Carlos Saura’s Living Memories

Carlos Saura on the set of Cría cuervos . . . (1976)

Last October, Spain’s Academy of Cinematographic Arts and Sciences announced that this year’s Honorary Goya would be presented to Carlos Saura, “one of the essential filmmakers in the history of Spanish cinema,” during the thirty-seventh annual awards ceremony scheduled for this past Saturday. At some point during the week leading up to the big night, it became clear that the time to give Saura the award was now. Saura held his bronze bust of Francisco Goya up to a camera lens a few days before he passed away on Friday. He was ninety-one.

Saura was a passionate photographer. His collection of more than six hundred cameras—and he built more than a few of them himself—filled dozens of shelves in his studio. Not only were his photographs exhibited in museums and galleries, they were also published in several books, and Saura, a tireless writer (three of his novels came out between 1997 and 2004) often wrote about photography. As a young man, he thought seriously about becoming a motorcycle racer, then a flamenco dancer, but he eventually settled on photography.

His older brother, Antonio Saura, who later became one of Spain’s most significant postwar artists, encouraged Carlos to consider a career in cinema. The bond between the brothers and their two younger sisters was tight. The Spanish Civil War broke out when Carlos was four, and his father, a senior tax official for the republican government, moved his family from the northeastern town of Huesca to larger, safer cities as Franco’s fascists advanced from the south and west. “I remember it starting,” Saura told Giles Tremlett in the Guardian in 2011. “I recall the bombardments and deaths, and always going to new schools.”

The war, always addressed obliquely until Franco died in 1975, is the crux of several of Saura’s features, but the title of the first short film he made, shot in 1955, is an overt reference to another career-long preoccupation: Flamenco. Three more short documentaries followed before he made his first fictional feature, The Delinquents (1960), a group portrait of young Spaniards that screened in competition in Cannes. It was the beginning of a long and eventful relationship between the director and the festival.

Peppermint Frappé (1967), starring José Luis López Vázquez as a man who becomes obsessed with his friend’s wife (Geraldine Chaplin), was unreeling in Cannes when a gaggle of filmmakers led by Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut stormed the theater and demanded an immediate end to the screening and the entire 1968 edition. Saura said he was more than happy to have his film “stand aside to make way for the revolution.”

The other festival that played a key role in Saura’s career was the Berlinale. His first feature invited to the competition was Weeping for the Bandit (1964), a tale of nineteenth-century outlaws featuring Lino Ventura, Lea Massari, and in a small role, a good friend and major influence, Luis Buñuel. Saura met Buñuel in Cannes in 1960, and the two directors hit it off.

A Silver Bear for Best Director in Berlin for The Hunt (1966) drew international recognition. Four men, three of them die-hard Francoists, go hunting for rabbits, and as the hot sun bears down, things get out of hand. Fernando F. Croce calls The Hunt “Saura’s relentless exorcism of a nation’s surplus machismo, erect barrels and hidden skeleton and all.” In the summer of 1968, Peppermint Frappé screened all the way through in Berlin, and Saura won a second Silver Bear.

Honeycomb (1969), another film starring Geraldine Chaplin, his life partner at the time, “describes the games of power and submission played out by a bourgeois couple immersed in affective and existential chaos,” wrote Manu Yáñez Murillo in a 2007 issue of Film Comment. “Several of the components that will later guide Saura’s future output become apparent here: the presence of religious symbols, sexual fetishism (inherited from Buñuel), surrealist and dreamlike undertones, memory games, and a marked theatricality.”

Saura returned to Cannes with Anna and the Wolves (1973), and he won the Jury Prize for Cousin Angelica (1974). But it was Cría cuervos . . . (1976), the winner of the Grand Prix of the Jury, that became a milestone in Saura’s oeuvre—one that happened to coincide with a milestone in Spanish history. When he began shooting the story of an eight-year-old girl—Saura wrote the role specifically for Ana Torrent, the arresting star of Víctor Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive (1973)—who communes with her dead mother (Chaplin), Franco was on his deathbed. “Franco took so long to die that we all had time to buy champagne and store it in the fridge,” Saura told Giles Tremlett. “When he finally died, you could hear the corks popping.”

“Flitting effortlessly between fairy tale, somber modernism, and mordantly comic soap opera,” wrote Brendon Bouzard for Reverse Shot in 2007, Cría cuervos “starts off as a mystery of sorts, and expands into a low-key chamber drama about the sadness of childhood, before transforming into an allegorical, cryptic memory film on life under fascism.” In the essay written for our release, Paul Julian Smith observes that Saura “shows the intimacy with which the living and the dead can cohabit, most especially when, as is so often the case in his cinema, fragile psyches are frozen in time by trauma.”

In 1981, Saura won the Golden Bear in Berlin for Deprisa, deprisa, a story of young thieves on the run featuring nonprofessional actors, but more significantly in the long run, he also shot Blood Wedding, the first film in what became his flamenco trilogy. Choreographer Antonio Gades and his company rehearse a flamenco adaptation of Federico García Lorca’s 1933 play, and they returned for the 1983 follow-up, Carmen, which drew from both Prosper Mérimée’s 1845 novella and Georges Bizet’s 1875 opera. Carmen scored two awards in Cannes, a BAFTA, and an Oscar nomination and became Saura’s biggest international hit. The third film in the trilogy, El amor brujo (1986), while widely admired, didn’t quite catch fire the way Carmen did.

In 2007, Manu Yáñez Murillo detected in Saura’s then-recent films “a clear effort to maintain a certain balance between folk-culture research, social portraits, and the study of their origins, but Saura’s preoccupations and methods now seem outmoded; his later films are pale shadows of his earlier, socially engaged work.” But later that same year, Fados, a celebration of Portugal’s signature musical genre, screened at the New York Film Festival, and Reverse Shot’s Michael Koresky found it “saturated in visual artificiality, all the better to provide colorful contrast with the heartfelt, authentic performances at its center . . . If you get on its wavelength, it’s a rousing affair.”

Similarly, Flamenco, Flamenco (2010), shot by renowned cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, finds Saura “charging the performers’ intensity to an uninterrupted state of vibrant cultural expression,” writes Clayton Dillard for Slant. Even after he turned ninety, Saura carried on working. With the nonfiction feature Walls Can Talk (2022), he drew parallels between the first prehistoric cave paintings and contemporary urban art. The film premiered at San Sebastián last fall and opened in theaters in Spain on February 3—one week to the day before Saura died.

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