In October, part of the GROW team had the opportunity to attend a preview screening of the Spanish film Las Buenas Compañias (in English, In the Company of Women) directed by Silvia Munt. The film focuses on the daily life of Béa, a 16-year-old girl, in the Spanish Basque Country in the late 1970s. Addressing a number of subjects related to women’s bodies and their place in society, In the Company of Women is above all a powerful and touching ode to feminism.
A bit of background is in order. The year is 1977, Franco regime was in its final twilight years, and a new democratic transition was about to begin. Spain was undergoing a series of changes, from the restoration of the monarchy to the arrival in power of socialism. The country returned to the forefront and embarked on a raft of economic reforms to usher into a new period of prosperity. This transition was joined by a major movement for the liberation of morals, cultural and artistic renewal, the Movida, which contributed to the modernisation and integration of Spanish society into democratic Europe. In the Basque Country, however, things were a little different. With an autonomous status that set it apart from the other regions of Spain, the transition had been probably slower and more distant. Hardened by their resilient spirits, the Basque people seem to be more in the background when it comes to events affecting the rest of the country. It was as if a bubble had built up around them, helping to maintain a certain conservatism forged by Franco’s ideas. As the film implies, dissidents from the regime and socialists – including the protagonist’s father – had gone into exile outside the Basque Country. So it is in the small town of Errenteria, on the outskirts of San Sebastián, that Béa comes up against the barriers of her time and begins her various battles, both personal and universal.
Las Buenas Compañias is first and foremost the story of women fighting for their fundamental rights. The story of women who fight in the hope of one day being able to have the right to abort in complete freedom. Because, yes, abortion was still illegal and heavily repressed in Spain at that time. The backdrop is based on real events that took place then. The film is set around the “Bilbao 11” case. Eleven working-class women were put on trial between 1976 and 1985, accused of performing abortions. This trial is considered to be the precursor and driving force behind the first democratic law on abortion, which decriminalised abortion in Spain in 1985. Numerous uprisings in support of these women gradually shook the country, but remained very feeble in Béa’s town. Determined, she befriended a group of young women activists and went on to perform a series of small militant acts, mainly in their small Basque town. Throughout the first part of the film, Béa represents the enthusiasm of youth. The anger and powerful desire for emancipation of the young women at the time, trapped between overly conservative society from their parents and their own hopes for a gentler future. It is mainly thanks to Béa’s rebellious nature that the film’s first message gets through. The director calls for a fight. The figure of Béa, as a portrait of rebellious youth, seems to transcend time and set itself up as a model. The film is a eulogy of female solidarity, proclaiming loud and clear that there is strength in numbers. Men are only represented in the background. All the people who make up the central plot of the film are women. Women with diverse destinies and multiple sufferings, of course, but women who are all united by their submission to patriarchy and its chains.
At the same time, Silvia Munt also portrays the personal struggle of a young lesbian woman. In the film, Béa’s mother works for a very bourgeois family, as a “handywoman”. Every day, she goes to the large house run by the grandmother, in order to carry out various household chores, sometimes with the help of Béa. This is how she meets Miren, the only daughter of this apparently very religious family, who is the same age as her. As Béa alternates between her life as an activist and her mother’s work, the two young women meet, notice each other, look for each other and eventually get to know each other. A complicity is born that very quickly turns into an unconditional attachment between the two. The passion here is not simply the attraction of one woman for another. On the contrary, it is far more intense and sincere, as it is that of a fully-fledged human being for her fellow human being. From the outset, we follow the evolution of this love as a purely natural process, almost forgetting that it is a lesbian relationship, “unnatural” at the time. Thanks to the exceptional talent of lead actress Alícia Falcó, the character of Béa herself seems unaware of the “abnormal” nature of her relationship. Then reality sets in. Miren tells her that she is pregnant and that her parents have arranged for her to have an abortion in London so that she can then get engaged to a suitable, well-chosen man. Surprise! The oppression of women is not just a problem of the lower classes.
When the film ends, viewers are not left indifferent. Heightened emotions remain, but the one that stands out is tenderness. Silvia Munt’s film may deal with heavy subjects, but from start to finish, it is marked by a certain gentleness. The choice of music and the cinematography create together a soothing atmosphere. The shots are often fixed, and the framing very close. We enter the melancholic intimacy of all these characters with their suffering, which ends up softening us.
Silvia Munt’s Las Buenas Compañias is a remarkable achievement. She gives us the story of a struggle: the struggle for abortion rights, the struggle for sexual freedom and, more generally, the struggle for women’s emancipation. Through this fight, she suggests that we must never give up, that young people must use their enthusiasm and courage, that we must continue to fight. It is obviously very easy to transpose this film, this struggle, to our reality where women’s freedom is constantly being put to the test. The parallel with current events and the American Supreme Court’s decision on abortion rights is more than obvious. But Silvia Munt also offers us a tale of love: pure love, love as a human feeling and as maternal love. The actresses are as touching as the storylines that bind them together, conveying intense emotions that make us want to fight, this time for love. All of this, meticulously directed by the director’s poetry, transports us. Watching Las Buenas Compañias is like escaping from reality.
Las Buenas Compañias, Silvia Munt, 2023.
translated by Marie Chapot & Léa Grandemange