Film has become the “leading medium of memory culture” (Erll, Wodianka). This is achieved by film and, more recently, series, due to their considerable suggestive power, with which they appeal to a wide audience. In Portugal, the impact of this trend can also be observed.
Before the feature film or the series could gain hegemony over the cinematic representation of coming to terms with the past in Portugal, numerous documentaries about the Carnation Revolution had already been filmed. Among others, Thomas Harlan, the eldest son of “Jud Süß” director Veit Harlan, used this international film setting to shoot Torre Bela (1977), a documentary about the foundation and fall of a revolutionary cooperative during the so-called “hot summer” of the Carnation Revolution in 1975. At the turn of the millennium, the Carnation Revolution became the subject of major national film projects, such as the almost three-hour-long documentary A Hora da Liberdade (1999), which was broadcast on the Portuguese private channel SIC. Only a year later, Maria de Medeiros, known from Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994), took over the direction and screenplay for the feature film Capitães de Abril (2000). This constituted the first multinational film project that would also bring the events of April 1974 to international cinema screens.
The aforementioned suggestive power of film also ensured that literary material was reactivated in the cinema to reach a wider audience in Portugal. Most of these literary works were already treated as classics by the Portuguese public and literary critics, and had thus already been subjected to a rigorous selection process. Well-known examples are the eponymous film adaptations of José Cardoso Pires’ Balada da Praia dos Cães (1987), Lídia Jorge’s A Costa dos Murmúrios (2004), Peter Bieri’s Night Train to Lisbon (2013) and Saramago’s O Ano da Morte de Ricardo Reis (2020). Of course, directors and screenwriters did not always stick slavishly to their literary models. Instead, they reinterpreted the literary originals and evoked new images.
Somewhat belatedly, and as something of a novelty, the series has now established itself in Portugal as an effective means of coming to terms with the problematic aspects of the country’s past. Both the state broadcaster RTP and popular platforms like Netflix are reaching a national or even an international public, causing them to reflect on the Estado Novo, the Portuguese Colonial War and the Carnation Revolution. The plot of the Netflix series Glória (2021) is set in the key year 1968, in which Salazar had become incapable of governing due to an accident. The main character João Vidal, son of a high-ranking political functionary of the “New State” and traumatised by his participation in the Colonial War, turns his back on the regime and joins the communist opposition. The series vividly depicts the torture and violence carried out by the PIDE. Scenes from the Portuguese Colonial War are reminiscent of classic anti-war films – a compilation of the senseless death and mutilation of a young generation.
During the Transición, documentaries and auteur films presented subjective perspectives on the Civil War and its aftermath. In the 2000s, on the other hand, a morally unambiguous condemnation of the dictatorship dominated, which is currently being questioned by morally ambiguous film noirs and ETA thrillers.
Immediately after Franco's death in 1975, Spanish cinema was characterized by a deep sense of uncertainty. Documentaries and auteur films cautiously attempted to approach the passing of an era, focusing on the taboo subject of the Civil War. In documentaries such as Caudillo (1977), La vieja memoria (1977) and ¿Por qué perdimos la guerra? (1978), the first-hand witnesses of the conflict presented their unfiltered interpretations of the events. A narrative voice-over is conspicuously absent. Auteur filmmakers such as Carlos Saura and Víctor Erice likewise presented subjective viewpoints on the traumatizing consequences of the Civil War and its impact on interpersonal relationships. While Saura's films Ana y los lobos (1972), La prima Angélica (1973), Cría cuervos (1976) and Mamá cumple cien años (1979) attacked the hypocrisy of the Franco dictatorship’s traditional family conception, Erice's films El espíritú de la colmena (1973) and El sur (1983) looked at the adult generation traumatized by the Civil War from a child’s perspective.
In the 1980s, the PSOE governments under Prime Minister Felipe González promoted socially critical "quality films," most of which were literary adaptations and set in the years of dearth after the Civil War, such as La colmena (1982), La plaça del diamant (1982), Réquiem por un campesino español (1985) and Los santos inocentes (1986). Furthermore, Spain's problematic past served as material for comedies such as the highly successful Civil War farce La vaquilla (1985) by veteran director Luis García Berlanga and the first Franco satire Espérame en el cielo (1988). In the 1990s, the subject of Franco's dictatorship largely disappeared from the silver screen. Conversely, the Second Republic was now celebrated as a brief era of unlimited freedoms abruptly cut short by the Civil War – as, for example, in the theatrical adaptation ¡Ay Carmela! (1990), the Oscar-winning comedy Belle époque (1993) and the feminist civil war drama Libertarias (1996). On television, the 13-part TVE documentary La Transición (1995) presented Spain’s democratic transition in a favorable light.
The internationally successful horror fairy tales by Mexican Guillermo del Toro El espinazo del diablo (2001) and El laberinto del fauno (2006), set during the Civil War and the immediate post-war period, had a lasting impact on Spanish cinema. On the one hand, the moral unambiguity of both films, which placed the Franco dictatorship in the vicinity of German National Socialism, now became obligatory. On the other, they allowed for unusual genres such as horror or fantasy to tackle the topic of the Franco dictatorship. In the 2010s, hagiographic TV feature films presented the central decision-makers of the Transición – King Juan Carlos and Prime Minister Adolfo Suárez – in a favorable light. In cinema, by contrast, epic grand narratives of Civil War and dictatorship, such as Mientras dure la guerra and La trinchera infinita (both 2019), and morally ambiguous film noir crime films like La isla minima (2014) and Incerta glòria (2016), dominated the silver screen. Spanish streaming services increasingly cover the issue of ETA’s terrorism in mini-series such as La línea invisible and Patria (both 2020).