15 October 2021

Francisco Rabal

Francisco Rabal (1926-2001) is one of the best-known and most important Spanish film actors. Luis Buñuel’s Nazarín (1959) was his breakthrough in cinema. He also appeared in such classics as Bunuel's Virdidiana (1961) and Belle de Jour (1967), and in Michelangelo Antonioni's L’eclisse/Eclipse (1962). In the 1980s he appeared in such successful Spanish films as Mario Camus' La colmena (1982) and Pedro Almodovar's Atame!/Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down! (1989).

Francisco Rabal
Spanish postcard. Francisco Rabal in Luna de sangre/Blood moon (Francisco Rovira Beleta, 1952).

Francisco Rabal
Spanish postcard by F.A.G. Retail price was 2 pesetas.

A long-lasting friendship with Luis Buñuel

Francisco Rabal, perhaps better known as Paco Rabal, was a Spanish actor born in 1926 in Águilas, a small town in the province of Murcia, Spain. His parents were Benito Rabal and Teresa Valera. In 1936, after the Spanish Civil War broke out, Rabal and his family left Murcia and moved to Madrid.

Young Francisco had to support his family as a street salesboy and worker in a chocolate factory while studying in the nighttime at the Colegio Nuestra Señora del Recuerdo. Later on, he worked as an assistant electrician at the Spanish film studio Estudios Chamartín.

Dámaso Alonso and other people advised him to try his luck with a career in theatre. During the following years, he got some roles in theatre companies such as Lope de Vega or María Guerrero. It was there that he met actress Asunción Balaguer; they married and remained together for the rest of Rabal's life. Their daughter, Teresa Rabal, is also an actress, while his son Benito is a director.

In 1947, Rabal got some regular theatre jobs. He used his full name, Francisco Rabal, as his stage name. However, the people who knew him always called him Paco, the familiar form for Francisco. "Paco Rabal" became his unofficial stage name. Rabal joined the theater company of Isabel Garcés, participating at the editing of 'Diario íntimo de la tía Angélica' (1946) by José María Pemán. Gradually his parts increased, obtaining big success in 1952 with his part in 'Diary of a Salesman' by Arthur Miller.

During the 1940s, Rabal began acting in films as an extra – in 1942 he played his first bit part in La rueda de vida. In 1946, he became a supporting actor in the film La pródiga/The Prodigal Woman (Rafael Gil, 1946). It was not until 1950, however, that Rabal was at first cast in speaking film roles, playing romantic leads and rogues. Slowly his film career would overshadow his stage career, still, Rabal performed memorable stage parts on various occasions at the Festival de Teatro Romano at Mérida: in 1954 in 'Oedipus Rex', in 1955 in 'Julius Caesar', in 1956 'Thyestes', and in 1960 again in 'Oedipus', always under the direction of José Tamayo.

Rabal’s career went more and more towards film and he received his first award. In 1953 he won the Silver Lion at the Festival of Venice for La guerra de Dios/I Was a Parish Priest (Rafael Gil, 1953) and an award for best interpretation at the Festival of San Sebastián for Hay un camino a la derecha/There's a Road on the Right (Francisco Rovira Beleta, 1953). In the following years, he participated in various successful films.

In the later 1950s Rabal played in leads in several Italian films, such as Prigionieri del male/Revelation (Mario Costa, 1955), La grande strada azzurra/The Big Blue Road (Gillo Pontecorvo 1957), Marisa la civetta/Marisa (Mauro Bolognini 1957), and Gerusalemme liberate/Jerusalem Liberated (Carlo Ludovico Bragaglia (1957).

In 1958 Rabal went to Mexico to play in Luis Buñuel’s Nazarín (1959). The two struck a long-lasting friendship. Nazarín was Rabal’s breakthrough as an actor, playing an anticonventional priest. Francisco Rabal starred in three films directed by Luis Buñuel. Rabal’s measured performance, coming from years of stage acting training, made him for decades one of the most important actors in Spanish cinema.

Francisco Rabal and Merle Oberon in Todo es posible en Granada (1954)
Spanish postcard. Francisco Rabal and Merle Oberon in Todo es posible en Granada/All Is Possible in Granada (José Luis Sáenz de Heredia, 1954).

Francisco Rabal
Spanish card.

A wonderful actor and even better human being

Among Francisco Rabal's most important roles are that in Viridiana (Luis Buñuel, 1961), which won the Golden Palm in Cannes in 1961; and the intellectual fiancé of Monica Vitti’s Claudia in Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’eclisse/Eclipse (1962). Another outstanding role was that of the father confessor in Jacques Rivette’s Diderot-like film La Religieuse/The Nun (1966). Rabal’s third film with Buñuel was Belle de jour (Luis Buñuel, 1967), starring Catherine Deneuve and Michel Piccoli.

In 1968 Rabal incarnated revolutionary Che Guevara in the film by Paolo Heuchs: El 'Che' Guevara. William Friedkin thought of Rabal as the French villain for his 1971 film The French Connection. However, he could not remember the name of "that Spanish actor". Mistakenly, his staff hired another Spanish actor, Fernando Rey. Friedkin discovered that Rabal did not speak English or French, so he decided to keep Rey. Rabal did, however, work with Friedkin in the much less successful but Academy Award-nominated cult classic Sorcerer (William Friedkin, 1977), a remake of Le salaire de la peur/The Wages of Fear (Henri-Georges Clouzot 1953).

Throughout his career, Rabal worked in France, Italy, and Mexico with (next to the previously mentioned filmmakers) directors such as Luchino Visconti on La strega bruciata viva/The Witches (1966) and Valerio Zurlini on Il deserto dei tartari/The Desert of the Tatars (1976), but also with Florestano Vancini, Giuliano Montaldo, Damiano Damiani, Claude Chabrol, Leopoldo Torre Nilsson, etc.

In 1974 Rabal participated in the resistance against the installation of a nuclear plant in Marina de Cope, near Murcia. In 1977, a tribute to Rabal was given at the film festival of San Sebastián with an exhibition organized by Javier Espada, manager of the Centro Buñuel at Calanda. It is said that Francisco Rabal's best performances came after Francisco Franco's death in 1975. In the 1980s, Rabal starred as the old Azarías in Mario Camus’ social study Los santos inocentes (1984), based on Miguel Delibes’ literary work. Rabal's performance in Camus’ film won him the Award as Best Actor at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival (ex aequo with his compatriot Alfredo Landa).

Other memorable films in the 1980s were La colmena (Mario Camus, 1982) and Camorra (Lina Wertmuller, 1984), while in 1989 Rabal played an old and invalid film director in Pedro Almodovar’s Atame!/Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down! On television, he played Mateo Alemán in Cervantes (Alfonso Ungría, 1981), Francisco de Goya in Los desastres de la guerra (Mario Camus, 1983), San Pedro de Alcántara in the miniseries Teresa de Jesús (Josefina Molina, 1985), and the retired bullfighter Juncal in the exiting series Juncal (Jaime de Armiñán, 1989). In 1989, he was a member of the jury at the 39th Berlin International Film Festival.

In 1993 Rabal received a gold medal from the Spanish film academy. In 1999 he played the character of the old Francisco Goya in Carlos SauraGoya en Burdeos, winning the most prestigious Spanish film award, the Goya Award, for Best Actor. Francisco Rabal is the only Spanish actor to have received an honoris causa doctoral degree from the University of Murcia (1995). In 1996 Rabal gave his voice to the dragon Draco in the film Dragonheart. He was also nominated official taster of the wine of Bullas (Murcia), which earned him a street name named after him in Bullas, and which caused him to promote the wine in the series Truhanes (1993-1994). Rabal's final film was the horror movie Dagon (Stuart Gordon 2001), a film that was dedicated to him right before the credits. The dedication read "Dedicated to Francisco Rabal, a wonderful actor and even better human being."

Rabal died in 2001 from compensatory dilating emphysema, while on an airplane travelling to Bordeaux, when he was coming back from receiving an award at the Montreal Film Festival. He performed in over 200 films. One week after Rabal was supposed to receive an honorary award at the San Sebastian film festival; actor Liberto Rabal, his grandson, took the award on behalf of his grandfather, honoring his name in what was an emotional reunion of all Rabal’s old friends and colleagues. Rabal was buried in his native town, first under an almond thee, later on, reburied at the cemetery, by the wish of his wife and children.

Francisco Rabal
Spanish postcard by F.A.G. The retail price was 2 pesetas.

Francisco Rabal and Jacqueline Pierreux in El canto del gallo (1955)
Spanish postcard, no. 2723. Francisco Rabal and Jacqueline Pierreux in El canto del gallo/The crowing of the rooster (Rafael Gil, 1955).

Sources: Wikipedia (English, Spanish, French, and German), and IMDb.

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