John Berger: Art is an adventure and a way of discovering the world

The influential art critic, artist and novelist John Berger passed away last week on January 2nd. He was one of the pioneering voices of innovative art programmes on the British TV, offering a then (and still) unique view of art as a discovery open to everyone, notwithstanding their education, age or profession. Berger believed in the power of art experience if approached with open mind and rid of the institutional ballast and elitist character. As he pronounced in one the episodes of Ways of Seeing: “A lot is possible for an art experience today but only if it is stripped of the false mystery and the false religiosity that surrounds it.”

Berger was an eye opening character for many future art enthusiasts: bringing art to the people through their TV screens and what is more, making it relatable and of importance to the viewer. Aside from many of his other successes, namely receiving the Booker Prize for his novel ‘ G.’ in 1972, he is well known for being responsible for the Ways of Seeing, a famous 4-part BBC series whose scripts were later adapted in a book of the same title. This mini-series was first aired in 1972 and has received both public and professional acclaim. Berger himself became the face of the series, whose excellent narrating performance and seductive diction tempt the viewer to explore and get immersed in the world of art and its history.

What made Berger’s Ways of Seeing so special at the time – and what still makes it special – was its occurrence at a period when no one cared for the general public’s access to the ways in which art can be seen and explained. The Ways of Seeing do not force any specific view with which art needs to be approached upon the viewer – on the other hand, Berger encourages the audience to think critically, even sceptically about what he shows and narrates.

In the four half an hour episodes, we travel through galleries, images and art concepts learning about the history of reproduction in art, the radical changes that machines – the camera objective – brought to art representation, the dynamics of the art market or the understanding of the female body in the history of art and much more. One of the ideas that make the series still relevant today is that of modern and contemporary image being a transmittable image. In other words the image having become a piece of information to be instantly shared, reproduced and indeed thus used for different means than its original purpose. In the age of media propaganda and uncritical acceptance of information, where the visual carries a powerful message as a simple, direct means of influence, we know this situation all too well.

If you have not yet read or seen the Ways of Seeing, please do so. It is one hell of a watch that will lure you into the art world so much you will desire to know more.

The very first episode of John Berger’s Way of Seeing at YouTube

The end of an empire – 1898: The Last Garrison of the Philippines


In 1898, Spain and America entered a three-month war that ended with the Spanish Empire’s defeat and relinquishing of all of its remaining Pacific and American holdings – namely Cuba and the Philippines – after its defeat. For the Philippines, the war arguably marked the beginning of the path to becoming the nation it is now, with all its complexities and idiosyncrasies. For Spain, it was the end of its time as a colonial power and the start of a long and troubled entrance into the twentieth century. In all the upheaval and world-changing events, one particular incident stands out: A small Spanish garrison of fifty men in the Philippine town of Baler entrenched themselves in the local church at the start of the war. They held out against a prolonged siege, and refused to surrender even after the war had long ended and the Philippine-American war had begun – in 1899.

The film

Released in Spanish theatres in early December, 1898: Los Últimos de Filipinas chooses to largely avoid lecturing the audience on all the historical background knowledge of the Spanish-American War. Instead it focuses exclusively on the aforementioned event: the fifty men besieged in the Church of Baler by Filipino rebel troops and the physical and emotional exhaustion they underwent as the siege dragged on. Their commanding officers refused to surrender even as evidence that the war has long since ended continued to pile up. Why a group of men would continue to resist for so long – whether due to bravery and adherence to duty, miscommunication and distrust, or sheer bull-headed stubbornness – is a matter that director Salvador Calvio and producer Enrique Cerezo choose to look at in a fascinating and minimalist fashion.

A talented and well-chosen cast fronts the film’s story, but the heavy lifting is done by its two leads. First, Álvaro Cervantes as Carlos – a young, fresh-faced soldier recently enrolled in the army – and then Luis Tosar as Lieutenant Martín Cerezo, who leads the garrison in their resistance after the death of their captain and in his refusal to surrender becomes increasingly more determined – to an almost suicidal extent. Javier Gutiérrez and Karra Elejalde play two significant supporting roles as, respectively, the grizzled and cruel Sergeant Jimeno and the world-weary and wise missionary Fray Carmelo. All of them are fine actors, who play off each other well and whose conflicts and interactions feel convincing and believable.

A fine cast put aside, there is a lot to like, even admire, about this film. The camerawork is excellent, often perfectly reflecting the character’s emotions: The jungle surrounding the town of Baler is almost ethereally beautiful, yet also ominous and vaguely threatening. The inside of the church, at first seemingly old and worn, becomes safe and protective when the siege begins, then turns dark and claustrophobic as it drags on. Night scenes are full of deep shadows, hiding figures that flit between pools of darkness, or emerge half-visible under moonlight or the glow cast by flames. The passage of time is felt as a crushing, relentless slog: malnutrition and disease soon become as deadly an enemy as the Filipino rebels, adding an underlying layer of dread to many scenes. The pale-blue uniforms of the Spanish garrison are tattered and mud-green by the end of the film. By the time the garrison decides to surrender the audience will feel as exhausted by the war as they do.

However, while the film’s slow pace does help to convey the crushing grind of the siege, it also makes it seem longer than it actually is and makes the story drag in places, particularly in the last third. The ravages of the siege are not reflected on our actors’ faces: they do not become gaunter from the lack of food or even grow extra facial hair, undermining somewhat the aforementioned feel of the passage of time. This is especially striking in the case of one character’s opium addiction, which leaves him looking no worse for wear. The dialogue, while well-delivered, is at points repetitive and goes over previously-discussed points more often than needed.

The film also gives the impression that the end of Spanish rule in the Philippines – and even in Cuba – is a disaster of the Spanish Empire. In truth, these provinces were all that remained of an empire, which had long been reduced to a weakened, vestigial remnant of what it had been once, plagued by economic and political troubles. There are also some other claims regarding the siege of Baler that are possibly a matter for historical debate.

These, however, are nit-picks. The film is thoroughly recommendable as a historical war film. It does not take the approach of adrenaline-filled action, but rather opts for a slow-burning pace and a surprisingly complex and nuanced take on this particular chapter of Spain’s colonial past.

Dark complexities of a colonial past

A country’s colonial past is always going to be a complicated subject to discuss, particularly for a European colonial power such as Spain in today’s political climate when the rise of populist nationalism may lead to unjustified excuses of the past. It is immensely refreshing that 1898 opts to look at a chapter of colonialist history not through the wider lens of history, but through smaller and more personal viewpoints of the characters living its story. In its characters, the audience comes to see some of the best qualities of the Spanish colonialists, but also the worst.

The characters of Carlos and Fray Carmelo – the young soldier and the old missionary – are easily the most sympathetic. Carlos is kind and youthful, in danger of being broken down to a shell of his former self as his duty to his country hurts more than it rewards him. Fray Carmelo, who admits he has been away from Spain for years, is wise and world-weary, and his wry humour does not entirely conceal a melancholy that suggests he knows, and has accepted, that both his days and those of the Spanish Empire’s are numbered, and coming to their end. In contrast, Sergeant Jimeno is easily the most hateful member of the garrison: Tough, scarred and with a haunting gaze, his undeniable qualities as a soldier disappear  every time his cruelty shines through: he abuses prisoners, kills animals, intimidates his own men, and even suggests leaving a Filipino child tied up and helpless in a crocodile-filled swamp. He takes traditionally positive qualities – bravery under fire and discipline even in extreme circumstances – and twists them into a reflection of his own inner darkness.

Location of the Philippines. Copyright: Daniel Feher,
Location of the Philippines. Copyright: Daniel Feher,

Yet the most interesting and complex character is Lieutenant Cerezo, and his journey from stern yet seemingly reasonable and caring commander to a frighteningly stubborn antagonist whose monomaniacal determination to keep fighting slowly starts to resemble less an adherence to duty and more an elaborate suicide attempt. He consciously chooses to ignore the mounting evidence that the war has ended – newspapers, communications, even a visit from the Spanish high command – and instead dismisses them as all as insidious ploys by the enemy to trick the garrison into surrendering. He says that he has lost his wife and children, and has nothing waiting for him in Spain, yet in having himself nothing to lose, he seems determined to refuse to admit that his nation has long lost the war.

In Cerezo, film shows the most complex portrait of a colonialist – one could even argue that he stands as a metaphor for the Spanish occupation of the Philippines as a whole: a man whose stated adherence to his duty and service to his country ends up causing far more harm than good. Despite his redeeming qualities, the damage he has caused by the end is such that no-one can find it in themselves to forget what he has done or forgive him for it – not even himself.

The film is also utterly fearless in choosing to portray the ugliness of war, and strips the struggle of any sense of glory its portrayal might have brought. Both the Filipinos and the Spanish conduct brutal night raids in which neither side is above slaughtering unarmed and unprepared soldiers, with the Spanish even killing a few civilians fleeing in terror. The effects of malnutrition on the human body are horrific to see, and there is a palpable sense of despair and weariness at several points in the film, helped by the fact that its action scenes are very much spaced apart, with a lot of quietness between them wherein the grim atmosphere just sinks in and permeates everything.

Looking back at a legacy

In  its portrayal of the Filipino rebels, the film does something unexpected: What begins as a hostile enemy force is, by the end, shown to be a people fighting for their homeland, no less fiercely or less determined than the Spanish garrison fighting for theirs. Their commanders are often portrayed as reasonable, repeatedly offering the garrison chances to surrender and even giving them a gift of fresh fruit and food at a critical point as a gesture of goodwill. More intriguingly, they seem to be keenly aware of how Spain’s presence has shaped their burgeoning nation. At the start of the film, the Spanish soldiers are given a blunt speech by their commander: “We’ve been here for four hundred years. We’ve built their [the Filipino’s] cities, given them their religion, but they don’t give a shit about that. They want us out and they want us dead, and that’s that.” Yet, when the garrison’s surrender at the end of the film is being negotiated, the Filipino commander makes surprising terms – to not only grant the Spaniards safe passage as far as his territory allows, but also provide them with an Honour Guard as they leave. Shocked, the Spanish officer in charge of the surrender can only ask why. The answer comes after a brief pause: “It’s been four centuries.”

Contemporary Westerners know the Philippines mostly as a beautiful holiday destination. But the country has a complex colonial past. Photo copyright Allan Donque (2010).
Contemporary Westerners know the Philippines mostly as a beautiful holiday destination. But the country has a complex colonial past. Photo copyright Allan Donque (2010).

Just as the film did  not exempt the Spanish from indulging in the ugliness of war, it cannot be ignored that the country’s decision to sell the Philippines to the United States – including several islands that officially did not belong to Spain – contributed to many of the post-colonial problems still being felt in that country in the  present day. Yet modern, post-Francoist Spain generally regards and studies its imperial past in a surprisingly blunt way, not shying away from the atrocities and ugliness committed in the nations it had once ruled, even as it laid the building blocks for the countries they would become. There is not, overall, a great amount of sentimentalism for this colonial past, and 1898 is a reflection of that: It looks at the effects of a war, and the end of an empire, not through a grand sweeping vision but from the perspectives and the emotions of those affected and damaged by it. By the film’s conclusion, the end of the siege of Baler – and the end of the Spanish Empire – is seen not with melancholy, but with a feeling of inevitability.

Perhaps, given the political climate in Europe and the sentiments we saw grow to such alarming extents last year, it is the best and only way to look at such a complicated past legacy.

Blancanieves: Dwarfs, poisoned apples, bullfighting and flamenco

Over the centuries since it was first told, there have been many different retellings of Snow White, the fairy tale by the brothers Grimm, yet none of those retellings has ever looked quite like this one. Released in Spain in 2012 and directed by Pablo Berger, Blancanieves is a black-and-white silent film, set in a fictional 1920’s Spain. Here Snow White is a bullfighter, as well as her father and the seven dwarfs, and the wicked queen is an opportunistic murderess. Flamenco music and dancing plays an important part both in the soundtrack and in several scenes. The film was Spain’s entry to the Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language film which meant that along with Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist, the year had two separate black-and-white silent film entries in the Academy Awards.


Most of us, whether through familiarity with the original fairy tale or its variations, are familiar with the story of the Snow White: A beautiful child named Snow White, a wicked queen with a magic mirror who becomes envious when the said mirror tells her that the young girl is more beautiful than her, the huntsman who is ordered to kill Snow White by the queen and the seven dwarves who take her in and care for her. The poisoned apple, the magical sleep, the glass coffin, and the final kiss of the prince; all of these are, to greater or lesser extents, familiar elements.

It cannot be overstated, then, what a fresh and at times thoroughly different experience Blancanieves is. The film takes place in a fictional 1920’s Spain, specifically in and around the city of Seville. In this version of the fairy tale, Snow White’s father is not a king but a bullfighter – the most famous and well-respected one in the country – named Antonio Villalta. Snow White is, for most of the film, called by her given name, Carmencita. She seems to have inherited both of her parent’s passions and skills: from her father bullfighting and from her mother Flamenco dancing. The wicked queen begins the film as a nurse named Encarna and, rather than a sorceress with a magic mirror, is an opportunistic and vicious schemer who is plainly narcissistic. Her poisoned apple plot is set into motion when she sees Carmencita’s face on the cover of a magazine instead of her own. Snow White becomes renowned across the land not for her beauty, but for her skill at bullfighting. The seven dwarves are actual little people who put on a travelling show called ‘The little dwarf bullfighters’ and who face bull calves in tiny arenas in what, to a modern audience, looks like a mocking parody of traditional Spanish bullfighting.

As can be guessed, the film is not a direct adaptation of the fairy tale. In fact, one segment of the film in which Encarna forces young Carmencita to slave away in the mansion as a humble servant is much more similar to Cinderella. This actually turns out more in favour of the film as it gives the narrative its own unique quality and avoids becoming confused or derivative. Which is not to say that the film is entirely devoid of clichéd storytelling: notably an important character suffers from amnesia, and then becomes cured of it, in a way that comes across more as narratively convenient than believable.

However, that same narrative convenience makes the film stand strong as its own creation, and it helps that it has a fine cast to put in their weight, with expressive faces and gestures that are perfect for the silent film medium.

To those wondering if they should see the film without knowing how it ends: Yes. It is a version of Snow White quite unlike any other, and will leave an impact long after it’s finished.

Of course, no piece of art is made in a vacuum, and it’s impossible to talk in detail about this film without mentioning the artistic, musical, and even religious influences from Spanish culture present in this film work. The following sections will analyse these influences in detail and will thoroughly spoil both important plot points and the ending. Please be aware that now there will be SPOILERS for the film when discussing the cultural and artistic influences present in its scenes.


Blancanieves draws heavily from traditional Spanish bullfighting and Flamenco. After all, in the film’s third act Snow White has become famous throughout Spain not for her beauty but for her skill as a Matador while travelling with the dwarf troupe. At the same time, Flamenco dancing plays just as important part, as the soundtrack includes many Flamenco dances and Carmencita plainly has inherited her skill at it from her mother, just as she has inherited her skill at bullfighting from her father.

It almost goes without saying that bullfighting is highly controversial, both in Spain and outside, but it is interesting to note that the film does not seem to offer either a defence or a condemnation of the practice. No bull is ever harmed on-screen. The act of bullfighting itself, of dancing and dodging around the animal with the Matador cape, is at the end notably framed as a Flamenco dance: The fast-paced music and the dizzying rhythms of the dance are used with the same rapid editing and spinning shots previously used for Flamenco dance scenes. This makes the final bullfight feel more like a dance than a confrontation in a way that is arguably meant to celebrate the skill and artistry involved in both practices.


It is a simple fact that for most of its history Spain was a fiercely traditional Catholic nation. It is something that can be felt in much of the country’s art, music, literature, and of course in its film industry. As can be expected, this influence is much stronger the further back in time one goes and Blancanieves, in deliberately emulating Spanish cinema from the 20’s, opts for an interesting use of religious symbolism at the end.

The final act of the film has Carmencita face a black, massive and muscled bull aptly named Satanás (the Spanish name for the Devil or the Satan). It charges at Carmencita right at the moment when she has frozen, overwhelmed by a torrent of memories surging back to her as her amnesia – developed earlier in the film when she escaped from Encarna –  subsides. Yet the bull stops a hair’s breadth away from her and stands absolutely still. This allows Carmencita to recover in time to face it at the moment it resumes its attack, and successfully dance around the animal until the time comes to finish it off, at which point the audience crowd pardons the animal by waving white handkerchiefs. The bull is spared, and Carmencita allows Satanás to return to the bull pens.

Then the climax comes. Encarna tricks Carmencita into biting a poisoned apple, and the dwarves chase the villainess into the bullpens as our heroine collapses. Unable to escape, Encarna eludes the dwarfs and hides in an empty pen, until the door opens slowly to reveal Satanás’ ominous horned shadow filling the room. Encarna’s first and only pitiable moment comes when the cornered woman collapses into a trembling, despairing heap as the pen grows darker with the bull’s shadow.

The symbolism is plain if one examines the scene: Satanás is unable to trample and gore Carmencita, the most morally pure and innocent character of the film, even at the moment when she is most vulnerable. At no point during their duel does Carmencita have Satanás stabbed or weakened by other bullfighters, as would normally be done during a traditional bullfight, and at the end Satanás is allowed to live by a dizzying display of visually-apt snow-white handkerchiefs waved by the crowd. Even when holding a sword, Carmencita never sullies her hands with blood, and the white handkerchiefs come to symbolize both forgiveness and life. Encarna, on the other hand, has been a vile murderess throughout the whole film and a classic villainess who has indulged in the deadly sins of Greed, Vanity, Envy, Wrath, Pride and Lust. Where Carmencita is associated with white – both in her being called Snow White and in the handkerchiefs which spare the bull – Encarna is associated with black, and her final scene has her in a dark room, wearing a black mourning dress, shrinking to nothing as a dark, horned shadow falls over her. That final shot of Encarna is meant not so much as a death scene, but rather as the character being dragged to Hell for her sins.


Spain has a long artistic history of representing grotesque or unusual imagery. Look no further than Goya’s black-and-white drawings, Salvador Dali’s surreal landscapes and images, or Luis Buñuel’s film An Andalusian Dog (1929). A more mundane example can be found in Diego Velázquez’s portraits of little people dressed in court regalia, looking out at an unseen audience with intense gazes.

Blancanieves, in adapting the fairy tale, displays its own particular brand of unusual imagery. Consider the seven dwarves, who battle bull calves in miniature arenas to the applause and laughter of the audience. What to a modern audience is a dreadful and even despicable spectacle is treated by the onlookers, and even by the film itself, as a fun show.

Consider the funeral held for Carmencita’s father. As an esteemed bullfighter, his corpse is dressed up in his matador outfit and sat in the middle of a wide and plush couch. The guests troop in and have their picture taken sitting next to him, including former colleagues of his or a group of wailing old women in mourning veils. The effect is both unnerving and surreal, and entirely intentional.

Then there is the final segment of the film, which is discussed in the next section. Suffice it to say that the presentation of this imagery, bizarre and at times incomprehensible to a modern audience, is not only effective but also correctly employed the film. It creates not only a feeling of a different time and place, but lends the narrative an almost otherworldly quality and makes the whole experience feel oddly more dreamlike, and fantastical.


Traditional Spanish literature has tended towards tragedy. Some of the most famous Spanish novels – such as Don Quixote, the most internationally famous piece – have had sombre endings or tragic events befalling its characters. In imitating classic Spanish films, Blancanieves is no different.

In the original fairy tale, Snow White is put into a magical sleep by a poisoned apple and sleeps inside a glass coffin until she is awaken by the kiss of a prince. However, in the film there is a surprising revelation made late during the second act: After being taken in by the dwarves, the amnesiac Carmencita is playfully nicknamed ‘Blancanieves’ – Snow White – by her rescuers, “Like in the fairy tale.” they say.

This twist extends to the ending. Carmencita is tricked into biting a poisoned apple, and the ending of the film shows our heroine encased in a glass coffin, being exhibited at a circus freak show and tended to by Rafita, one of the dwarfs and her main love interest. For a price, spectators are allowed to come and kiss the unconscious young woman. Strangers, old men and even women all try their luck at ‘reviving’ her, with the implication that this happens every night.

The final shots seemingly show that Carmencita can never wake up. As the camera slowly zooms in on her face, we see a single tear bead from the corner of her eye and roll down her still cheek.

With this final shot, the film holds true to the Spanish tradition of tragedy, wherein the characters which least deserve it often suffer the most, even beyond the end of their story.

This (and the other elements mentioned) makes Blancanieves a viewing experience that is both familiar, but also unfamiliar, to those who know of the fairy tale and are always open to new interpretations of it, even if they don’t always end happily.


/Javier Alcover

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