Mur Oti, Manuel

(1908-2003)
   Manuel Mur Oti was one of the most visually adventurous directors of the early Franco period. In a series of intense dramas often focused on strong women, he pushed the classical model into expressionism through original use of music, framing, editing, and dealing with unusual themes. Against the grain of Spanish cinema of the period, passion and psychology took precedence in his films over the banality of religious drama and historical epics or the ideology of war films.
   A Galician by birth, Mur Oti was a poet, critic, and novelist before turning to cinema. He lived in Cuba before returning to Spain in 1933. In a period of charged political atmosphere, he sympathized with the Republicans during the war. The fact that he became a prominent filmmaker in the late 1940s belies simplistic views that argue the case of a "fascist cinema" in that decade that left no room for alternative perspectives. Although he never attempted to deal with the Civil War directly, its consequences can be felt in the conflicted psyches of his protagonists.
   Mur Oti wrote the early scripts of Alvaro del Amo (Cuatro mujeres [ Four Women, 1947 ] and El huésped de las tinieblas [ Guest of Darkness, 1948 ] are of particular interest), a similar case of muted dissidence in the decade, before going on to direct his first film. Although he started as a scriptwriter and always took pride in his grip on structure and narration, what first impresses in his early works as director, particularly in Cielo negro (Black Sky, 1951), Condenados (Condemned, 1953), and Orgullo (Pride, 1955) is a developed cinematic imagination that uses complex devices (long takes, travelings, classical music, powerful framings), to tell intense stories about heightened states of mind.
   Un hombre va por el camino (A Man Walks Along the Way, 1949) is a typically powerful variation on the rural drama, about a vagabond who settles with a widow living on a mountain top and helps her to cultivate the land. The original title was "Virgin Earth," and the images were pregnant with symbolism: for the first time, he uses the image of plowing the land in reference to fertility. The film then moves into more typical territory when the villagers begin to criticize the widow for having taken in a wanderer.
   His next film, Cielo negro, an urban melodrama with a strong neo-realist influence about a poor girl who is going blind, was received with hostility by critics who interpreted engagement with social reality as political dissidence. It did not help that Mur Oti showed his individuality by using a complex visual rhetoric that seemed in excess of the story told: the final shot, for instance, is a technical tour de force which follows the protagonist, drenched in rain, from the bridge where she is about to commit suicide to the church where she finally finds redemption. It was felt to be overly bombastic for audiences who were used to seeing excess associated with politics, and not personal emotions.
   Condenados was a return to rural drama, Mur Oti's favorite genre, and to some of the themes of his first feature. Through a curiously uneventful plot (which helps to emphasize the symbolic aspects in the narrative), it tells the story of Aurelia (played by Aurora Bautista, the CIFESA star, in a remarkable change of register), a peasant woman whose husband is in jail, and who hires a laborer to help her keep her property. Mur Oti's earnest approach is once again in evidence: the first shot follows the protagonist as she returns from a day in the fields accompanied by Beethoven music, no less. Obviously, it is a metaphorical worldview rather than a story that Mur Oti is attempting to express. Orgullo, his next film and regarded as his best by critics, introduces into the Spanish rural drama themes and elements that powerfully recall Hollywood Westerns about old feuds, which allowed him to replay his personal version of the more typically Spanish rural drama.
   Fedra (1956), an adaptation from a classical tragedy starring Vicente Parra, was his last innovative film before a long series of conventional features that made up his output in the next three decades. From the 1960s, he devoted himself mostly to television. His work there was thoroughly professional, at a time when there was very little leeway for TV directors to be inventive.
   Historical Dictionary of Spanish Cinema by Alberto Mira

Guide to cinema. . 2011.

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