If you look up Maria Mercè Forteza on Wikipedia, you will discover that her biographical details are somewhat vague. She was born in Majorca, which is as precise as the information gets, but there is no date of birth or of death. Had she been from a bygone era, this absence of detail might not be surprising, but Maria Forteza lived in the twentieth century. Her husband, Ramón Úbeda, was born in 1901 - this is for certain - so an assumption could be that when she debuted at the Lyric Theatre in Palma in 1924 she was around 20 years old. Her performance at the Lyric is itself a bit of an unknown, although she did come to gain a reputation as a songwriter. As to her death, it was before 1964; there is no greater precision.
Maria Forteza has been arousing a great deal of interest. The mystery that surrounds those details of date and birth probably wouldn't, in itself, have become a matter of fascination. But much attention is being paid to her because Maria Forteza, it is believed, was the first woman in Spain to direct a film using sound. And that film, moreover, was entitled "Mallorca".
The story sort of begins in 1982. Cans with nitrate films were discovered in a warehouse. They were given to the Filmoteca Española, Spain's national film library. For almost forty years, one particular film had been stored without any attention having been paid to it. But recently, just before the state of alarm was declared in fact, this film and others were digitised.
A peculiar thing about this film was that its catalogue information said that it was a silent film which was black and white with colour filters and was made by Balear Films in 1926. The director was Francisco Aguiló Torrandell. But when the work was carried out to digitise the film, it became clear that this information was completely wrong. It wasn't a silent film, there were no colour filters, the production company was not Balear Films, and the director wasn't Francisco Aguiló Torrandell. The producer was Ramón Úbeda and the director was Maria Forteza.
Research into Spanish filmmaking in the 1920s and up to the outbreak of the Civil War in 1936 does reveal references to Úbeda, but this research is silent when it comes to Maria Forteza, which just adds to the mystery and to the debate that has been sparked by the digitised discovery of the film. Until recently, it was understood that the first Spanish female director to use sound was the Barcelona-born Rosario Pi. Her film was made in 1935 and was entitled "El Gato Montés".
The national film library reckons that Maria Forteza's film was made in 1934. It was no earlier than 1932 because the technology for the sound system was unknown in Spain until 1932. And once it was used for the making of "Mallorca", nothing more was seemingly heard of it. Ramón Úbeda had developed this sound system.
The film was described as a tribute to the Spanish composer and pianist Isaac Albéniz. Scenes of the island are complemented by his Opus 202, otherwise known as Majorca. But as with almost every turn in this story, there is no record of the film ever having been screened. There are no press or other archives; nothing.
Given that it was about Majorca, the interest has obviously been particularly keen here, and this has led to further investigation into the mystery of Maria Forteza. It has been said that she and Ramón left when the Civil War started and went into exile in Lisbon. Yet some research suggests that not only was Maria still in Majorca after the war had started but also that the film wasn't made until 1936 at the earliest, which would therefore mean that she wasn't first female director to use sound after all.
This research has looked at the Lions of the Born, the sphinxes on the Passeig Born, which is one of the locations in the film. If one looks closely at the statue, one can apparently make out an inscription. It reads 'Arriba España', and this - it is reckoned - wouldn't have appeared until 1936 (it was removed some time in the 1960s). The Falange would have been responsible for it, so it is believed, albeit there is no proof for this. Even so, it adds yet another twist to a story, for which information has now emerged that fills in the gaps about Maria Forteza.
Miquel Ángel Lozano is a teacher at the Conservatory in Palma. He is Maria's grandson. He had no idea about the film, but a few days ago he provided much more detail about her. She died in Majorca of a lung disease in 1961 at the age of 48, the year before Miquel was born. So she would have been just 12 or 13 when she had debuted at the Lyric. She was a great singer and appeared in zarzuelas. Both she and his grandfather were very left-wing and republicans. They went to Barcelona at the start of the war, which may well dispute the 'Arriba España' hypothesis. They were arrested but released at the end of the war, with the help of a friend who was a Franco supporter, and which was when they managed to get to Lisbon. In 1950, Maria returned to Majorca. Ramón went to America and never came back to the island. They had separated, but Miquel learned no more than this from his mother.
It is a story which should elevate Maria Forteza to the very heights in the history of Spanish film. Recognition will surely now come her way; Miquel hopes so.
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