Review: Soledad Maura on Sarah Thomas's "Inhabiting the In-Between: Childhood and Cinema in Spain's Long Transition"

August 11th, 2021

The abundance of child protagonists in Spanish literature and film is immediately apparent to any student of Peninsular culture. Many introductory Spanish Literature courses start with the Lazarillo de Tormes, the picaresque child who barely survives the school of hard knocks that is sixteenth century Spain. In this brilliant, short novel, social and religious satire abound. Writing this was a risky venture for the period of the Inquisition, and clearly the reason why the author chose to remain anonymous. The threat of censorship is a great reason for having a young, uneducated boy as the narrator and main character. The child narrator is not as threatening as an adult. What they see and report could be dismissed or taken with a grain of salt, and this provides a defense mechanism for artists writing or making films in times of censorship.

The point of view of a child also provides a myriad of opportunities for narrative and artistic creativity. In Inhabiting the In-Between: Childhood and Cinema in Spain’s Long Transition, Sarah Thomas takes on the role of children in Spanish films from the period she refers to as the “long transition” from Francoism to Democracy.  Just when exactly this period begins and ends, and when filmmakers go from working under conditions of strict censorship to freedom—and how this evolution shapes cinema in Spain—is a fascinating question. 

Thomas introduces her subject via the film ¿Quién puede matar a un ñino?, a 1976 cult horror film directed by Narciso Ibañez Serrador. She uses this film to set up her foundation to explore “the child’s otherness or difference from the adult, the fraught relationship between adults and children, and the way these are represented in Spanish cinema.”

The subsequent chapters each analyze two films by four directors, ranging from the more canonical Carlos Saura, and Victor Erice, to the lesser known Antonio Mercero and Jaime de Armiñán. She insightfully explores the dual nature of the child’s perspective as “knowing and not knowing at once.” The children seem to echo the in-betweenness of the older generations, hovering between repression and freedom, the impotence of a childlike status, and a future promise of autonomy. Thomas candidly explores thornier cultural and ethical issues presented by some of the films at hand, such as the exploitation of child actors, and their portrayal in situations that would be unthinkable today. Some of the examples she explores, especially in Mercero and de Armiñán’s work, are disturbing indeed.

Inhabiting the In-Between is perceptive, original, clearly written, and a welcome addition to the slim collection of innovative studies of Spanish films during the transition from Dictatorship to Democracy. Spanish film is underrepresented outside of Spain, and this eclectic study in English should help fill that void. 

Soledad Fox Maura is a professor of Spanish and Comparative Literature at Williams College. She is the author of Exile, Writer, Soldier, Spy: The Life of Jorge Semprún and her first novel, Madrid Again, was published last year.

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