Dr Carlos van Tongeren, Lecturer in Spanish Cultural Studies at The University of Manchester, explores Alberto Rodríguez’s Modelo 77, screening as part of ¡Viva! Festival 2023 on 15 and 23 Mar.
The director of Modelo 77 (Prison 77), Alberto Rodríguez, has become an important name in contemporary Spanish cinema. For more than a decade, Rodríguez has been using film as a medium to cast a critical eye on the recent history of his country and look in new ways at important moments of historical change. Rodríguez was born in Seville, a city that has figured quite prominently in his work, partially due to his interest in examining how socio-political changes in Spain have transpired in marginal areas, such as Andalusia, that have often been ignored in dominant historical narratives. To give a few examples, Rodríguez’s earlier film Grupo 7 (Unit 7), from 2012, deals with a group of undercover policemen that try to fight crime in Seville in the run-up to the year 1992, when the city hosted the International Exhibition. A later and very successful film, La Isla minima (Marshland, 2014), is set in the year 1980, the time of Spain’s transition to democracy following the death of dictator Francisco Franco in November 1975. In La Isla mínima, Rodríguez takes us to the marshlands in the province of Seville, where two cops from Madrid, with very different personalities and political backgrounds, try to find a serial killer who has murdered several young women in the area. If you haven’t seen either of these previous films, you may be familiar with the television series La Peste (The Plague) on BBC4, a historical drama set in 16th-century Seville, that was also directed by Alberto Rodríguez and his screenwriter Rafael Cobos.
La Transición, or the transition, is also key in the film Modelo 77. While La Isla mínima was set in the oppressive setting of an isolated village in Andalusia, Modelo 77 focuses on the reality of another highly oppressive, secluded, and forgotten space: that of the prison system. The film is set in the Modelo prison (commonly known as “La Modelo”) in Barcelona, which was built in the 19th century and had one of the largest prison populations during Francisco Franco’s dictatorship. Even though Franco had died in 1975, the situation in La Modelo and other prisons did not really change during the transition years. Spain was now officially a democracy, but prisoners were still subjected to torture and other forms of violence by prison guards. As Modelo 77 documents, prisoners protested as best as they could against these fundamental injustices by organising riots, hunger strikes, and collective acts of self-mutilation.
Rodríguez’s film shows that, despite this situation of complete misery, violence and isolation, prisoners managed to find ways to organise themselves politically on both a local and a national level. In December 1976, a group of prisoners in the Carabanchel prison in Madrid founded a collective known as COPEL (Coordinadora de Prisioneros en Lucha, Cooperative of Fighting Prisoners). The demands of this collective included a call for amnesty for all prisoners that had been subjected to excessive prison sentences by Franco’s dictatorial courts, and Rodríguez’s film documents how, in the early months of 1977, the actions of COPEL started spreading to the Modelo prison in Barcelona. The film recounts these struggles in a very suspenseful way, and it is fascinating to see how these prisoners were able to establish a secret communication system, to organise themselves, and to dig tunnels in their attempts to escape, at the same time as the prison authorities were acting as quickly as they could to crush the activities of the organisation.
Modelo 77 is based on extensive fieldwork, research, and interviews with former prisoners who were part of COPEL. It is worth staying for the credits, when we’ll see pictures of some of the historical figures that the film characters are based on. Like Alberto Rodríguez’s previous films, Modelo 77 is inspired by a particular noir sensibility for the forms of systemic violence that cannot always be seen at broad daylight but are somehow present beneath the surface. Even if the film offers only a few glimpses of life on the outside, we need to realise that, at the same time as COPEL started demanding amnesty and freedom from within these confined spaces, massive political struggles, and very similar demands for amnesty, were taking place on the streets. It’s important to mention that 1977 is also the year in which an Amnesty Law was passed in the Spanish parliament, which did grant amnesty to thousands of political prisoners that had been convicted by the Franco-dictatorship; however, thousands of other prisoners who had not been convicted for political crimes were overlooked by the law; and perhaps even more strikingly, due to the political tensions at the time, the law extended amnesty to those crimes that had been committed by members of Franco’s regime that had never been prosecuted and convicted. The Amnesty Law from 1977 is currently still in place, it has not yet been revoked, and has been at the heart of ongoing and heated debates about the complex legacies of the Franco-dictatorship in Spain.
What is particularly interesting about Modelo 77 is that it does not to grant too much attention to the important political developments that were taking place parliament, or in the streets. This seems to be a deliberate choice to reflect that the struggle of COPEL was completely cut off from the changes that were occurring elsewhere in the country. In a way, that makes their struggle, and the narrative of Modelo 77, even more tragic and emotive.