TV Series Review: La Casa de Papel – Part I

Dear Readers: My excuse for writing this review is to pretend that I am a serious intellectual analyzing a political and cultural phenemenon. In reality, I’m just a dopey fan who loves this particular TV show, despite my better judgement! This series can be found on American Netflix under the title “Money Heist“. It is dubbed into many languages, but I prefer to watch it in the original Spanish, with the subtitles turned on. The Spanish title, “La Casa de Papel” means “House of Paper”. Which refers to the Spanish government Mint, which prints currency in the form of Euros. In the first Heist of this series, our lovable criminal gang invades the mint, seizes the printing presses, and proceeds to print enough money to make them all rich. (At least, the survivors of the various shoot-outs.) Then, in Heist #2, a rebuilt gang goes after the Bank of Spain and steals all of the nation’s gold. All in the name of La Resistance, of course.

The core ideology: Bank Robbers vs the capitalist/fascist system.

What is most interesting about this show is that it originated just as a silly television series (and not even all that popular) in Spain, but, at a certain point, caught on exponentially, became an international phenomenon and took on a new life as the voice of all those peoples oppressed by European neo-fascism. The story and characters are said to express the “deep soul” of the entire Spanish-speaking world, as well as the broader “Latin” civilizational arc, encompassing Spain, Portugal, Latin America, and even the broader “Latinate” culture of Mediterranean nations such as Italy, Greece, and the South of France. I am also told that the series in wildly popular in India, a completely different culture and civilizational space. If you look up some of the youtube clips of certain scenes and read the comments underneath, you will find people who are completely obsessed with this show. People who say this show was the only thing that got them through the covid quarantine.

Well, what can you do, it turns out that well-written characters and an ingenious story line have universal appeal. Although we non-Latins may not completely “get” the core values and signals. For example, I personally love this show and the fantastic personalities (which is why I decided to write this review), but I cannot say that I approve of its Anarchist political message. Nor do I approve of bank robbers or art thiefs, I must say (tsk tsk). I mean, these beloved heroes are basically a criminal gang, not social revolutionaries. No? But who cares! The story is the thing, and this one is a corker, for sure.

Bella Ciao

If I am not mistaken, the production of this series spanned some five years, including a break for covid. When Netflix purchased the content, they chopped it up into several seasons and sub-seasons, which makes it confusing to review. For the sake of simplicity I am going to pretend that there are only two seasons, corresponding to the two main story arcs; which I will call Heist #1 and Heist #2.

In Heist #1, which is directed against the Spanish Mint, we watch our anti-hero, code-named “The Professor” (El Profesor) recruit 8 robbers, each a specialist in some vital skill. His first recruit, Tokyo (played by actress Úrsula Corberó) is a spectacularly attractive 30-something who can shoot and crawl through tunnels and also narrates the action of the series.

Úrsula Corberó

El Profesor (played by actor Álvaro Morte) is a nerdy freak who has planned this heist down to the last possible detail. Even before his robbers enter the mint and take hostages, El Profesor (aka Sergio) knows that the police will assign as hostage negotiator Inspector Raquel Murillo (played by actress Itziar Ituño). He background researches her in order to figure out her weak spots. He learns that she is an abused spouse (her ex-husband, a forensics tech with the police, used to beat her). In the first few episodes, we the audience enjoy his flirting with Raquel over the phone, using a disguised voice. What Raquel doesn’t know at first is that the leader of the gang she is pursuing, is not even inside the mint with the other robbers: He is running the operation from a nearby warehouse, while his second-in-command, Berlin, directs the operation from inside the mint, The writers set up a brilliant conflict when Sergio has an “accidental” meeting with Raquel in a nearby coffee shop. The lonely and vulnerable Raquel is quite taken with this sensitive stranger; he is attentive to her needs and seems almost able to read her mind. They start dating. He is manipulating her, of course, but somewhere along the way they end up falling mutually in love. El Profesor is sort of a 40-year-old virgin, and this is his first real love as well. Raquel doesn’t know who he really is, just that she is attracted to him. This is excellent plotting for a future confrontation.

Cop and Robber: An unlikely love story

Meanwhile, as the season progresses, we learn more about the back-stories of these excellent characters. To me, the most interesting character is El Profesor himself. His personality is a series of paradoxes: He is, to be sure, a criminal mastermind and there can be no doubt he is a sociopath; at the same time he is wracked by nerves, shy, extremely timid, and a basically kind-hearted, even gentle individual. But wait! This nerd may be timid, but don’t underestimate him: he has some ninja-type karate skills and can take down an armed man much larger than himself. He even boasts a kind of Vulcan “neck-pinch” which can disable a formidable opponent.

The writers have created a fascinating back-story for Sergio which explains both his criminality and his anarchistic ideology. See, once upon a time there was a Spanish widower who was just trying to raise his two sons, Andrés (played by actor Pedro Alonso) and Sergio. Sergio, the younger of the two, was sickly (had some unspecified disease) and spent most of his childhood in hospitals. Desperate to send him to America for proper treatment, the father turned to a life of crime and became a bank robber. At least, that’s the official story. Once we get into Heist #2 and start to meet more and more of the gang which the two sons inherited, it seems pretty clear that Dear Old Dad had built the start of an organization which the sons, Sergio especially, turned into an international crime ring. Over the years they have recruited the greatest specialists on the planet, always oncall for the next heist. All he has to do is lift up the phone and Sergio can get help from any number of expert Pakistani computer hackers, Asturian miners who know how to tunnel through any kind of rock; safe-crackers; counterfeiters such as the sweet and beautiful Nairobi; not to mention Bogota, the greatest metal welder on the planet.

Sadly, Papa was shot and killed outside a bank he was trying to rob. As in any superhero’s origin story, young Sergio vowed to avenge his Dad. He became “The Resistance”. When he turned 18 he went underground, refused to register his identity to the Spanish government, dropped off the radar, and proceeded, for the next 20 years, to plan the greatest heist of all time. He explains to his followers that this heist was originally his father’s idea, and that actually carrying out this plan will be his homage.

Berlin: A lovable rogue.

It’s only towards the end of Heist #1 that we, the audience, learn an important secret: Sergio’s older brother Andrés is one and the same as the odious code-named Berlin, a violent and misogynistic art thief, whom Sergio places in charge of the robbers working inside the Mint and controlling the hostages. Much to the dismay of the two female members of the team, Tokio and Nairobi. The writers of the show initially drew Berlin as a villain, and were quite surprised when this character became popular with the audience. Why? Well, he is an obnoxious pig, for sure, and even a rapist; but he is also handsome, funny and charming; and most of all, he is played by a brilliant actor who can make you like this character despite yourself.

Once we learn the secret that the two men are brothers, then a lot of things fall into place. And then the writers have the chutzpah to tell us that this criminal family is driven, above all, by left-wing political motives. We learn that their dad used to make them sing an Italian protest song called Bella Ciao which sings of a dying Resistance fighter, a partisan, and a beautiful woman:

Una mattina mi son svegliato
O bella ciao, bella ciao, bella ciao ciao ciao
Una mattina mi son svegliato
Eo ho trovato l’invasor

O partigiano porta mi via
O bella ciao, bella ciao, bella ciao ciao ciao
O partigiano porta mi via
Che mi sento di morir

(etc.)

In a moment of fraternal bonding, in an iconic scene, the two brothers clutch each other affectionately as they dance around the room singing this song. According to a Netflix documentary (“The making of…”) Spanish (and Italian) audiences were so thrilled with this scene, that the song went to the top of the charts. Everybody started singing Bella Ciao. People were very taken with the poignant (very Robin Hood kind of) idea that robbing the Spanish Mint while wearing red jumpsuits and Dali masks is an act of political resistance almost equal to joining the partisans against Mussolini. Cynical Marxists can only shake their heads and intone something like, “Those Spanish anarchists…. sheesh!” It’s still a great scene, though, from a purely dramatic and artistic point of view.

[to be continued]

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