NEW YORK — If there was a pivotal figure in the movement that came to be known as the New Spanish Cinema, it was Elías Querejeta.
He produced the essential works of many of his nation’s most challenging filmmakers, and he liked to push the envelope. In the waning days of Franco’s dictatorship in the 1960s and ’70s, as Spain began to relax its censorship policies, Mr. Querejeta saw an opportunity for a liberalized cinema and ran with it, like the former soccer player he was — though he occasionally went too far and too fast even for a more permissive government.
The results were among the cream of late-20th-century Spanish film. Mr. Querejeta, who died on June 9 in Madrid at 78, produced 13 films by Carlos Saura, including “The Hunt” (1966), which ushered in the so-called New Spanish Cinema and won Saura the Silver Bear as best director at the 16th annual Berlin Film Festival.
He produced Saura’s “Prima Angelica” and “Cria Cuervos,” which won special jury prizes at the 1973 and 1975 Cannes festivals, and “Mama Turns 100” (1979), which was nominated for the Academy Award for best foreign film. “Mama Turns 100” was a sequel to Saura’s “Ana and the Wolves” (1973), which Mr. Querejeta also produced.
More recently he produced another Oscar contender, “Mondays in the Sun” (2002), with Javier Bardem. “While Elias and I had many things in common,” Saura said in an interview, recalling the two men’s long association, “more than anything what brought us together was a deep friendship cemented during the difficult years of resistance to Francoism. Both of us wanted to make a ‘different’ cinema, and we struggled with all our might to achieve it.”
Mr. Querejeta was born on Oct. 27, 1934, to an affluent, liberal-minded family in the Basque town of Hernani. He was a First Division professional soccer player for San Sebastián’s Real Sociedad and directed two documentaries, one about San Sebastián and the other about soccer, with Antonio Eceiza, with whom he would later produce four feature films, before moving to Madrid in 1963 and becoming a producer.
There he also developed a working relationship with Victor Erice, with whom he made the widely acknowledged masterpiece “Spirit of the Beehive” (1973).
For all his decades of success, however, Mr. Querejeta fell out of favor with many in the Spanish filmmaking world during the 1990s, when Spain was enjoying an economic boom and, although the culture was increasingly liberated, his liberal worldview came to be seen by many as old hat.
“Following the return to democracy, Querejeta somewhat lost his stride as a producer,” said Richard Peña, the former executive director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center, who programmed many films produced by Mr. Querejeta at the New York Film Festival. In one notorious episode, he refused to let Erice finish shooting his 1983 film “El Sur,” citing economic constraints, leaving the film, in the director’s view, unfinished. “Mondays in the Sun” was Mr. Querejeta’s last film to have major international impact. In it Bardem is one of four unemployed shipyard workers who must deal with joblessness, loss of self-esteem, and an economy that regards them as disposable.
The film, directed by Fernando León de Aranoa, won five Goya Awards (Spain’s equivalent of the Oscars) in 2003, including those for best film, best director, and best lead actor. It was also chosen over Pedro Almodóvar’s “Talk to Her” as the Spanish entry for the 2003 foreign-language Oscar.
Mr. Querejeta continued to shepherd important new talents, including Aranoa and Montxo Armendáriz. “But,” Peña said, “he was no longer a major player in the cinema he had done so much to put on the world map. The last few times I saw him he seemed rather bitter with having been pretty much forgotten by both contemporary filmmakers and film audiences.”
Mr. Querejeta’s last film was as both a producer and a director: “Cerca de Tus Ojos” (“Close Your Eyes),” a 2009 documentary about a female journalist and the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
He leaves his daughter, the filmmaker Grácia Querejeta, who announced his death, and with whom he often worked: He produced three family dramas she directed, including the last fiction feature he produced, “Seven Billiard Tables” (2007).
“Elias remained loyal to a code of behavior that involved risk and urgency,” Saura said. “It was only thanks to his Basque tenacity, and some grain of my Aragonese stubbornness, that we survived one of the gloomiest periods in Spanish history.”