CULTURE

A Spanish Cinema Paradiso

At 97, Javier Escarceller is still screening films in his 14 movie houses on a weekly basis

Javier Escarceller in the projection room of the Cine Moderno in Caseres.
Javier Escarceller in the projection room of the Cine Moderno in Caseres.JOSEP LLUIS SELLART

The first session was held on September 1, 1951. It had been unanimously decided that the Cine Moderno would screen a big hit, Agustina de Aragón. Javier Escarceller still remembers the excitement of the moment. His creature was about to come to life.

"There was great expectation in town. People carried chairs on their shoulders and placed them in the middle of the aisle or along the screen wall. There wasn't enough room for everyone inside. I had to step outside and calm people down. It was the first time I ever faced an angry mob," he explains with a smile. "We spent two hours putting in reels, and at midnight everyone walked out drenched in sweat."

But getting to that point was not easy. To begin with, Escarceller first had to get himself elected mayor - which he did six years earlier - in order to bring electricity to the town where he was born. He says that his main goal in doing so was to share his passion for the silver screen, which he developed through traveling shows in Tarragona.

From the day that his first theater showed its first movie, Escarceller, who was born in 1917, has screened films at least once a week without fail. He even set up a distribution company that owns 14 screening rooms. Now, at 97, he is in talks to open a 15th.

What drives him, he confides, are the lessons he learned from two of his screen idols: Stallone's tenacity in Rocky and Marlon Brando's firmness in the face of adversity in the 1961 western One-Eyed Jacks.

"Throughout my career, I was always well served by a strong spirit and enough self-restraint to overcome life's adversities, at which time nobody noticed my sadness," he says.

Certainly, neither the industry crisis nor the physical exhaustion that comes with old age seem able to slow him down. Escarceller's mind keeps reeling off scenes, like the projectors he has scattered all over small towns in the provinces of Tarragona, Zaragoza and Teruel. In his home town of Caseres - a remote hamlet of fewer than 300 residents - this passion for depicting the lives of others has earned him both supporters and detractors.

Escarceller's conversation is as winding as the twists and turns of his own existence. He prefers to keep everything to do with real life in the background: his peasant childhood, the Civil War that cut his youthfulness short... He fought on both sides and took part in the Battle of the Ebro, one of the longest and bloodiest of the entire three-year conflict. The only thing he will mention are "the nights with the snow coming down."

Escarceller fought on both sides in the Civil War and took part in the Battle of the Ebro

But he cheers up when he talks about the end of the war and his role as a secretary in three different locations, then the mayor's office in Caseres for six years. "I was bent on bringing a cinema to this place," he explains in the living room of his home, which he converted into a museum. "I was appointed in 1945 and within a year we had electricity. But we had no adequate premises, and there wasn't a single penny available to set up a cinema."

So he restored a building that had housed a Republican association and transformed it into Cine Moderno, now known as Cine Vendrell. "Those with money saw no future in it [and declined to invest]; so since this was a land of maquis [Republican fighters who hid out in the mountains] and there were a lot of civil guards stationed here, they collected 50,000 pesetas among themselves."

Asked about the origin of his passion for film, Escarceller mentions a few that were screened in Móra d'Ebre, a larger municipality some 40 kilometers from Caseres. And, inevitably, he often talks about Cinema Paradiso . Giuseppe Tornatore's tribute to the world of movies still fills him with emotion, among other things because of the nostalgia he feels when he sees the main character in the film, the boy named Totò. This, in turn, reminds him of the man who was his great colleague in making the Cine Moderno possible: Miguel.

He met Miguel when the latter was a 13-year-old lad who arrived in Caseres to help work the land. He became his faithful attendant until Miguel died at age 70, "a slave to the projector."

"He had kidney problems, and a catheter he was wearing got blocked, but he refused to go see the doctor until after he'd shown a movie," recalls a visibly moved Escarceller.

A room in Escarceller's house is devoted to Miguel. He calls it "the chapel of film," and its custodians are Audrey Hepburn, Charlie Chaplin and Natalie Wood. There is also a painting depicting the "terribly sad" morning on which his friend passed away. Escarceller has preserved the last program ever printed by Miguel in 2007 and a film reel transformed into a clock, stopped at the exact time when Miguel took his last breath.

Miguel is still a presence in Escarceller's conversation and daily routine. He is even more important than those evenings that Escarceller spent with the surrealist filmmaker Luis Buñuel or the Chilean writer José Donoso, who was living in the village next to his. Escarceller recalls that Buñuel was "very ironic and intelligent in his descriptions, but he didn't want us to show his movies in case people got offended."

Buñuel "didn't want us to show his movies in case people got offended"

He will not say much more than that about the arch-famous filmmaker: this cinema fan bypasses what he considers superfluous topics as nimbly as he stops to discuss the defining moments of his career, as narrated in his memoirs Lo imposible, posible, which came out in 2011. The self-published book comprises more than 500 pages of anecdotes, chief among which is the story about inauguration day at Cine Moderno.

Later years would bring screenings of The Ten Commandments , Gone With the Wind and Ben-Hur. And all the while Escarceller had to fight a dual censorship: first the Franco regime's censors sent the movies with the "sinful" scenes already cut out, and then the local priest was on his case for 14 years because Escarceller was showing "very strong stuff."

As for recent movies, the only one he likes is Roberto Benigni's Life is Beautiful. "I think the quality of film has really gone down in terms of scripts, plots... Actors are only there to show off their looks."

Escarceller, who never had children and is now being looked after by one of his nieces, also taught himself how to paint, write plays and work as a tour guide. But it was without a doubt the silver screen that filled his life the most. Now, he is an unwilling witness to its decline, as he is also witnessing the decline of the land where he was born. Young people are quickly moving out of a municipality where it was once easy to bring together 600 residents for a movie. These days, movie theaters are closing down just as quickly: around 6,000 of them have shut down in Spain over the last decade.

"Each day, a cinema closes, but here we are opening them," says Escarceller proudly. Then he explains the secret to his success: "It's about stubbornness. About something that is not part of the commercial ethic: people pay, but they don't go see the movie. They do it just to keep it open."

The fact is, no more than four people show up for the Friday premieres at the old Cine Moderno, which seats 120. This makes Escarceller feel melancholy, but in no way defeated. "I would tell young people today to live enthusiastically, never to allow themselves to bend. I myself, though no artist, have written with my own life the most realistic, impressive movie ever," he confides. Only one scene is left to complete it: "I have made a living from the movies, I have lived with the movies and for the movies, and I know what it's like to die for the movies."