999).

You can also catch a glimpse of Gaudi’s La Sagrada Familia in Pedro Almodovar’s All About My Mother (Todo Sobre Mi Madre, 1999) along with other iconic Barcelona attractions such as Casa Ramos (designed by Jaume Torres I Grau in 1907) and Case del Gremi dels Velers (built in 1763 by Joan Garrido I Bertran).

La Sagrada Familia pops up again in a skyline shot in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Biutiful (2010) starring Javier Bardem as a cancer victim trying to make sense of his life (It was his third Oscar nomination for Best Actor). Even better is Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008) starring Rebecca Hall, Scarlett Johansson, Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem again. One of Allen’s later period romance comedy-dramas, it is blessed with views of Gaudi’s La Sagrada Familia, Parc Guell and La Casa Mila.

Rebecca Hall (left) and Scarlett Johansson (far right) star in Woody Allen’s VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA (2008), filmed on location in Barcelona and at such famous Antonio Gaudi sites as La Casa Mila with La Sagrada Familia in the background.

Certainly the weirdest credit of Gaudi’s creative genius is the use of Parc Guell in the obscure 1975 thriller The Killer of Dolls in which a mentally deranged ex-medical student (played by David Rocha) goes on a murder spree while working as the caretaker of his family’s estate (which is actually Parc Guell). The film has been lovingly remastered by Mondo Macabro on Blu-ray.

Masked murderer Paul (David Rocha) in a fantasy sequence from THE KILLER OF DOLLS (1975), directed by Miguel Madrid and filmed on location at the Antonio Gaudi site Parc Guell in Barcelona.

Other links of interest:

https://www.businesstimes.com.sg/real-estate/after-138-years-the-sagrada-familia-is-still-work-in-progress

https://www.veranda.com/home-decorators/a35075545/what-is-catalan-modernisme/

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