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three pairs of lovers with space

A REVIEW OF THE FILM
EL DIPUTADO (1978)

 

The Spanish film El diputado (The Deputy), directed by Eloy de la Iglesia, was released in 1978 and runs  110 minutes.

 

When men hanging out with boys were still faggots
by C. Caunter
, December 2023

Francisco Franco, the Spanish dictator, has died. Spain is feeling its way towards democracy, aided by a pro-democracy king who has declined to continue the Francoist line. In 1977, the first free elections in over forty years are held – in Spanish they say “celebrated”. People’s desire for freedom is boiling over, expressing itself in a variety of artistic ways and through all-night partying, punk music, drugs and sex. El diputado (Confessions of a Congressman),[1] a daring 1978 film by Eloy de la Iglesia, tells a love story interwoven with these heady political and cultural developments. It does so at the very time they are taking place; there were attempts to stop the film getting made at all because of alleged similarities with the life of an actual politician of the time.

Diputato El image 1


Roberto Orbea (José Sacristán), a soft-spoken social-justice activist of about 40, is elected to parliament in the 1977 elections. The party he has run for is not defined by name, but the abundance of red flags, hammers, sickles, clenched fists and posters of communism’s pop stars Marx and Lenin leave no doubt as to its sympathies. While progressive to the point of being revolutionary with regard to workers’ rights, Roberto has grown up in an extremely conservative, all-Catholic society and believed until recently that he had managed to put a stopper on his homosexual inclinations.

However, an encounter in prison – where he spends time during the closing days of the dictatorship – with a chapero (male prostitute) called Nes (Ángel Pardo) has let the pent-up genie out of the bottle. After their prison time, Nes, himself in his early twenties, plugs Roberto into a scene of chaperos ranging in age from their mid-teens to early manhood. The politician speaks frankly about the resurgence of his same-sex feelings with his wife, Carmen (María Luisa San José). A fellow party idealist, she supports her husband not just in his political struggle but also in his personal struggle. She tells him that where once she believed her love could make Roberto shrug off his homosexuality, she now realises the futility of this endeavour.

At a house party where chaperos hang out, Roberto meets Juanito (José Luis Alonso), a mature-looking blond of about 15 who becomes his regular date.[2] The lad boasts of not really needing the money, but is from a poorer background than he lets on – just the sort of class Roberto has dedicated his life to elevating. The fledgling parliamentarian is not the only one to have paid for Juanito’s services. The secret police, or a fascist faction within the secret police, have offered the boy a goodly sum to obtain compromising photos with which they intend to torpedo Roberto’s political career. Things get more complicated when Roberto and Juanito find they’re having a pretty good time together. Roberto’s newfound happiness has not escaped Carmen, but instead of being outraged she asks to be allowed in on the action – perhaps so as not to lose her husband entirely. The three smoke joints together and enter into a ménage à trois, even as Roberto’s enemies are installing hidden cameras in his flat and are becoming impatient and suspicious of where the boy prostitute’s loyalties lie.

Diputato El  image 2

 

El diputado is all about transitions. Spain at large, conscious of the greater freedoms in the countries to its north (whose citizens have long sought out its beaches), is eager for a democratic update, but must proceed carefully in order not to trigger a counterrevolution or another civil war. Roberto, at the forefront of the country’s democratisation, learns that to fight for freedom without he has to have freedom within. He abandons his attempt at leading a conventional straight life and, at the halfway mark of his own life, discovers the love he has yearned for. “I think all of us need to start overcoming our fears,” he tells Juanito. Roberto’s feelings are put into words through some lines from Luis Cernuda’s poem Un muchacho andaluz (An Andalusian lad): “Entre los ateridos fantasmas que habitan nuestro mundo, / Eras tú una verdad, / Sola verdad que busco, / Más que verdad de amor, verdad de vida; / […] / Creí en ti, muchachillo.” (Amid the frosty phantoms that inhabit our world, / You were a truth, / The only truth I seek, / Not just a truth of love but a truth of life; / […] / I believed in you, laddie.) Like the poet Federico García Lorca, Cernuda belonged to the famed Generation of ’27 and, like Lorca, he is an icon of homosexual liberation.

Juanito, for his part, warms to the man he has been paid to betray. After resolving to let his lover in on the plot against him, he asks: “I’ll bet you don’t know the biggest lie I’ve told you.” Roberto replies: “No doubt it was not telling me you were a bait laid out by the fascists.” “No,” says Juanito, “there’s a bigger lie. It was telling you that I was only seeing you for the money.” Initially scornful of the abstract world of politics, he also becomes inspired by Roberto and Carmen’s idealism and begins to participate in left-wing rallies. As such, he represents a new generation that, no longer easily kept in check by authoritarianism, is starting to become politically conscious and to find its own voice, and is therefore turning dangerously subversive.

Diputato El  image 3
                                      What you do when you discover your husband in bed with a boy

I won’t say much about El diputado’s artistic merit beyond observing it’s effectively paced and broadly competent, if not brilliant, as a work of art. Any nitpicking in this regard is of quite secondary relevance to the compelling nature of the story and what it says about society then and now. In the event, the acting is neither outstanding nor atrocious; there is a somehow charming understatement about it that makes artistry take a back seat to the narrative. In terms of conveying chemistry in their love affair, Sacristán and Alonso are unfortunately not a match made in heaven. Nonetheless, I highly recommend the film both for its Greek-love interest and to those interested in the recent history of Spain. It’s a marvellous document both depicting and stemming from a drama-filled period of the country’s history, the atmosphere of which it could not but portray authentically.

From the point of view of the present, this late-seventies film is fascinating because of its pre-modern sexual vocabulary and outlook. The taboo Roberto’s enemies seek to harness in order to bring about his downfall is homosexuality. No sharp distinction is drawn between the love of boys and the love of men: it is taken for granted that one will often gravitate towards alluring young, but sexually mature, specimens of the sex one is attracted to. Roberto’s partiality to youths who are transitioning towards but have not quite reached adulthood – one boy may be 14, another may be 18 – is secondary to the fact that homosexuality regardless of the ages involved is still problematic and can put paid to a politician’s respectability. In Spain, homosexual sex was illegal for all ages between 1954 and 1979, when the age of consent was set at 12. (The reader need not pack for Spain: the age was hiked up to 16/18 in 2015, making it one of the highest in the EU and crowning the process by which the country fell in lockstep with the new puritanism of the Western world.)

Although Juanito’s handlers are plotting to nab Roberto for corrupción de menores, this seems to be a specific reference to corrupting minors by paying them for sex. For the rest, they could not care less if Roberto’s love interests are 15 or 25; for that matter, they don’t care a fig for the welfare of the teenage hustlers, as the film’s dénouement dramatically brings home. To decent and pious 1970s Spain, Roberto is just another maricón, or faggot. Even today, on the website of the Spanish daily ABC the film can be found described as “dealing with a theme that was a taboo at the time: homosexuality”. This assessment is in need of updating. “España es diferente”, went the tourist slogan launched in the time of Franco. “Africa begins at the Pyrenees”, it used to be quipped with reference to the country’s supposed unmodern exoticism. Spain is not so different anymore. There is rich irony in the fact that in the present day, Roberto would be crucified (albeit on a secularised cross) by the very voice of decent international gaydom for his mutually liberating relationship with Juanito.

 

 

[1] It also seems to have been released in the US as The Deputy.

[2] Juanito’s age is not revealed, but he is stated to be underage (i.e., under 21), which is plain enough. According to the Biblioteca Nacional de España, the actor José Luis Alonso was born in 1963, making him 14 and 15 in 1978, the year El diputado was released. The Spanish-language Wikipedia gives his year of birth as 1961, making him 16 and 17 in 1978.