One of the purest and most stunning performance films ever made.
We open on an empty hall. It appears to be an old train depot or maybe even a church as huge stained glass panels of indistinct design reach for the heavens. A series of screens and baffles are erected. Chairs are placed in a semi-circle at the heart of the space. Soon, voices can be heard, low and muttering. People enter and mill about, finding sections of solitude to warm-up or vocalize. One by one, they seem to prepare themselves for something serious and important. As the frenzy begins to settle down, a group enters the arena. Some take chairs while others gather behind them. Soon, a voice beckons, bellowing a sad, aching lament. The melody line modulates and jumps. Like an Islamic call to Allah, others respond, and the chant begins. There is a rhythm and a ritual to the singing. Quickly, performers are compelled to leave their seat and dance. Heels click across the floor and hand flourishes fill the air. One by one, another set of singers/dancers/players occupy center stage, bringing their traditional tunes and differing versions of this endlessly inventive folk music and dance to the forefront. This is history. This is cultural custom. This is Flamenco.
Like a visual scrapbook or living history text, Flamenco is a capsule, not only to traditions lost or lingering in the limbo of time, but of forgotten talent as well. In this showcase of the well known (but little understood) Latin dance form, we learn that flamenco is not just about castanets, señoritas in frilly gowns and fancy footwork. It's also about song and about a style of guitar. In combination, the trio becomes a celebration and a cautionary example, a record of a slowly dying institution created to show future generations what they tossed upon the social scrap pile. Though created in Spain, presented in traditional languages, and with just the slightest hint of a narrative voice-over (about two minutes at the beginning), this refined and revealing motion picture says more about the customs, the background, and the purpose of flamenco as an ethic entertainment than any fact laden documentary could express with hours of interviews. Even with only a vague understanding of what is going on, certain similarities and requirements for the form flow out from the performances. First there is the call and response style sing-along, where a lead vocalist expresses his or her angst via long, looping melody lines while the gathering responds in kind. Poly-rhythmic handclapping and playing also fills in the open spaces. Jazz-like interaction between the instruments is a must, since they move the song story forward and back. And almost always, the songs are about the pain and suffering of love and betrayal, harrowing and heartbreaking.
Director Carlos Saura is clearly a painter working in celluloid, a master of movement and atmosphere, as this is one of the most visually sumptuous and stunning dance films ever created. Close-ups are held on ancient faces, cracks and creases telling their own spectacular stories. Dancers are filmed in gloriously composed medium and long shots, the better to witness their overall physical grace. Only occasionally does the camera zoom in for an examination of the actual steps. This is exactly the point with Flamenco on the whole. This art form is about every aspect of the presentation: music, emotion, words, sounds, the beat, and the body. And as each example passes in front of the screen, our understanding increases, as does our appreciation. Sure, some could argue that this all starts to sound the same after a while, that one Wailing Wall style serenade with epic vocal histrionics is just like another. But that would be missing the point. There are subtle nuances and exacting differences between the styles, and if you pay very close attention to Flamenco, you will see the form evolve and modernize. Though it can be at times arcane and full of friendly if sometimes frightening idiosyncrasies, Flamenco is one of the best performance films ever fashioned and stands as an important cultural testament to a often misunderstood, mysterious musical methodology.
New Yorker Films gives Flamenco a mixed blessing on DVD. As for sound and vision, the presentation could not be better. As for extras, we are definitely left wanting more. A movie as expertly crafted as Flamenco needs a transfer that captures the mind-blowing imagery equally well and New Yorker delivers this in spades. The film is shot in the warm hues of orange, red, and yellow, and there is no bleeding or flaring to be found. The anamorphic image is also crisp, with excellent detail in the close-ups. Aurally, the Dolby Digital Stereo is magnificent, treating the riveting musical offerings with unimaginable care. Too bad that more contextual material couldn't have been added to sell this disc to those who may not otherwise give it a second look (or who will read the "Riverdance" reference and run screaming). We are treated to an in-depth, if hard to read, set of flamenco fact files each explaining the different styles showcased here. There is also a cast and crew list and a set of filmographies that offer information of who was involved in the making of this near-masterwork. But a commentary, either by the director or someone versed in flamenco, would have helped those who remained confused by the presentation. Not that anyone should be perplexed with what is going on here. Flamenco is a presentation of dance, of song and of musicianship in its purest form. It is a special accomplishment. It is an unforgettable experience.
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• Flamenco Fact Files
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