Madrid is a cinephile’s city, through and through.
It’s not just that the Spanish capital is the heart of production and a top destination for film students across the peninsula. Talk of movies is in the air, filling streets, cafés, cars, bars, and the sprawling Parque del Retiro. The country’s film industry is still recovering from one of the worst financial crises in its history, and domestic films only made up 19 percent of Spain’s box-office market share in 2015. Though the industry faces major political and financial issues, it seems like everyone here is always ready to talk about a great film they just watched, or an upcoming release they know they’ll love, even if they’re mostly interested in non-Spanish fare.
So if you find yourself in Madrid, like Criterion producer Kate Elmore and I did this past June while working on a new documentary to be included on our upcoming edition of Luis García Berlanga’s The Executioner, it’s essential you make the trip to Ocho y Medio Libros de Cine (8½ in Spanish), the city’s hub for cinephiles.
This bookstore-café is on Calle Martín de los Heros, in the neighborhood of Argüelles, just north of the throngs of tourists—or la turistada, as the Spaniards call them—packed into the landmark Plaza de España. Located across the street from the Cines Golem and Princesa, two of the city’s premier cinemas, and among the few in the country that present foreign films undubbed, Ocho y Medio is a shrine to Spanish contributions to the seventh art. Its shelves overflow with screenplays, DVDs, monographs, and books. Signed posters and props from recent film productions hang on the walls. María Silveyro, who founded the bookstore almost twenty-five years ago with her late husband, fills in remaining empty spaces with framed drawings and doodles, left behind by past patrons like Quentin Tarantino and Gael García Bernal.
We swung by Ocho y Medio to pick up a book on the history of the San Sebastian Film Festival and to talk to María about the bookstore and the state of Spanish cinema today. (Our original conversation was conducted in Spanish, which I later translated into English.)
How did the bookstore come about?
My husband and I came up with it. He was a sociologist by profession, and I studied political science, but we both loved cinema and books. I worked in international law and Iberian studies, and I traveled a lot for the job, but for a number of reasons, our lives led us to opening a film-only bookstore.
At first it was very small. The café section opened about eight years ago, because in Spain, as with everywhere else in the world, books aren’t what they used to be, and we were lucky to have a space big enough to split into a central area for books and video and another section for a café.
How did it become a destination for film and book lovers?
Film in Spain really started to take off about twenty years ago. We were born slightly after the generation of Pedro Almodóvar and Fernando Trueba, but in the end we started meeting up with people in the industry, many of whom are now our friends. That’s how it became a meeting place, and many people from the industry still come here, in large part because they won’t be disturbed. That’s rule number one: if someone like Almodóvar wants to come in here, and I see someone bothering him . . . There are a lot of people who come here, not just actors and directors, but also technicians.
It’s funny, I’ve met people who work in the Mexican film industry who don’t see each other in Mexico but run into each other here. Not just once, but many times—it’s the same with Argentines as well.
What kind of events do you host here?
Book presentations, for example, and tomorrow we’re hosting an event about psychology and cinema that we have three times a year in the smaller space next door, organized by a group of psychologists. We host a lot of interviews because of the movie houses right across the street from us. When films premiere, the filmmakers end up coming here to do press. We also do talks about adapting literature for film, as well as events on film and food and film and wine, to play around with the restaurant space.
Tell me about the decoration.
All the objects are film-related. What happens is that I have tons of things stored away because of all the signed posters for new films coming in—but it bums me out to get rid of the old ones, and I know I’ll have to at some point, to decorate the store again. But I always keep something.
Are there any memorable objects in here I should take a closer look at?
Well, over there, above the coffee machine, is the dress that Carmen Maura wore in Volver. Next to it is a shirt worn by Viggo Mortensen in Alatriste [a swashbuckling historical epic from 2006 that was, at the time, the most expensive Spanish film ever made]. And I also kept all the face masks from The Skin I Live In. I almost always keep stuff from Pedro’s films because he insists on it.
Let’s talk about your book collection. I see a good mix of books on Spanish cinema, and others on international cinema. How do you curate it?
It’s a mixture of everything. We used to have a lot more on international cinema, and a lot more books in English, but that has been complicated to maintain with the rise of digital platforms.
I also saw that you publish your own book collections.
We edited Spanish screenplays from 1999 to 2009, more or less. Now, we publish with a group called Setenta Teclas (Seventy Keys), which is an association of seventy Spanish screenwriters that formed after my husband’s death. We publish five screenplays a year, chosen by commission. Last Friday, we released El Ministerio del Tiempo [a time-travel adventure that quickly became one of the biggest critical and audience hits on Spanish television this past season]. The book includes not only the pilot but also an introduction that explains the project and how the filmmakers were able to sell it. We always make sure that we’re not only presenting the screenplay, but that you might learn something too.
You’re in here every day not only observing people from the film industry who come by, but you’re also immersed in the history of Spanish cinema. What can you tell us about the state of Spanish cinema today?
There is no industry. It was done away with. And I think it’s a shame because Spain has produced great cinema for years and years. There’s still great cinema being made now, just with meager resources. And the reality is people don’t go to see Spanish films. I mean, they go see Almodóvar, they go to see particular films . . . I think there are great films being made, but people don’t go to see films they know nothing about. But the industry exists, and the quality of films has soared in the past decades.