“Based on real facts,” states text that opens Lluís Danés’ The Barcelona Vampiress (La vampira de Barcelona). This is an entirely conventional, and questionable, assertion of veridicality, which viewers have long been inured to taking with a pinch of salt – and the overstated tautology of the phrase ‘real facts’ (‘fets reals’) comes across overtly as protesting too much. As it happens, though, the fluid traffic between tall tales and true is very much the subject of Danés’ film, which speculatively reconstructs the life and death of the real-life Enriqueta Martí i Ripollés (here played by Nora Navas), while also – literally – printing her legend. For the film opens with a mixed message: we see Enriqueta repeatedly uttering the word ‘blood’ as she lies pitiful and dying in her cell, surrounded by cloths whose bloody stains are the only splash of colour in an otherwise monochrome representation; but at the same time we hear a male voice narrating a catalogue of demonising descriptors for her (“Kidnapper of children. Witch. Sorceress. Satan’s whore. Bad woman. Demon. Bloodsucking ogre. Killer. A hyena. A human beast. A heartless monster without guts. The Barcelona Vampiress.”).
These characterisations are ripped from the headlines of the early 1910s in Barcelona, where Enriqueta had been arrested and blamed by the police, the press and the public alike for the abduction, prostitution and murder of many children, and the rendering of their bodily remains into quack cures for the wealthy. Yet the journalist Sebastià Comas (Roger Casamajor) who is dictating these words to his friend the prostitute Amèlia (Bruna Cusí) – and who is himself, like Enriqueta, lying ill in bed – repeats these vilifications of Enriqueta only to undermine and invert them, as his investigations into the crimes, and into a ring of establishment paedophiles, have led him to write a necessary corrective to Enriqueta’s public infamy. “People like morbid,” Sebastià’s editor (and uncle) Méndez (Mario Gas) will insist, justifying the alterations that he has made to his nephew’s copy, “That is what they like.” Sebastià prefers the truth, even when there are people of influence who will stop at nothing to cover up their own sins and scapegoat the (broadly) innocent.
Meanwhile, The Barcelona Vampiress gets to have it both ways. For it is all at once a work of reeling scandal and penny-dreadful sensationalism, full of monstrous misdeeds in grand gothic settings, and a more sober piece of investigative revisionism intended to recuperate the abused reputation of its title character. Much as the term ‘vampiress’ here casts a real person as a monster of fiction, the film comes with a hybrid form of its own, where history and mythology converge. It is not just that Sebastià, a morphine addict, half-sees and half-hallucinates his path to the truth, but also that Danés deploys a dizzying range of visual styles to present this story in all its multi-faceted complexity. Black and white mixes with vibrant colour (the blood, a brooding sky, a red dress, and everything in the high-class brothel scenes), dream sequences blur with waking experience, naturalism is combined with baroque expressionism, real locations sit alongside cut-out sets, and Enriqueta’s life is imaginatively retold in the tabloids and on the stage (as well as on film, and in a silent film-within-a-film). It is a postmodern mosaic of a prewar cause célèbre.
In the end we discern, through all the noise, all the false flags, all the scurrilous gossip and red herrings, a portrait of a woman who, though no saint, is a convenient patsy, while the real corruption lies with the society around her, neglectfully abusive of the poor while ever protective of its rich élites. This is Spain’s answer to Fritz Lang’s M (1931) – a city symphony, mannered and melodramatic, wherein an apparently simple story of a child killer exposes all Barcelona’s cynical hypocrisies and barely hidden realities.
© Anton Bitel