Spanish Summer: The subtleties of Spanish culture in ‘Ocho Apellidos Vascos’

Wednesday, June 12, 2019 - 6:56pm

Universal Studios

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“Ocho Apellidos Vascos,” or its English title, “Spanish Affair,” is a romantic comedy, and I say that fondly. Oftentimes, the genre has an amusing inability to pass the Bechdel test, and the plotlines are repetitive at best. At this point in the 21st century, there isn’t anything romantic comedies haven’t done, short of actually casting someone who isn’t white in the lead (though Netflix has endeavored to fill that void recently).

That said, I liked the movie — and so did the rest of Spain. “Ocho Apellidos Vascos” was one of the top grossing movies of 2014, just behind “Avatar.” There’s a reason these movies are so popular and the plots are so predictable: They make money. And, given what we know about the success of “Ocho Apellidos Vascos,” it’s no surprise that the plotline was as familiar as ever.

“Ocho Apellidos Vascos” follows Amaia (Clara Lago, “Extinction”) and Rafael (Dani Rovira, “Ahora o Nunca”) in their whirlwind relationship. At first, Amaia rejects Rafael’s advances, but when her estranged father, Koldo (Karra Elejalde, “100 Meters”), unexpectedly shows up for her cancelled wedding, she desperately asks Rafael to stand in as her ex-fiancé, Antxón. The catch? Antxón is Vascan (from Basque Country) and Rafael is from Seville. Antics ensue and, as expected, the two characters barely know each other, but end up falling in love due to this fabricated romance.

It’s an age-old romantic comedy gimmick and, for that, it’s easy to overdo — extravagant acting and unrealistic hijinks can take away from the fact that these people are lying to cover up their real relationship. That foolery, in all honesty, is often the most interesting part of the plot. Fortunately, “Ocho Apellidos Vascos” sticks to more plausible lies and rarely strays into the slapstick comedy that often slips into these movies.

Take, for example, the added complication of Koldo’s prejudice towards Sevillians. On the surface, it seems unwarranted — I’m from Ann Arbor, but I could still successfully move myself to Columbus and fit in without a problem. Sure, there might be some strain if I were to mention my hometown (which is not beloved in Buckeye territory), but nothing that could threaten a marriage.

In “Ocho Apellidos Vascos,” though, it’s a different ballgame. Basque Country is one of Spain’s autonomous communities, comparable to the states in the U.S in terms of having their own governments, but also very different. It’s like living in a little country within a country — the autonomous communities even have their own languages. Consequently, there is a super contentious rivalry between the Vascans and Sevillians. The nationalistic attitude that comes through in the movie is intense and adds a layer of nuanced discord that is often missing in American movies with a similar plot.

The Spanish title “Ocho Apellidos Vascos” directly translates to “Eight Vascan Last Names,” which is another interesting aspect of the movie, to an American at least. How someone could ever have eight last names is a cultural practice that has to do with trying to maintain the name of the mother’s family, if only for one generation. It’s really cool and, again, helps “Ocho Apellidos Vascos” keep the easy and cheesy jokes out of the movie with moments like when Rafael has to come up with and remember eight last names of Basque country origin. Talk about a culture shock.

The true star of the movie though? The Spanish language. It’s a cliché thing to say, but in the four weeks that I’ve been in Spain, I have heard so many different accents, many of which I also picked up on in this film. When Rafael speaks, he skips the “d” when it’s in between two vowels. The effect is a softer “ow” sound that I haven’t heard in practice since my linguistics class last spring. Lago has a certain melody to her voice that makes you feel like you’re floating. The entreating “claro,” surprised “perdón” or even a chastising “a ver” add an extra beat to Spanish that you could really only ever get from a native speaker.

“Ocho Apellidos Vascos” made me wish I could explore the rest of Spain, maybe go south and hear other accents. But, alas, I’ll have to be content watching Spanish movies instead the rest of the summer.