Q&A: Aaron Shulman on El desencanto

Chris Stults, Assistant Curator, Film/Video

Mon, Apr 15, 2019

Have you ever encountered a film—or book or artwork—completely unknown to you that is so invigorating and inspiring that you want to research all the circumstances around the creation of the work? That’s exactly what happened to the author Aaron Shulman when he encountered the 1976 Spanish documentary El desencanto (The Disenchantment), a film that has been all but unknown outside of Spain.

Shulman’s viewing of the film prompted him to spend the next few years of his life rigorously researching the film's subjects and the greater contexts of their era. This effort resulted in the captivating book The Age of Disenchantments: The Epic Story of Spain’s Most Notorious Literary Family and the Long Shadow of the Spanish Civil War (available for sale in the Wexner Center Store). Shulman also bought the US rights to the documentary and has organized a nationwide tour of the film. It’s not an uncommon reaction for folks discovering El desencanto to believe it deserves a place in the ranks of the great documentaries of world cinema. 

The doc captures an eccentric, self-mythologizing literary family, the Paneros, dealing with their family traumas, including the death of their father. The family’s experiences dramatically intermingle with the tumult of Spain during its Civil War and the awkward post-war transition towards democracy. For example, the family’s patriarch, the poet Leopoldo Panero, survived during the war years by writing poetry in favor of the Franco regime and its policies, which led to countless complications for him and his family after the war’s end. Their lives also intermingled with major cultural figures of their time such as Roberto Bolaño, Salvador Dalí, Federico García Lorca, Pablo Neruda, and Pablo Picasso, among others. 

Like Grey Gardens, one of the influences on El desencanto, the film immerses you in a world full of resentments, self-destruction, privilege, politics, art, and madness. Upon exiting the theater, you’ll likely want to find out more about this odd movie that you’d probably never heard of before. Luckily, there’s the perfect book waiting just for you! 

In advance of the Wex screening of El desencanto on Thursday, April 25, I had an email exchange with Shulman about the film, his book, and the legacy of the film’s subjects.

Members of the Paneros family, as seen in El Desencanto (The Disenchantment), a documentary about the family of the infamous Spanish poet Leopoldo María Panero

How did you first encounter the legends/legacies of the Paneros family and El desencanto? And what was it about them that obsessed you enough to devote years of your life to tell your story?
I first encountered the Paneros while living in Madrid in 2012. My friend Javi, a judge but also the most dedicated cinephile I know, invited me and my wife (who’s Spanish) over to his house to watch a movie he thought we’d like—El desencanto (The Disenchantment). He didn’t say much, only that it was about a poet from the Franco era, Leopoldo Panero, and his strange family. The film, released in 1976, is a cult classic in Spain and caused a cultural sensation when it came out, yet, while I was familiar with a lot of Spanish cinema, I hadn’t heard of it, so I’m eternally grateful to Javi for knowing it was a movie for me. So many things about the Paneros fascinated me—their poetic ways of speaking, their theatricality, their self-mythologizing—but above all it was their obsession with literature and need to frame life as it were a novel or a poem, or as if they were literary characters. I suppose I related to that, though I’m not as extreme or flamboyant as the Paneros in my version of the literary life. But daily life is pretty banal, and at times, like them, I’ve longed for life to have more poetry and mystique to it. I’m sure part of the reason I became a writer is because writing allows you to give an arc and clear meaning to random experience.

When El desencanto was made, the director, Jaime Chávarri, thought he was making a literal movie about these characters lives. But with Franco’s death happening almost simultaneous with the films’ completion and release, it was instantly seen in an allegorical mode as well. How did this film come to embody the issues that a country shaking off the baggage of a long dictatorship was dealing with?
A large part of why the film became such a sensation is because it was read as a metaphor at a pregnant moment in Spanish history which was in need of metaphors. The country’s violent father figure, Francisco Franco, a man who had governed the national family with an iron fist and silenced the culture’s memories, was gone, opening up new possibilities for the future but also reviving fears from the past. And along came the Paneros, unreservedly airing their grievances about their dead father figure, and unafraid of the past, seeing memory as a weapon instead of a liability. Their disenchantment was many Spaniards’ disenchantment. And in fact the term desencanto would become a buzzword during the late ‘70s in Spain, morphing into a descriptor people used to capture their experience of the imperfect baby steps of Spain’s new democracy. Many Spaniards were disenchanted with aspects of their country’s new system. The future, it turned out, was no easier than the past. The Paneros and their film channeled the zeitgeist in multiple ways.

The Panero family is consumed by literature and you write often about how they lived their lives as if there were literary characters. (Shades of Don Quixote and last year’s Call Me Zebra!). But cinema runs throughout this story too. The book contains many stories of them heading to the movies and then they themselves have had a long afterlife as cinematic characters in a lineage that could include other films such as Grey Gardens and The Royal Tenenbaums (minus the Salinger). Were they more excited or more wary about being filmed and did they have any sense of how the movie would change the trajectory of their lives?
This is a great, important point. Although I don’t discuss it much in the book, all three sons were cinephiles and Felicidad actually had several acting roles in films after El desencanto made her famous. Michi briefly studied film and wanted to be a director (and later was a prominent TV critic for newspapers), though he just didn’t have the grit or drive it took to become one. Leopoldo María was friends with some of the important underground Spanish filmmakers of the 1970s, and he wrote a screenplay of Peter Pan that surely would’ve been a strange, strange take on the story. And Juan Luis grew up seeing American Westerns with his father in theaters in Madrid. As canny storytellers themselves, and well-acquainted with the power of film, they were both wary and excited (well, Michi I don’t think was wary—El desencanto was literally a dream come true, since he had long wanted to make a film about his family), and you see each brother’s relationship to cinema play out in the documentary. Juan Luis comes right out and says he likes to think himself as the bad guy in a Western as he shows the camera a Stetson he has. Michi in a certain sense is the narrator of the film, guiding the storylines, and in fact Jaime Chávarri considered him the “guiding hand” behind the El desencanto. Leopoldo María, as per his transgressive, avant-gardist nature, takes the film to its most bizarre and uncomfortable places. And Felicidad, who got pulled into the project by her sons’ attraction to cinema, yet who had her own starlet-like glamour and vanity, delivers a striking, unforgettable performance. I think when they saw the finished cut of the film before it was released, they knew it was going to have a big impact on their lives, but I don’t think they knew it would take on the national symbolism it did.

"A large part of why the film became such a sensation is because it was read as a metaphor at a pregnant moment in Spanish history which was in need of metaphors."
Aaron Shulman

It’s just a parlor game to speculate this, but how do you imagine their lives would have gone differently without El desencanto
I think in some ways their lives would’ve been very similar. Leopoldo María and Juan Luis would’ve kept writing their poetry and building their respective reputations; and Leopoldo María would’ve continued with his colorful self-destruction and maintained his legendary mad-poet reputation, while Juan Luis likely would’ve settled down the same he way he did. Also, Michi would’ve kept up with his drinking and womanizing just like he did (though perhaps with not quite so much womanizing and not so many people buying him drinks). And Felicidad still would’ve devoted the bulk of her late life to taking care of Leopoldo María. On the other hand, their lives would’ve been totally different in how they were mythologized and remembered. In fact, they wouldn’t have been mythologized or remembered much beyond their social circles, I think. Except for Leopoldo María, they likely would have been literary historical footnotes rather than national legends with a mythology and mystique that hasn’t diminished over time.

I was completely unaware of El desencanto until you brought the film to the US in conjunction with the release of your book. Do you have a sense of the film’s reputation (if any) outside of Spain? You mention writers such as Roberto Bolaño being influenced by Leopoldo María Panero but I wonder if he has discussed the documentary any. 
The documentary is relatively unknown outside of Spain, though in the last few years it’s been popping up at international film festivals—in Lisbon and Copenhagen, for example—and hopefully it will now get more of the attention it deserves. It’s a true classic of world cinema that has somehow slipped through the cracks. Everywhere it shows people seem to love it. 

I reached out to Carolina López, Roberto Bolaño’s widow, as well as one of his closest friends, the writer A.G. Porta. López was sure that Bolaño had never met Leopoldo María in person, though I know they participated at some of the same literary festivals. Porta told me that he and Bolaño saw Leopoldo María read his poetry in the 1970s and that they both greatly admired and were influenced by his work. So I’m sure Bolaño saw El desencanto and probably discussed it with friends, though there is nothing on record or in writing about this.


Images of the Paneros family from El desencanto, courtesy of Aaron Shulman