return to nē49

by Núria Escur

If there is one thing that everyone who knows him agrees on, it is his proven impartiality and his unquestionable talent for seducing politicians and women. He has been able, by his eloquence or gestures, to convince people of differing ideological colours to sit down together once a year around a legendary suquet (seafood stew) to eat and bargain. Today, Pere Portabella, a privileged friend of geniuses of painting and the cinema and witness to key moments in the history of Catalonia, is still moved when he goes over, in slow motion, the stills of his own life.

Pere Portabella, politician and filmmaker, was born in Figueres on 11 February 1927 into a family of the Catalan capitalist bourgeoisie. He took part in avant-garde artistic movements opposing the Franco regime. He played a significant part, always as an independent mediator, in key events in Catalan history, such as the "Caputxinada", the sit-in at Montserrat, the Catalan Assembly, the Catalan Cultural Congress's Standing Committee, and so on.

His career in the cinema includes the production of such films as Los golfos, Viridiana, and El cochecito. As a director, in collaboration with his friends Joan Brossa and Carles Santos, he created films that met with little commercial success but constituted milestones in Catalan cinematography, thanks to their revolutionary style and experimental search for new values.

e was elected to the Senate in 1977 as an independent candidate on the Entesa dels Catalans party list and was chosen to accompany Tarradellas in an open convertible when he returned to assume leadership of the Catalan Autonomous Government. He was elected to the Catalan parliament in 1980, to the Senate as a candidate for the PSUC in 1982, and has been a member of the National Political Committee of the Iniciativa per Catalunya party since 1990 (the year that he returned to film-making after a hiatus of thirteen years with El puente de Varsovia). He is working at present on a new film, a subject that he prefers to avoid for the time being, and dreams of a just world (the "We are not resigned" manifesto of 1995 and the "Alternative Foundation" created in 1997 to renew progressive thought) and a freer concept of art. He is a good promoter of dreams.

You are obsessed with fighting for lost causes. Does it bother you to be called a patron?

It bothers me because it's a figure that ought not to exist. It means that something is lacking. The space of solidarity is a poorly defined one: wealth is distributed perversely and there are some magnificent people who are fighting to change that. And since everything is connected to advertising, in the end it seems that anything that fails to attain a certain audience rating, anything that fails to sell, isn't worthy of attention.

Is that why you have never been concerned by people saying that your films are incomprehensible?

I would have made them just the same. I'm not the least bit interested in the purely commercial aspect. I know exactly what it demands, what I would have to do, but even just thinking about it bores me senseless. People are still making films of stories from Balzac, everything has already been said ... I'm looking for other ways to go. Do you think Saura or Tàpies have ever cared whether people say that they're incomprehensible? I experiment, and then show the results. And that's all.

Has being well off helped you to do just what you wanted without any sort of outside imposition?

No, no, my family never wanted to have anything to do with my artistic ventures. But it's also true that I have never lost money on any of my films.

Would you say then that, in the world of the cinema, money doesn't give you any more freedom?

Not necessarily. In today's world a film isn't just a film anymore. It's a product on a circuit. Just as a book is no longer a book. It might be a web page, a recording, a design. Why do you think hosts of television shows win literary prizes? It's because of this phenomenon. (...)

You never seem satisfied. Isn't the present good enough for you?

I'm not nostalgic about anything, no political era, nowhere I've ever lived, not even when I was working with Buñuel...

And yet here on the table is a book with his name on it. Any flashes of memory?

Buñuel lying down to sleep. On the ground, on a blanket. It was freezing cold, but he didn't seem to notice. (...)

Looking back over the years, has your concept of art changed much?

I still see it just the same, but I express it differently. There are some landmarks that you never forget. In my case, for example, I started getting interested in this, when I started getting involved in the adventure of art and I was much more taken by Max Ernst than, say, a painter of the Olot school. I wanted to know why I was more attracted, for example, to Miró than to classical painters. I didn't take long to realise that the sort of art that interested me was...

Different? Alternative?

Alternative? Far from it. The most important art of the 20th century.

There is line you quote, perhaps unintentionally: "Commitment is a matter of conscience, but dedication is a matter of ability."

It's the same as with abstract art or music. If you aren't curious enough and haven't the ability to penetrate into this sphere that you don't understand at first, to fathom it, you'll never get to the point where you love it. A lot of people still haven't the faintest idea how we can get anything out of that box called a television set.

To what extent were you influenced by having friends like Saura, Tàpies, Chillida and Brossa as a teenager?

We all lived near each other, in the same neighbourhood. That gave us something in common, we grew up together, that was when I was going to Catholic school...

Were you introduced to politics by "intellectuals"?

Well, actually, I was pretty isolated, living in a bourgeois family, on the side that won the war. That makes a difference. (...)

Perhaps your father would have preferred to go into business, maybe in one of the family company's, Danone for example.

Of course. Anything, anything at all that had some sort of connection with the world that he knew.

You started studying Chemistry...

Yes, but I dropped out because of "bad influences" ... Dau al Set, the avant-garde movements ... My family were convinced that if I carried on in that direction I was headed for failure, on the road to ruin. But I could tell that that was really where I belonged, that those were really my people.

Were you able to show your father that you could be successful and proud of your life?

Yes, in the end he came round to the idea. (...) And my father, who was a lawyer, warned me repeatedly of the risk that I was running with my bent for adventure. I can still hear him telling me, the first time I was arrested, "You don't know what these people are like. You can't begin to understand. You can't trust any of them." He was right. And at the same time he knew that I was breaking with my roots.

Does clandestinity bring people closer together, ideologically speaking, than liberty?

No. It creates sentimental affinity. You speak the same language. You know who the enemy is. History shows us that afterwards, it all disintegrates. But the one thing that clandestinity did teach me is that the one thing that I cannot abide in this world is the loss of dignity.

Did you take many really serious chances?

I was committed to a lot of others, and I felt the same fear and the same anxiety. But my generation is full of people who went a lot further, who sacrificed everything, love, family, their future ... (...)

What sort of circumstances could lead a man like Pere Portabella, who has always been an independent, to decide to join a political party?

These last elections could be decisive. If the left ever gets together, and sits down and thinks and decides what it wants, then I would become a card-carrying member for the first time in my life. This is something that has never occurred to me in the past, because, besides, I believe that the dynamics set up by political parties in this country is mistaken, they still have a lot to learn. (...)

Is power intoxicating?

I have never believed that a person in a position of power is respected for what they are as a person. I'm convinced that the ones who snap to attention, who salute you, civil servants, protocol ... they don't respect you, they respect your position, what you represent. They would do exactly the same for whoever else was in your place.

This is something that you will have learned while you were a senator...

I learned then that a position of power is something totally ephemeral, something that doesn't mean anything special. You often end up there by mere coincidence. Your presence on the stage has nothing to do with any personal merit. It's unfortunate that there is always someone who gets the wrong idea and ends up thinking that they are someone special.

Tell us about a moment in politics that truly moved you.

You feel that sort of moment in the pit of your stomach. It happens when you get the chance to see a multitude of people in front of you and you know that they are grateful to you for some reason, that somehow they recognise who you are and they love you as you are. Even though I have always had a healthy scepticism towards heroism. For example, I see myself climbing a staircase, with Els Segadors (the Catalan national anthem) being sung in the background, and me, climbing the stairs alone, absolutely alone. If you were to tell me right then that there was a cannon at the top primed to fire unless I stopped ... I know that I would have kept right on going. As much inner strength as you can possibly imagine. There are moments like that...

Priceless moments?

States of grace.

Tell me about another one.

All of us are there together in Parliament, for the first time. I see Dolores Ibarruri, her white hair pulled back in bun, a shawl over her shoulders, someone has told us to control ourselves, we are instructed not to shout, and she steps out confidently, making her way forward through all those who had been enemies. A moment of uncontrollable emotion. (...) Another one: we are in session, in the process of abolishing the death penalty, there you are, with a piece of paper in your hand, just a word being struck from the paper, something being erased between one comma and another, something that means so much, the import of such a tenuous gesture ... That sort of thing overcomes me! (...)

Is there any unfinished business in your life?

I regret not having a solid university education, a degree, any degree at all, just as a matter of self-discipline. Of course I studied on my own, pretty well everything, even philosophy, I tried everything, and dropped everything, everything that serves no purpose but satisfies.

Just out of curiosity, do your guests for the yearly suquet discuss the merits of the lobster or strike political deals?

They talk about everything and anything just like at any other dinner with friends. I started the tradition with two conditions: one, that it was to be unofficial, that it was open to all, and two, that journalists should respect it as such. (...) The beauty of it was that guests started coming back year after year because they knew that they would be rubbing elbows with people holding widely differing views (...)

You are now 72. Does one learn to relinquish things over the years?

Only temporal things. (...)

Is it true that you are claustrophobic?

Yes, I don't like lifts or the underground. (...) But what I have mostly is a curious sort of vertigo. When I'm up high somewhere, I have to be careful not to go too near the edge. And it's not because I'm afraid of falling, but just the opposite, I have a tremendous attraction to falling. (...) The void has a sensual, almost irresistible attraction for me.

But it must give one more a feeling of vertigo, for example, to be publicly responsible for the return of someone like Tarradellas. Why you, and not Carles Sentís, for example?

It was something that they all agreed on, I was appointed unanimously as the only one to take responsibility, and no one has ever taken me to task on the matter. I'm proud that I was chosen. But on the subject of vertigo ... if you look at the photographs that they took of us on the balcony, there I am, next to Tarradellas, with my hand on the balcony but standing about a metre back.

You knew Tarradellas and Semprún, you worked with Buñuel, and you partied with Gil de Biedma. These are de luxe experiences, a personal privilege. I imagine that a lot of publishers are after your memoirs.

Yes, they're always on to me about them, but I can't decide whether I should write them or not. Certain things would come out that I don't know whether it would be best not to talk about. But it is true that I have known a lot of interesting people in my life, good friends. (...)