There is nothing like a television show that evenly combines action, romance, and crime, all with implicit political references in the background. The Spanish Netflix blockbuster La Casa de Papel, (literal translation: “The House of Paper”) presented in English as Money Heist, revolves around a fictionalized robbery of the Royal Mint of Spain in the first two seasons and the attempt to save a captured comrade from the Spanish state, while simultaneously robbing the Central Bank of Spain, in seasons three and four. With the recent release of season four, the show’s brilliant writing and popular characters have gone on to heights far beyond Netflix. The show’s costumes and their use of the Italian antifascist partisan song Bella Ciao have become new cultural catalysts at mass protests in Houston, Iraq, Chile, Lebanon, Italy, Palestine, and elsewhere. While the song has been a commonly sung protest anthem in the past, it was simultaneously picked up around the world during the mass rebellions of 2019.
The use of cultural symbols in protests is far from new but in an era where one cannot leave any ground open for the far-right to capitalize on anything in the world, the need to utilize them when appropriate is more important than it seems. Picking up on the red jumpsuits, Dali masks and the show’s language of resistance, the social movements of the past year gave credence to the show’s aesthetic forms and have further proven Parasite director Bong Joon Ho’s point on the universality of films that critique the order of things, “Essentially, we all live in the same country called capitalism.”
The show’s characters are not flatly written and each of them has an emotional depth that is dealt with in a multitude of ways during the robbery. Like in the movie Reservoir Dogs, the robbers conceal their identities by re-naming themselves after cities while the group leader simply goes by “the professor”. That love and the relations between the characters intervene as obstacles into everything that is attempted, is part of what makes them relatable and human as many of the characters get caught up in affairs and break the professor’s rules at the beginning of the series – most importantly, no relationships. It is as if time is suspended throughout much of the show and while they are ultimately on a clock to get out of the building, the hours are filled with the passion of arguments, strong dialogue, flashbacks and action.
The show represents a significant break with the traditional crime drama genre. From Law & Order to one of the many CSI shows, crime dramas reflect a stunted view of reality whose implication is that the state can never be defeated. In La Casa de Papel, not only is the state and its public security apparatus constantly outmaneuvered when it comes to hostage negotiations and dealing with the Dali-masked robbers, but they are also defeated ideologically when appealing to civil society for support. The show has managed to go beyond the demarcated line of portrayals of the state as an entity that cannot be beaten, a rare experience for viewers of crime dramas which overwhelmingly portray detectives and police as unbeatable by the end of every television series.
Bella Ciao versus The Fisher of Men
The past ten years of politics in Spain and across much of the world have made the situation clear. People are fed up with austerity, lying politicians, snobby bureaucrats, violent police and the hardened administration of the state. They feel excluded from the decision making process and largely alienated by the institutions of power. Between 2011-2015, there were mass protests in Spain that culminated in the Indignados movement against unemployment and the severe austerity measures that the government undertook in order to pay off its debt to the European Central Bank.
La Casa de Papel owes much of its success to the Indignados Movement, the insurgent Asturian miners strikes, the renewed feminist movement, the organizing of immigrant women in Spain, and the global upsurge of the Arab Spring and the Occupy Movement. In no other context would a series about masked robbers calling themselves the resistance, featuring Asturian miners breaking out an imprisoned comrade, criticizing the state for bailing out the banks, and not the people, while singing Bella Ciao make any sense. As always, on-the-ground political sequences always precede their representation in film. However, the differences between these social movements and the collective work of the robbers is how they perceive strategy.
The difference between the social movements and the robbers is that the latter is more centralized and still allows for spontaneous decisions to be made in critical moments, while the former is messier and takes much longer to get anything done. Looking back at the Indignados movement, while they had an obviously negative view of state-power it is clear that they were ill-equipped to take power as well – as the electoral victories of the right-wing Partido Popular soon after proved. Not an isolated phenomenon, the same problems plagued both the Occupy Movement and much of the Arab Spring with the only noteworthy changes coming out of Tunisia.
Ultimately, the political message of the show negates the “how to change the world without taking power” thesis, as the show portrays the opposite – you must take over the arms of power in order to change the world. That the state intelligence agency, police and military must be called out to deal with a hostage crisis proves that the Royal Mint of Spain is not just a building, it is instead a key utility of state power.
While central banks represent the concentration of capital they also signify, as Karl Marx pointed out long ago, alienation. One look at the design of any Euro note makes it clear: there are no meaningful symbols on them. [They are] decorated with random bridges, buildings and arches that do not exist anywhere. They represent nothing, which is surprising given the amount of modernist buildings, great bridges and other architectural achievements among EU countries. While Marx was not referring to the literal design of banknotes, other than as an instrument of alienation, the fact that people do not see themselves in the medium of exchange that runs their lives is ultimately an alienating experience.
At the end of season two, the professor drives the point home saying that the major banks were bailed out and the people were left to deal with the crisis, in order to justify stealing from the Royal Mint of Spain and, later, redistributing much of the wealth from hot air balloons over the center of Madrid. After forty years of neoliberalism, austerity, the privatization of public goods and cuts to social spending, the professor’s point has an almost universal appeal for the millions of people who were dealt a hard blow during the last recession.
Towards the end of season four, the robbers are forced by one of the escaped security guards to sing the Catholic song The Fisher of Men. The scene is bizarre with Nairobi’s head stuck in the frame of a door and represents a clear antithesis to Bella Ciao – reminiscent of the Catholic church’s close ties to the fascist regime of Francisco Franco. With rise of the fascist VOX party making strong electoral gains and the left-wing Unidos Podemos being pushed into an alliance with the technocratic Partido Socialista Obrero Español, the stakes for taking power could not be higher.
About the Reviewer: Brant Roberts is based out of Houston and is a member of the editorial collective Houston Review of Books. His writings have appeared in Marx and Philosophy Review of Books, The Daily Cougar, and Threshold Magazine.