Eclipse Series 6: Carlos Saura’s Flamenco Trilogy

Essays — Oct 15, 2007



One of Spain’s most acclaimed and prolific directors, Carlos Saura emerged as an artist in the late 1950s under Franco’s dictatorship and immediately made his mark as an incisive, if necessarily allusive, social and political commentator. In such films as The Hooligans (1960), a neorealist look at a group of wayward young men, and The Hunt (1965), about four veterans (it is only implied of the Spanish civil war) on a weekend hunting trip, Saura revealed his skill at melding the gritty with the heavily allegorical. For these investigations into his nation’s identity—which took many forms, from documentary (Cuenca, 1958) to historical and contemporary drama (La prima Angelica, 1974; Cría cuervos?.?.?. , 1976) to comedy (Mama Turns One Hundred, 1979), and spanned Spain’s transition to democracy—Saura was lauded around the world. Yet it was by peeking into the world of flamenco that he reached the pinnacle of his international renown.

Though Saura didn’t set out to create a triptych of dance films, the works that would come to be known as his “Flamenco Trilogy”—Blood Wedding (1981), Carmen (1983), and El amor brujo (1986)—defined him as his nation’s leading visual stylist of dance on film, and among its most popular cinematic exports. The multifaceted flamenco, which encompasses song (cante), dance (baile), and guitar (toque), and contains more than fifty music styles, originated in the ethnic melting pot of Andalusia, the southernmost region of Spain, and the many traditions found there, including Islamic, Sephardic, Greek, and Latin American; Gypsies, who entered the region in recent centuries, helped flamenco survive in the modern age. This subject, then, gave Saura a perfect canvas on which to paint a colorful portrait of one part of his country’s complex heritage. Over the course of the three films, he would experiment with different styles for capturing the various aspects of flamenco, moving from an organic, vérité approach to an ever more self-conscious theatricality.

The impetus for it all came when producer Emiliano Piedra encouraged Saura to attend a rehearsal of a ballet based on Federico García Lorca’s 1933 play Blood Wedding, by choreographer Antonio Gades, Spain’s most celebrated flamenco dancer and the artistic director of the national ballet. Saura was instantly enchanted by Gades’s populist and unpretentious adaptation of Lorca’s rural Andalusian tragedy, which tells the tale of a wedding undone by family vendettas. He decided to film it, not as a straight narrative but as an unscripted dress rehearsal and window into the creative process of Gades and company.

Saura had been a photographer earlier in his career, and dancers were among his subjects. Still, in a 1986 interview he said, “I discovered the world of dance with Blood Wedding.” Saura and Gades “collaborated constantly and completely,” Saura later stated, each submitting to the other’s strengths: the dancer never interfering in the camera placement or choice of cuts, and the filmmaker subordinating himself to the choreography. Saura used just one camera and no crane for this stripped, down-to-earth vision, foregrounding the thumping of the dancers’ feet and the corporeality of their slender bodies. The finished product provides twin testaments to two artists utterly in step with each other’s dazzling showmanship.



Though he had entered the production cautiously, Carlos Saura found Blood Wedding (1981) such a satisfying experience, and his working relationship with choreographer Antonio Gades so invigorating (“It’s been like dealing with a brother”), that it was only two years before the men were devising another film. For the second part of their unplanned trilogy, they collaborated on a screenplay for a very unusual adaptation of Carmen, incorporating Gades’s ideas for a ballet of the 1845 Prosper Mérimée novella with Saura’s metacinematic deconstruction of the widely adapted—most famously in Georges Bizet’s 1875 opera—tale of a Gypsy killed by her jealous lover.

Of the film Saura said, “I have tried, in a way, to exorcise the kinds of ideas that foreigners have of Spain.” And, indeed, in creating so many layers of remove from the traditional characterization of Carmen, Saura reveals it to be an exoticized construct. For his new take on the story, he commissioned mostly new music, by Paco de Lucía, in hopes of creating something more authentically Spanish. His intent is made explicit in the opening scene: Gades, as a fictional version of himself in the process of creating his new ballet, plays a recording of Bizet’s music, its blaring sounds clashing with the gentle cante being performed on guitar a few feet away. Musical director Paco (played by de Lucía) then insists, “The rhythm should be more even, like in bulerías.” This sets up perfectly the film’s series of head-to-head battles: between classical and modern music traditions as well as men and women, the romanticized and the authentic, myth and reality.

Mixing the rehearsal vérité feel of Blood Wedding with a more fanciful, character-based exploration of the narcissism of the dance world, Carmen plays out in an ambiguous, insular realm where the real dissolves into the artificial. The film shifts from lengthy rehearsals for a staging of the fla-menco ballet to a tempestuous behind-the-scenes romance between Gades’s choreographer and his newly discovered lead dancer (Laura del Sol). As Saura’s modest narrative unfolds it becomes difficult to decipher whether events are taking place within the dance or in “reality.” The film’s spare studio set—in which a flurry of red scarves, purple leotards, and ominous shadows play—becomes a space where the performers work out their frustrations in violent fictional confrontations.

“I feel an enormous fascination for the world of theater, but within cinema,” Saura said at the time. And he certainly makes theater cinematic in Carmen, following the insistent flamenco rhythms with slow zooms and swooping, gliding camera work. In one eye-popping sequence, he uses forced perspective to transform a flamenco face-off into a disorienting dance of death. From the echo of pounding feet to the gracefully violent knife fight between del Sol and the exquisite Cristina Hoyos (Gades’s longtime dance partner), dance in Carmen truly feels like an elemental force, as much as love or death. So popular was this Cannes-feted depiction of the physical and interior world of dancers that in 1985 Gades mounted a popular touring version, with Saura serving as staging director and lighting technician—another tribute to their medium-transcending collaboration.



Carlos Saura’s El amor brujo (or Love, the Magician), his final screen collaboration with Antonio Gades, takes us back to the origins of flamenco through the most traditional narrative of the trilogy. Nevertheless, Saura begins the film with a self-conscious flourish that links it stylistically to the previous two works. In a bravura four-minute tracking shot that pans from a descending iron garage door, across a seemingly vacant interior back lot, and finally down to a vast, gorgeously artificial set mimicking a sunny, dusty Andalusian village, the film seems to be foregrounding its and its subject’s artifice, only to ultimately seal us in the warm embrace of the story. It’s the structurally opposite approach from Carmen, which established a documentary-like verisimilitude before collapsing into fantasy.

“I wanted to suggest an artificial space that little by little becomes a reality,” Saura said in an interview upon the film’s release in 1986. And this applies to the trilogy as well, which progresses from the austere origins of Blood Wedding to Carmen’s melding of reality and myth to, finally, a giving over to that myth as its own form of reality. El amor brujo is based on the 1925 Gypsy ballet of the same name, by Spanish composer Manuel de Falla, whose impressionistic work was greatly influenced by Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy and who is credited as legitimizing classical Spanish music for international audiences. For this tale of a woman possessed by the ghost of her unfaithful husband, Saura and Gades researched Gypsy life in the Andalusian city of Granada, the birthplace of flamenco. El amor brujo thus functions as a sort of origin myth for the tradition, and a depiction of the Gypsy culture that has embodied it in recent centuries.

Saura concocted all manner of colorful cinematic alchemy (purple skies, blazing red bonfires) to provide the backdrop for this epic love quadrangle/ghost story and for the explosive physicality of the four main performers: Gades, Laura del Sol, Juan Antonio Jiménez, and the dazzling Cristina Hoyos. Their profoundly felt movements exemplify the flamenco’s internal battle of desire and torment, but even as the dancers use their whole bodies for expression, it’s ultimately their faces, often captured by Saura in close-up, that supply the passion. After all, flamenco dancing is a mode of expression meant to translate, and even transcend, the music.

Though greatly faithful, narratively and musically, to the original ballet, Gades’s staging is adorned with contemporary touches and commentaries. Saura felt it was essential to point out flamenco’s ongoing influence on Spanish culture, evident during the rumba scene at the wedding, in which the sister band Azúcar Moreno, major recording stars at the time, perform a modern flamenco pop song, complete with drum machine. Over the years, Saura has remained fascinated by dance, further exploring it in his films Flamenco (1995) and Tango (1998). And he has also continued to work in other genres, from political drama (Ay, Carmela!, 1990) to biopic (Goya in Bordeaux, 1999). But it is likely that he will be best remembered for these three dynamic films, which made external the internal rhythms of the flamenco.

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