When cinema and literature meet: Extremadura and “The Holy Innocents”

Literary adaptations to celluloid are almost as old as the origin of the seventh art itself. George Méliès’ “Journey to the Moon” (1902) was written by his brother, but is inspired by several stories such as Jules Verne’s “From the Earth to the Moon” and H.G. Wells’ The First Men in the Moon”. Without going back so far in time, in Spain we have also had excellent film adaptations of books. That is why on this occasion we travel back to the 1980s with a real gem of literature and cinema: “The Holy Innocents” (1984). This film was one of the biggest box-office hits of the year in Spain, remained on the screen for almost a year and a half and made two of its stars win the award for best male performance at the Cannes Film Festival: Alfredo Landa and Paco Rabal.

Extremadura was the setting for the shooting of this film by Mario Camus based on the novel of the same title by Miguel Delibes. The writer had conceived the work with the intention of showing the living conditions to which the workers on the large estates bordering Portugal were subjected in the mid-20th century, and the film did not fall short of reflecting this reality.

Although the filming took place mainly on a farm located on the outskirts of Alburquerque (the one in Badajoz, not the one in “Breaking Bad”), both the technical team and the actors stayed in Mérida and Zafra. The cast was made up of great actors and actresses of our cinema such as the aforementioned Alfredo Landa and Paco Rabal, together with a splendid Terele Pávez and a very young Juan Diego. 

All roads lead to Mérida

We begin our route in the current capital of Extremadura, the city that was home to the team of “The Holy Innocents”. In addition to its incredible Roman archaeological site, one of the most important in Europe, Mérida preserves the legacy of the Visigoths, Arabs and Reconquistadors. If you can coincide your visit with the International Classical Theatre Festival, you will enjoy a memorable experience by being able to see great plays of Greek and Roman theatre in one of the few Roman amphitheatres that have been preserved.

The Roman amphitheatre during a performance / Extremadura Film Commission

Another event to remember is the celebration of Emérita Lúdica, a programme of activities that allows you to discover what life was like in the city in Roman times: legion parades, gladiator fights and even a tapas route based on recipes from the Book of Apicius. A real historical immersion for the whole family, which will remind you of the best Roman films.

But Mérida has a lot to offer all year round. Take a look here and choose your adventure.

Zafra, a town with charm and history

In little more than half an hour from Mérida you will reach Zafra, the second of the references related to “The Holy Innocents”. This peaceful and charming town has witnessed many of the great events in the history of Spain, especially during the time of the Reconquest. From those turbulent times it preserves a heritage that includes pre-Roman, Roman, Arab and medieval remains. As a good guild town, it has always been a commercial centre, especially active during the time of the discovery of America. 

You can start your walk in the Plaza Grande, with its arcades and surrounded by 15th century buildings, which is joined to the Plaza Chica by the Arquillo del Pan and a small altarpiece of the Virgen de la Esperancita. Nearby you will find the Casa del Ajimez and the Monasterio de la Encarnación (16th century), from where you will reach the Iglesia de la Candelaria. Of special interest is the Alcazar of the Dukes of Feria, today a Parador. A palatial residence and fortress where you can feel like a feudal lord. For shopping and tapas, you have to go through Sevilla street; and if you have time and you feel like seeing nature, go up to El Castellar mountain range by the “camino colorao”; it has cave paintings, and the remains of an Islamic settlement among other surprises.

Arquillo del Pan in Zafra / Extremadura Film Commission

Alburquerque, anecdotes of filming and good food

Alburquerque is the third stop on this route. Half an hour from Badajoz, this town is in the middle of the Sierra de San Pedro mountain range, a place of pastures and meadows (and Iberian ham, of course). Full of architecture and history, inevitable in this region, it offers some of the most curious culinary specialities to be found in Extremadura. These include “patatas aborregás” – fried potatoes with garlic, paprika and chorizo peppers – and “maríos”, a baked dish made with pork rinds and brandy. These dishes come directly from the tradition of the local shepherds and were probably also eaten by the protagonists of ‘The Holy Innocents’. 

The filming of “The Holy Innocents” was a milestone for the region. As Flora Picón, head of the Extremadura Film Commission, tells us, a crew of that calibre, with stars of the screen of the time, did not go unnoticed. 

One of the most talked about anecdotes is that the writer Miguel Delibes only visited the filming once and on one condition: he would not eat with the actors but with the characters. So, instead of sharing a table with Alfredo Landa and Paco Rabal, he ate with Paco “El Bajo” and Azarías.

It seems that the presence of the film crew revolutionised the daily life of the inhabitants of Alburquerque. The figure of Rabal, who became very involved in the life of the village, spending long hours with a man nicknamed Barrunta, is especially remembered. Their friendship lasted over time and when the actor read the proclamation of the fiestas, he acknowledged his inspiration in him to create Azarías. For his part, this humble Alburquerqueño confessed that “The Holy Innocents” was the only film he ever saw in his life.

Alburquerque with the castle of Luna in the background / Extremadura Film Commission

Apart from the memories linked to the filming, this destination is worth a visit at any time of the year, but there is one particularly interesting one. Under the famous Luna Castle, one of its must-see attractions, the Medieval Festival is held every summer. Theatrical performances, dance shows, tournaments, autos de fe, covens… and a town devoted to the recreation of its medieval streets and squares are enough of an attraction to brave the temperatures of that period. 

The “excuse” for this event is a specific episode in medieval history. Beltrán de la Cueva, the nobleman to whom the paternity of Juana “la Beltraneja” (rival of Isabella the Catholic to the throne of Castile) was attributed, was the first Duke of Alburquerque. The handing over of the keys to the town in memory of this event is the starting signal for a programme that includes guided tours of the castle and the medieval quarter, recreations of a Sephardic wedding or a Mudejar festival, a knights’ school, shows with acrobats… 

With this film and literature route through the province of Badajoz, we have shown you a destination full of possibilities to capture any audiovisual fiction. Thanks to this, Extremadura Film Commission continues to attract filming year after year, so if you want to be the protagonist of an unforgettable experience, think about Extremadura and fly, Milana bonita!

By María Parcero

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