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En el balcón vacío

Santos Zunzunegui

Tabakalera | Cinema - Screen 1

29/07/2020 - 19:00

  • Conference
  • Screening


Santos Zunzunegui




3,5 €

July 4, Saturday

19:00 Recorded conference: Santos Zunzunegui

20:00 En el balcón vacío (Jomí García Ascot, Mexico, 1961, 73 min.)

Jomí García Ascot (Tunisia, 1927 - Mexico City, 1986) and María Luisa Elío (Pamplona, 1926 - Mexico City, 2009) are for the most part two little known names that appear in the dedication in the frontispiece of One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967), one of the essential literary works in the Spanish language of the second half of the twentieth century and the work of Gabriel García Márquez, a close friend and companion-in-arms of the couple referred to during the first half of the nineteen-sixties in Mexico City. In “La novela detrás de la novela” [“The novel behind the novel”], an article in which he comments on the vicissitudes of the writing of his novel, the author recalls [1]: “My best friends took turns to visit each night in groups. They appeared as if by chance, and with the pretext of magazines and books they brought us baskets from the market in a way that seemed accidental. Carmen and Álvaro Mutis, the most assiduous, got me going so that I would tell them about the current chapter of the novel. I managed to invent emergency versions for them, because of my superstition that telling people what I was writing would drive away the muses. […] María Luisa Elío, with her clairvoyant dizziness, and Jomí García Ascot, her husband, paralysed by his poetic stupor, listened to my improvised stories as if they were encrypted signs of divine providence. So, from their first visits, I never had any doubts about dedicating the book to them. Also, I realised very soon that everyone’s reactions and enthusiasm illuminated the narrow gorges of my real novel.” (The italics are mine.)  

However, for a select and small number of spectators and readers (which has continued to grow over the years) interested in the art produced by the republican exiles following the Spanish civil war, the names of García Ascot and Elío evoke both an extensive group of people (who formed what is known as the “second generation of Mexican exiles”) and a varied collection of creative works that have the idea of exile and the irreparable loss of the native country as their creative centre. And at the very heart of this group, which also includes a good number of poetry books, essays, and memoirs, En el balcón vacío [On the empty balcony] (Mexico, 1962) has outstanding significance, being a small/great film that is perhaps the only cinematographic work that justifies the description “Spanish cinema in exile”. As we will see, this film involved a great deal of collective work and as a project was created by a group, woven together based on shared interests and built around defeat and the end of hopes and dreams. But there is no doubt that the two names that are more important than any of the others when it comes to addressing it are those of Jomí García Ascot and María Luisa Elío, a young couple at that time.

Jomí (Miguel) García Ascot was the son of a republican diplomat who, after the fratricidal Spanish conflict, emigrated to Mexico with his family in 1939. Like many of the sons of exiled professionals and intellectuals, he studied at the Faculty of Philosophy and Literature of UNAM, where he occasionally worked as a teacher but where his main activity was related to the creation of the influential University Cinema Club. From a very early age he showed an interest in poetry, publishing his first poems in the magazine Presencia of which he was also a founder [2]. Always very active in the media related to film criticism, García Ascot wrote in numerous magazines linked to the cinema and culture, including Cámara, Nuevo Cine and Revista de la Universidad de México During the nineteen-fifties, his main contact with the cinema was through his collaborations with Manuel Barbachano Ponce’s production company Teleproducciones, where he carried out a variety of work. In 1959, invited by the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry (ICAIC), newly created after the coming to power of Castroism, he participated in a collective film project that was to be entitled Historias de la Revolución, with two short films that are difficult to watch in a contemporary context.

Returning to Mexico in 1960, his artistic concerns led him to gather around him a group of intellectuals and cinephiles, many of them of Spanish origin like himself, in order to draft what is known as the Manifiesto del Nuevo Cine with the aim of denouncing the stagnation and lack of aesthetic ambitions that Mexican cinema was suffering from at that time. Contemporary with the movement of the “new cinemas” that was shaking the world of film and which included the French Nouvelle Vague, the English Free Cinema, the Brazilian Cinema Novo and the Nuevo Cine Cubano, the manifesto did not limit itself to highlighting the depressing state of Mexican cinema but championed the need for the production of independent films made by creative film-makers who could achieve the aesthetic, political and moral renewal of a fossilised Mexican cinema, and while also proposing the creation of a film training institute, it called for the creation of a cinematheque, demanded aid for the making of short films and emphasised the essential role of freedom of expression in artistic practice. And it praised the artistic potential that was manifesting itself around the world through independent creations not subject to the conventional rules of film production and made by young film-makers (Cassavetes, Godard).

As a way to give shape to these ideas, the magazine Nuevo Cine was created in April 1961, and included the above-mentioned manifesto in its first issue. The seven issues that were published until it disappeared drowned by debts in August 1962 show the influences of these young cinephiles and the paths they wanted to follow. On the one hand is the evident influence of French criticism as exercised during the nineteen-fifties by the “young Turks” who gathered around André Bazin in the influential Cahiers du Cinéma. On the other, the championing of the figure of Luis Buñuel as a model film-maker who had succeeded in keeping his aesthetic will intact within the framework of an industry that did not seem very conducive to allowing such a thing. Regarding the first point, a brief quote will suffice to understand their designs: “We are a magazine written by people who love cinema and also believe that they understand it.” With regard to the second, it is enough to take a look at No. 4-5, published in November 1961, dedicated in its entirety to the film-maker from Calanda as a result of the success of Viridiana at the Cannes Festival. 

While the short critical adventure of Nuevo Cine unfolded, García Ascot carried out the practical complement to his theoretical reflection; that is to say, the making of a film in which his cinematographic ideas could find a place. He did it with the help of his wife María Luisa Elío who, like himself, was the daughter of exiles who arrived in Mexico in 1940 and who, in addition to studying the Baccalaureate at the Hispano-Mexican Academy, completed a course in theatre studies and was part of the experimental group Poesía en voz alta [Poetry out loud], which included poets such as Octavio Paz, novelists such as Carlos Fuentes and painters such as Leonora Carrington. Based on her own personal experience, Elío provided the starting material with which she, García Ascot and their friend, Emilio García Riera, also Spanish by origin and an accomplice in the Nuevo Cine movement, wrote the script for what would later become En el balcón vacío [3]. In fact, it would be the memories of the outbreak of the civil war in Pamplona in 1936 that would inspire some of Elío’s early writings that would only come to light at the end of her life with the expressive title Cuadernos de apuntes [Notebooks] (1995). This was the beginning of the adventure of a remarkable film.

Because it is one of the few films that deserve the name of amateur, in the purest sense of the word. This film is, above all, a labour of love. At the centre of the work is the solid nucleus formed by a marriage, based on shared experiences and with a disappeared past in the distance behind them, and capable of reconciling “clairvoyant dizziness” with “poetic stupors”, always accompanied by a team of complicit friends, the majority of Spanish origin, but with the priceless collaborations of the Mexicans Juan García Ponce and Salvador Elizondo and the Colombian Álvaro Mutis. As the dedication that appears in the credits suggests, it was a film conceived as a tribute to “the Spaniards who have died in exile”, and in which the precariousness of the resources is accompanied by fraternity, as had already occurred with the film Sierra de Teruel (André Malraux, 1937-1939) for which this provides a perfect complement, the two together perhaps forming the essential diptych on the vicissitudes of the Spanish civil war in film.

It is a film that allows its participants to combine their tastes as artists in the project with the technical and creative choices that they are forced to adopt by the circumstances: the “new wave” tone, more evident in the second part of the film, although the use of the voice-over throughout can be ascribed to this movement; the combination of fictional material with “documentary” images (present, although in a different way, in the two parts of the short film); the small technical team; the frequent carrying of the camera by hand (no doubt out of necessity, but well incorporated into the overall design); a certain “narrative de-dramatisation” (in this case, in the second part, in clear contrast to the initial part); and finally, the choice of non-professional actors. Of course, direct sound, the trademark of many film-makers associated with the “new cinemas”, had to be abandoned for technical reasons, but given the characteristics of the film, the post-synchronisation did not adversely affect its production design, all the more so taking into account the strong accent of the very young Nuria Pereña, who plays Gabriela in the first part of the film and who despite being the daughter of Spaniards had been born in Mexico, which meant that her voice had to be dubbed for reasons of plausibility. In its Franciscan poverty, En el balcón vacío is proof of the Bressonian aphorism that maintains that “who can do the least can do the most. Who can manage with the most cannot necessarily manage with the least [4]”.

The film, whose budget ranged between $3,000 and $6,000 according to different sources, was shot over forty Sundays (the free days of the members of the project) between 1961 and 1962, in natural settings (those spaces in Mexico City that best reminded them of the Spain of the thirties, such as the Colegio Madrid or the Sanatorio Español), almost always with natural lighting, and with a 16 mm camera. This was a Pathé Webo, clockwork-driven, which allowed shots of up to 35 seconds in length, purchased specifically for the adventure and with two lenses, an 18-75 pancinor and a 10 mm wide-angle lens. If García Ascot’s experience in film-making was limited, so was that of his operator and co-producer José María Torre. María Luisa Elío’s small forays into film and theatre did not predestine her to star in the film, but there is no doubt that her sentimental involvement in a project that was based directly on her experience made her choice inevitable. Apart from those already mentioned, the main names who participated in the production included the critic José de la Colina (in the role of a Falangist) who later became one of the most keen defenders of the film, the poet Tomás Segovia (who played the prisoner from the International Brigades who is visited by the girl Gabriela), the Colombian writer Álvaro Mutis and the painter Vicente Rojo, who not only supported the film with the money obtained from the sale of a number of his paintings but who, for the credits, designed those rough and chipped walls that synthesise one of the essential themes of the film: the necessary task of pointing out the roughness of a past that many would prefer to forget. In this sense, En el balcón vacío points directly to an uncomfortable fact: the wound is sutured, but the scar remains indelible [5].

The result? A unique film. Premiered in front of an audience made up almost entirely of Spanish exiles in the Molière room of the French Institute in Mexico City in late May or early June 1962. Winner of the FIPRESCI award in July of that same year at the Locarno Festival [6] and shortly afterwards awarded the Jano de Oro of the Rassegna Latinoamericana in Sestri Levante. A film about a memory that is not exhausted in the empty repetition of an unattainable past but is projected onto the present and loudly proclaims (with vivid images and sounds) its relevance for the future.

The film is made up of two parts of unequal duration [7]. Although some scholars have criticised the existence of a stylistic imbalance between the two parts, the truth is that, on the contrary, the film would not be what it is without those conceptual leaps. Let us take a closer look. The first part is dedicated to the events that take place in Pamplona in July 1936: the arrest of the father of Gabriela, the girl who is the protagonist of the film, the family’s flight to France through the mountains, the return to “Loyal Spain” and the final exile that will see them return to a France where for a time they, and particularly Gabriela, will experience the uprooting of their mother tongue. This part closes with a sequence in which Gabriela, while waiting with her mother and sister for their definitive journey to Mexico, tries to sleep in an unnamed space, in a darkness increased by the anguish created in the girl by the opaque French coming out of a radio that we do not see. It is a scene that, despite being clearly fictional, competes in intensity with many of those documentary fragments, seen so many times, where the individual tragedy of loneliness and childhood uprooting encapsulate the representation of a whole people about to experience the eradication not only of their liberties but of their vital space itself. That is why when, from a nearby house, we begin to hear the famous soleá (“I grew up in Triana …”) of La verbena de La Paloma, and tears flow from the eyes of Gabriela filmed by García Ascot in three close-ups (the only ones in the entire history of Hispanic cinema that bear comparison with the images of Ana fascinated in front of the screen in El espíritu de la colmena [The Spirit of the Beehive]), while listening, once again, to the adult voice of the girl saying “I had known nostalgia and now I knew exile”, the film can no longer continue on the cinematographic path that it had travelled up to that moment.

The much shorter second part of the story which marks a hiatus of twenty years is therefore not an addition, there only to exceed the critical duration of an hour that turns a useless short film into an exploitable full-length film, but a way of assuming the strict contemporaneity of the act of filming, of entering a new filmic materiality.

This is an appropriate moment to bring in a short fragment of one of García Ascot’s most interesting articles, which, published in Nuevo Cine at a time that coincided exactly with the final stages of the production of En el balcón vacío, illuminates certain aspects of the film [8]. Drawing attention to the most novel aspects of this “new cinema” that was beginning to emerge before the eyes of contemporary viewers, García Ascot argues: “A part of the thematic evolution implies a formal evolution. […] But above all, any formal evolution implies a thematic evolution. […] In this way, to a large extent, the new theme is born. If the form allows more representation of what is represented, the new director will want to use it to express what is still unexpressed.”

And this is exactly what is represented by the appearance in the scene of the adult Gabriela, incarnated in the body of María Luisa Elío, after the abrupt ellipsis of twenty years. It is the ratification of the modernity of the film. First, making us see that what time had taken from Gabriela little by little, war and exile had ripped away brutally. And here it is worth recalling the very observant way that José de la Colina, in one of his texts dedicated to highlighting the novelty of the film, pointed out its “new cinema” dimension and the fact that this is not a film about war and exile in the conventional sense, to the extent that its “form is engendered by nostalgia, a nostalgia that finds itself extrapolated in my own, and even if I have not shared those circumstances that the authors of the film have experienced (the Spanish republican emigration), this would appeal to my capacity for nostalgia [9]”.

But the fact is that, as in Rossellini’s Stromboli, part of the great novelty of what we are seeing relates to the confusion created by the cinematographic images of Gabriela and María Luisa, the character and the actress overlapping and superimposing each other. What is fiction and what is real life? Am I seeing Gabriela or María Luisa? It is important not to be confused: this does not happen because the film is a more or less faithful representation of the memories of the actress. It has to do, in a very specific way, with the inherent strength of the cinematographic image that makes necessary this incarnation referred to above. Modern cinema is evident in these scenes to the extent that in the second part of the film, generally hidden by the force of the subject of the Spanish civil war, what is “new” points to a way of scrutinising reality based on diverse tenets that dialogue with the more traditional precepts of the first part. Its images, without a doubt the most daring in the entire Hispanic world at that time, demonstrate the need to rise above the stagnant formulas of storytelling. The adventure of war and exile (and, to be more precise, the attempt to recreate this) is followed by the awareness that the past is unrecoverable and that loneliness is a destiny from which there is no escape; and that cinema is nothing but an art of the present, and that the past can only be filmed in the present.

In a single film and in little more than an hour, through the savage fold that seems to bend it into two, En el balcón vacío covers the ground that the best of modern cinema took various years and several films to cover. Clearly, this is an extraordinary film, a sign of the times, insofar as it dares to juxtapose two ways of thinking about cinema that dialogue with each other in the same work. A change introduced in the filming in relation to the script gives a clue about the articulation of the two parts: when Gabriela and other children have to choose the only thing they can take to their new life, the original plot had her choosing a fragment of shrapnel collected from the factional bombings. “And I took a stopper” is the phrase that in the second part of the finished work sanctions what we have seen in the first, announcing, in the banality of that glass stopper free from all epic prosopopoeia, the irremissible loneliness of Gabriela/María Luisa: alone forever, radically alone, faced with her fears and in the absence of her loved ones; confronted with the inexorable flowing of time.

It is therefore not banal that the work closes with a fictional journey that in real life will take years to be completed. Twenty years after the start of her personal adventure, Gabriela will discover in her journey from Pamplona that a watch cannot be taken apart with impunity (one of the key scenes in the first part). Few sequences are bleaker than those shots of Gabriela/María Luisa wandering around her empty house in Pamplona [10] to which she has gained access after three encounters with her disappeared childhood. They show that memory is only a consolation on the condition that reality is not confronted, and that its only justification lies in its ability to make us endure the discord between imagination and fact. If we accept these premises, the final scenes of the film push to the limit what a more traditional work could not achieve and draw the pertinent conclusions about what the “new cinema” presented to film-makers and viewers. Namely that nothing could ever be or be seen as before.

What the film achieves through the articulation of its two parts has to do not only with the way in which the collective indelibly shapes the individual, imbuing the subject with the indestructible keys to its future, it also irrevocably displays the fact that only the experience of art makes it possible to carry out certain forms of symbolic exorcism in such an intense way, capable of giving absence the form of an object so that it becomes the real presence of a void that can never be filled.

Santos Zunzunegui


[1] García Márquez, G., “La novela detrás de la novela”, El País, 15 July 2001.

[2] García Ascot always considered himself a poet. In fact, before his early death, he published several poetry books which were always marked by the nostalgia for the lost homeland: Un otoño en el aire (1964), Estar aquí (1966), Siete poemas al margen (1972), Un modo de decir (1975), Poemas de amor perdido y encontrado (1978), Antología personal (1983; reprinted 1992), and Del tiempo y unas gentes (1986).

[3] On the subject of the script (or scripts) of En el balcón vacío the text by Eduardo Mateo Gambarte included in the volume published in 2012 by the AEMIC (see Bibliography) is available for consultation. The original script was going to be published in issue No. 8 of Nuevo Cine, which was never published.

[4] Robert Bresson, Notas sobre el cinematógrafo [Notes on the Cinematographer], Mexico, Ediciones Era, 1979, page 37.

[5] An anecdote recounted by María Luisa Elío about the start of filming in the Los Leones Desert where the scenes that take place in the mountains of Navarre near Elizondo were filmed perfectly illustrates this affirmation: “The moment García Ascot said ‘Action!’ everyone was absolutely silent. Before them, the Spanish civil war appeared again: the actors were dressed in costumes from 1936, with hats from 1936, with Basque berets. When García Ascot shouted ‘Cut!’ the silence was absolute and everyone had tears in their eyes.” (Charo Alonso: “Una mirada hacia lo perdido: En el balcón vacío”, Archivos de la Filmoteca, no. 33, 1999, pages 141-149).

[6] Many years later María Luis Elío would comment that the initial intention of the jury of international critics had been to give the award for the film’s script, but that it was her insistence with some of its members that resulted in the award being given to the global work, thus highlighting its collective dimension.

[7] Each of the two parts could have as incipits the titles of two books of poetry by García Ascot: the first, Haber estado allí [Having been there]; the second, Estar aquí [To be here].

[8] J. García Ascot: “Un profundo desarreglo…”, in Nuevo Cine, no. 6, March 1962.

[9] Colina, J. de la, “Estrenos. En el balcón vacío, de Jomí García Ascot”. Nuevo Cine, no. 7, 1962, pages 20-22.

[10] A Pamplona that is Mexico City without ceasing to be Pamplona, just as the different sets of the film are different places in Spain without ceasing to be Mexico for even an instant. From this point of view, the film necessarily registers its own insurmountable distance from a definitively lost world. Definitive proof that the expatriates involved in the project not only loved cinema but also understood it.