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The Past Thrives in Netflix's "La Casa de Papel"

Posted on April 26th, 2020 in Pop Culture by José "Pepe" Llanuras

Courtesy: Netflix

Netflix's hit Spanish show La Casa de Papel's fourth season was released a few weeks ago, and with the hype finally dying down comes more serious commentary and analysis of the show's sometimes-complicated plot lines, it's abundantly silly romances, the character's frequent inter-party squabbling and a plot almost mirroring the original heist of the first and second seasons. What captivated viewers across the world was not the brilliance of this telenovela thriller, (ok, it was good) but the themes that resonated with us. The red-clad thieves were not the villains; they were more akin to Robin Hood, fighting against an unjust system and its failure to account for the majority while enriching the wealthy and powerful. The show's brilliance is not found within the complex storylines, but its ability to reimagine the past and transform it into something digestible and relatable, into a call to arms on behalf of la Resistencia.

The lingering question about the show however was of all the locations in which La Casa de Papel could be set, why Spain? Why not have the show occur in a setting that would allow for a greater display of oppression, financial injustice, and widespread anger with the establishment? Perhaps the Latin American countries would have sufficed, especially given the extent to which the show and its thematic message have resonated with its apparent popularity in Hispanic America. Notwithstanding that Spain was once the metropole of a sprawling empire, modern Spain was hard hit by the 2008 financial crisis and, prior to its democratization, the specter of Franco's victory in the Spanish Civil War.

Protesters gather for Movimiento 15-M, a Spanish anti-austerity movement.Courtesy: LaSexta

Spain itself has not reconciled with this past and is still plagued with the same injustices that took root even before protesters coalesced into a mass movement against austerity. La Casa de Papel is rife with allusions to the widespread crisis of 2008, harkening back to the Spanish Movimiento 15-M, a Spanish anti-austerity movement almost identical to the ones held in Zuccotti Park. Spaniards mobilized themselves spontaneously against the "two main culprits: the politicians, our supposed representatives, who collude with the great economic powers; and the great economic powers, who facilitate the politicians, who impose deregulation and speculate the bonds of countries." It is interesting to note too, that El Movimiento 15-M was the catalyst that produced the Podemos party in Spain in order to combat the austerity measures. The show plays with the past and manifests popular resistance through the show's visuals and as the central reason behind the group's goals.

When El profesor, the mastermind behind the heist, explains that "In 2011, the European Central Bank made €171 billion out of nowhere. Just like we are doing. Only bigger," he presents the idea that resistance is aimed not only at the police outside the gates, but towards the real thieves: the banks and the industries that bleed everyone dry. Printing their own money was not a robbery, rather a "liquidity injection, but not for the banks. I'm making it here, in the real economy." This connection to the past does not stop with the 2008 crisis but delves deeper with its allusions to historical events. In the show, the bank robbers don Dalí masks similar to the Occupy movement's iconic usage of the Guy Fawkes masks. Salvador Dalí was enmeshed within the left-leaning surrealist movement, having been involved with the Workers' and Peasants' Front, delivering lectures at their meetings. Dalí was in London when the Spanish Civil War broke out, and upon returning to his natal Catalonia, he proceeded to transform himself into a Francoist bootlicker. Coupling the Dalí masks with the show's iconic red jumpsuit drives the point of bringing back the past in order to face it, to show that not everybody has forgotten that Dalí once held leftist sympathies before abandoning them. It is quintessentially Spanish in character, as Spain itself was a stronghold of anarchist tendencies before its collapse before the fascists embodied by Franco.

In La Casa de Papel, the bank robbers don Dalí masks.Courtesy: Entorno Inteligente

The series continuously builds on the connections to history as we learn that El Profesor was inspired by his father and grandfather. Growing up,  he'd been taught a song that originated from his grandfather's experience fighting with Italian partisans against fascism. The show never grapples directly with Spain's Civil War but implants the memory via references to anti-fascism and the idea of resistance through historical allegory. This idea of bringing back the past lends itself to the usage of the song Bella Ciao. Its catchiness and history as a labor folk song turned anti-fascist anthem by Italian partisans struggling against the tyranny of Italian and Nazi Fascism ties it wonderfully with the show's thematic idea of resistance. The song is El Profesor's rallying call against the system, the idea he wishes to implant in the mind's of the public, which is the idea behind the line of "somos la Resistencia." The show's popularity has revived the song as a symbol of protest. Throughout the show, the viewer is reminded that ideologies and movements aren't born from  a single person, but a compounding of previous ideas that others continuously draw from and build upon.

Like the ideas handed down to El Profesor, the show itself is the manifestation of the long spanning historical contradictions that fomented within Spain. The left's obliteration in the face of fascism in the Civil War, the Pacto del Olivido that artificially mended the contradictions by 'forcing' Spaniards to forget the horrors of 1936, the end of Franquismo and the implosion of the economy in 2008 all come together to create the show's ideas and themes. What makes La Casa de Papel's ideas resonate with viewers is that the internal contradictions within our society are shown in a subtle and approachable form. Notwithstanding, the show itself is quirky and fun, even when the substance evaporates a little in the later seasons.

Still from La Casa de PapelCourtesy: Netflix

As the opening sequence suggests, La Casa de Papel is the literal paper model of the banks that the group heists. Along with the message of resistance against these flimsy oppressive institutions, the ideas that El Profesor intends to implant within the minds of the public are that these institutions and money themselves are "only paper," that they are simply fabricated and given form through our consent and the machinations of a government apparatus that serve only to inject liquidity into businesses when needed, and not into the general populace. The red-clad robbers aren't thieves but simply the champions of the people, appropriating money that rightfully belonged to them while sending the message that there is a growing resistance against the established. Outside of the four corners of the black mirror, La Casa de Papel reminds us that resistance is possible through careful reflection upon the past.