Money Heist | Salvador Dali and the Art of Defiance

“Intelligence without ambition is a bird without wings.” – Salvador Dali

As society continues on in lockdown mode, the inquisitive mind seeks stimulation. Thankfully, there is nothing better than Money Heist. Also known as La Casa de Papel, the addictive crime thriller series from Spain just dropped a fourth season onto Netflix.

Created by Álex Pina (one of the people behind Locked Up, another crossover hit), Money Heist was picked up by Netflix in 2017 after an initial run on Spanish TV channel Antena 3. Since then, the streaming service has shown the first part in December of 2017, the second in April 2018 and the third in July 2019. Now a fourth entry of the show has arrived, proving this thriller has lost none of its dynamic tone or style that drew mass audiences to it despite subtitles. After all, as the Academy Award winning Parasite demonstrated, a clever storyline combined with acting prowess overcomes any language barrier.

The premise is something we’ve seen before. From Dog Day Afternoon to Reservoir Dogs to Ocean’s Eleven, the formula for movie heists tend to follow a relevantly simple path. But by being a series, Money Heist can invest more time into the elaborate planning of its central robberies than a straightforward two-hour movie. Yes, from the trailers, potential audiences are greeted with the typical sights of bank vaults, bundles of money and intimidating characters on phones in front of computer screens. However, what’s really striking is the imagery of machine gun wielding bank robbers dressed in red and wearing masks of fashioned after late painter Salvador Dali. Once one asks the reason for such overt symbolism, another view of this engaging series can be explored.

First off, red comes with its own set of values, both good and bad. It can be the colour of love, valentines and roses. Yet, it’s also the color of blood, fire, evil and of course the devil himself. On a practical level, it’s used in Money Heist to add vibrancy, standing out against the concrete surroundings of the Royal Mint of Spain, a place where banknotes are printed and the target of the robbers in the first two seasons.

In terms of symbolism, however, within Money Heist the clothing colour represents both good and bad as eventually the criminals and hostages wind up wearing the same red jumpsuits – a tactic for the thieves to help evade authorities. This symbolises the audience’s shifting allegiances within the show as we become invested in and sympathetic to some of the criminals, while also coming to dislike some hostages.

Red is also the colour associated with resistance and the robbery of the Royal Mint can be read as an act of defiance and strangely of creation. Adding Dali into the equation, the series becomes a powerful exploration of the artist’s ideals. The rejection and skepticism of capitalism meshes the themes of Money Heist with that of Dali.

Also a point to investigate is the fact that the robbery is not really a robbery. The plot of season one sees the criminals break into the Royal Mint not to steal but to print bills. It revolves around the creation of money, not the taking of something already there. As such, it can be read as a warped act of art. As Dali said: “Surrealism is destructive, but it destroys only what it considers to be shackles limiting our vision.”

That art is similar to Dadaism, the punk rock of the art world that sprung up circa 1916 in Zurich. The expressionist form was both absurdist and anarchic – incorporating poetry, music and painting. Similar to the initial blast of punk rock it soon fizzled out. However, this was not without leaving a mark on Dali.

Although too young to be involved in the Dadaism movement being born in 1904, Dali did share the rebellious visions of rejection through expressionism. That ties in with Money Heist with its dismissal of society’s capitalist idealism through creation. Although unlike other similar outings, such as Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta, Money Heist’s revolution is to take place without physical destruction or even bloodshed – an important fact as the first episode sees the thieves demand no innocents be harmed.

This Robin Hood style approach is instilled within the criminals by their leader The Professor (Alvaro Morte) stationed outside the Royal Mint giving them commands. This is because he believes that no casualties will result in the public deeming the robbers heroes, not terrorists. Again, this matches Dali’s self-idolatry perfectly. As the artist said: “Each morning when I awake, I experience again a supreme pleasure…that of being Salvador Dali.”

Within the central characters themselves, named after cities to protect their identies, there are still some nuances of the artist embedded. For example, there’s the well-written character of Berlin (Pedro Alonso). Similar to the cold war city previously torn between two opposite fractions (Dali was once a communist), the character switches between frightening psychotic arrogance to being a stable empathic leader – a yin and yang personality to the de-facto head honcho of the group in the field.

There is one more piece of art within Money Heist, the inclusion of the ancient Japanese practice origami. The Professor toils with his creations from paper while the tensest of situations are underway. At times the cause is lead character Tokyo (Úrsula Corberó), named after the Japanese city. This recurring imagery of origami being made comes to symbolise the meticulous Professor’s worry, frustration and need to have control over the more impulsive Tokyo.

All these artistic references interwoven within Money Heist somehow do not cause it to be a complicated watch. Instead, they just demonstrate the show’s intelligence, the foundations of which have always been present and have been given room to grow over four seasons. Like most art, it’s subtle – provoking an emotional response and in this case, an addiction.

That is what Money Heist is – addictive viewing. It’s the perfect fit for our present conditions with 31 episodes ripe for binging.

All four seasons of Money Heist are streaming on Netflix.

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