The first public screening of a Spanish-made film, Eduardo Jimeno's compilation of actuality footage, Salida de misa de doce del Pilar de Zaragoza (People Coming Out of the Noontime Mass at the Cathedral of the Virgin of Pilar in Zaragoza), took place in 1896, just months before the Lumière brothers' presentation in Madrid of similar images of local color that included port scenes from Barcelona, urban vistas in Madrid, and, of course, bullfights. Early silent cinema tended to depict a quaint, almost exotic backwardness that would become a staple of the cinematic imagery of the country seen by Spanish and international audiences for decades.
Though Spanish silent cinema had almost no international impact, there did exist a fledging film culture during this period. Among its notable figures was Fructuós Gelabert (1874–1955), whose Riña en un café (Café Brawl, 1897) is the first Spanish-made fiction film made in Spain. Along with Gelabert, Segundo de Chomón (1871–1929) worked independently during the final years of the nineteenth century and early years of the twentieth to develop a number of special effects or trick films. His most inventive creation was El Hotel eléctrico ( The Electric Hotel , 1908), which depicts a fully automated hotel in which a man is automatically shaved and his wife's hair is combed.
In the early 1900s Barcelona was established as the principal center for film production on the Iberian peninsula. This changed in 1915 when Benito Perojo (1894–1974) and his brother established the first Madrid-based film production company. The multitalented Perojo worked as producer, director, scriptwriter, actor, and even camera operator on his films.
Perhaps the most significant feature of the silent period in Spanish cinema was its emphasis on local cultural tastes to shape the emerging international medium. The early preference for folkloric cinema and adaptations of Spanish works of fiction and theater is found, for instance, in Ricardo Baños's 1905 film version of the popular Zorrilla play Don Juan Tenorio . Several of the figures who were to shape the early sound film in Spain had already established themselves in the silent era. Most notable among these was Perojo, who would later direct and produce films, and Florián Rey (1894–1962) and Juan de Orduña (1900–1974), both of whom started their film careers as actors and went on to direct important films of the sound era.
Efforts to imitate the epic style of D. W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation (1915) led to Spanish epic films such as the Spanish-French coproduction La vida de Cristóbal Colón y su descubrimiento de América (The Life of Christopher Columbus and his Discovery of America, 1916), but these seldom appealed to audiences outside Spain. The last such epic of the silent era was Rey's anachronistic La aldea maldita (Cursed Village, 1929), which was made as sound films were being exhibited in Spain.