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Álex’s angel

In February 1993, at the age of 27, Álex de la Iglesia came to Zaragoza to present Mutant Action, his first feature film. Five minutes after meeting him he told me: ‘The Exterminating Angel is one of the films of my life’. That would have sufficed to make us friends forever.

But there was more. I told Álex I was friend of one of Luis Buñuel’s accomplices, Julio Alejandro, a marvellous guy from Huesca that was listed among the best scriptwriters of the history of cinema. Julio’s work included Wuthering Heights, Nazarín, Viridiana, Simón of the Desert and Tristana. No more no less. As if this were not enough, he had collaborated in the setting of The Exterminating Angel.

I let drop the fact that I, fortuitously, was going to go to Madrid in some days for a terrific reason: bringing Rafael Azcona to Julio Alejandro’s house so they could know each other. Azcona was Julio’s greatest admirer and, when he learnt about my relationship with him, had a fan reaction, unusual in him: ‘I want to know this man’.

Álex told me: ‘Invite me along, please’.

I loved that someone of his generation, who looked like breaking the mould in the Spanish cinema, would show such a devotion for two scriptwriters that could be his father and his grandfather.

That February day in which we met, Álex was taking a bus to Bilbao in the evening. But he decided to miss it and stay at my place. Next day, he missed the bus too. Álex felt trapped at Zaragoza delirium in an unexpected tribute to Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel.

Those two days in the city had much more to give. At my house’s living room I showed Álex The Strange Voyage, the film directed by Fernando Fernán-Gómez that had changed my cinephile mind. Álex watched it, stunned, while my father watched it again and my mother cooked a potato omelette. Also by chance, the scriptwriter of that film, the explosive and volcanic Perico Beltrán, was spending some time in Zaragoza and we went to visit him at the Hotel Conquistador. With Perico we also talked a lot about Buñuel, dead laughing.

And, later, in Madrid, the magic evening. On Friday, March 12 1993. The previous day to the Goya Ceremony in which Belle Époque triumphed –the film by Fernando Trueba with which Rafael won one of these Goya Awards he never picked up- and Mutant Action achieved three awards. That meeting took place 24 years ago, I have often recalled it with Álex as one of the greatest times of our life. I arranged to meet Álex and Rafael Azcona at a bar in Avenida de América, adjacent to Julio Alejandro’s house. We went upstairs to meet him. During our three hours long visit, we did not stop talking about Luis Buñuel. We subjected Julio to the sweetest and most admiring interrogation you could ever think of. Álex could not stop asking about The Exterminating Angel and Viridiana. Álex always recalls how Julio told us that Buñuel had accepted him as a scriptwriter. Buñuel showed him an empty drawer and asked: ‘Julio, what do you see here?’ Julio answered: ‘The decline of the flesh’. ‘Well, ok, we can work together’, concluded Buñuel.

At this point, everybody knows that Álex de la Iglesia is a filmmaker with a huge personality. Everybody knows that films like The Day of the Beast or Common Wealth belong to the best and most influential European cinema of the last decades. Everybody knows of his imagination, mastery and narrative and visual power. Everybody knows that the Spanish cinema of the last 25 years would be far less interesting without his boldness, his energy and his sense of humour. But maybe many ignore his old veneration for Luis Buñuel and, especially, his weakness for The Exterminating Angel, which inevitably comes to mind when watching The Bar, the last sample of Álex de la Iglesia’s world and boundless talent.

The Luis Buñuel Award of Huesca Festival, Julio Alejandro’s city, was waiting for him. Always.

Luis Alegre