For those who've ever put on their red shoes but ended up dancing the blues, Judge Lee takes a look at some really sweet moves in Carlos Saura's Flamenco Trilogy.
Our review of Carmen, published August 18th, 2008, is also available.
"I was just a bumpkin. All I did was repeat the steps they taught
Criterion continues its line of slimmed-down, multi-title collections with Carlos Saura's Flamenco Trilogy. Arriving on Region 1 DVD for the first time with this three-disc set are the dance performance films Blood Wedding, Carmen and El amor brujo. Fans of flamenco will be delighted to see these early dance cinema works by one of Spain's great filmmakers. Already a renowned veteran filmmaker when he made the first installment of the trilogy, Saura (Cria Cuervos) essentially redefined himself as a master visual stylist of the dance film with these works that brought international attention to his country's rich heritage of dance.
Facts of the Case
In his first collaboration with choreographer Antonio Gades, Blood Wedding, Carlos Saura gives viewers a behind-the-curtain look at a ballet coming to life. It begins in a casual observational style as the dancers settle in at their dressing stations and meticulously apply their makeup. The quiet intimacy of the early scenes is explosively broken when Gades leads his company through a warm-up routine. What started as a documentary of dancers in preparation now shifts into full performance mode as the company stages a dress rehearsal in the empty dance studio.
Based on Federico Garcia Lorca's 1933 play, the story of Blood Wedding is painted in broad strokes by choreographer Gades. The performance begins with music and dancing to mark the celebration of a marriage. However, the bride (Cristina Hoyos) is still in love with Leonardo (Gades). The pair run away together but not without being noticed by others—including the groom's mother. It is an insult that must be answered and the groom (Juan Antonia Jimenez) sets off to confront Leonardo.
Art imitates art in the Oscar-nominated Carmen, which stars Gades as a choreographer named Antonio looking for someone to play the lead in his new dance work based on Georges Bizet's opera of Prosper Mérimée's story. He spots a young dancer named Carmen (Laura del Sol) whose skills are unrefined but her wildcard spirit is just right for the operatic gypsy heroine who inspires lust and jealousy in a soldier. As Carmen is put through the paces of rehearsal, Antonio falls in love with her. But their affair begins to crack as Carmen's true character is slowly discovered and Antonio questions her loyalty. The off-stage affair and the choreographed drama become inseparable as love and betrayal are played out through passionate physical performances.
El Amor Brujo (Love, the Magician) is the most straightforward narrative performance of the Saura-Gades collaborations. Aside from the opening shot—a slow pan that reveals the huge soundstage on which they constructed an Andalusian village—the camera remains grounded in the reality of the story. This third film of the trilogy is a modern take on composer Manuel de Falla's Gypsy ballet. Candela and José were promised to each other when they were children, in an agreement made by their fathers. On their wedding day, the adult couple, played by Cristina Hoyos and Juan Antonio Jimenez, leaves behind a pair of broken hearts. Carmelo (Gades) has been in love with Candela since they were children; Lucía (Laura del Sol) and José were lovers. José visits Lucía one evening and gets involved in a knife fight where he is killed. Though he was not responsible for José's death, Carmelo is imprisoned for his involvement in the fight.
When he returns to the village four years later, Carmelo is still in love with Candela. But she is haunted by the memory of José and every night she dances with his ghost. If he hopes to have a future with his beloved, Carmelo must free her from her husband's haunting. At the suggestion of a village elder, Carmelo and Candela plot to reunite José with Lucía.
Make no mistake: these are neither merely filmed dance performances nor movies about dance. Carlos Saura's flamenco films are performances for the cinematic realm that manage to capture the spirit and energy of the dance itself. Over the course of these three films, the viewer can see Saura evolving as a dance filmmaker. On Carmen and El Amor Brujo he shares the choreographer credit with Gades and certainly the physical performances and the camera work—with cinematographer Teodoro Escamilla on all three films—exhibit a blossoming synergy. As one becomes more complex so does the other until the line between filmmaker and dancer is blurred.
The perspective of the camera is most distant in Blood Wedding where it begins as an appreciative observer spying on the dancers in their preparations. For the rehearsal the camera takes the formal position of a spectator, viewing the studio space as it would a theater stage. The tall windows on the back wall become a simple but effective backdrop to the action as the light streaming through them bathes the studio in a cool, soft glow of naturalistic light. But it isn't long before Saura's camera breaks from its confines to capture close-ups of feet and faces, or to follow a gesture as it leads into another move. And then an angle is discovered that expands the narrative space while respecting the physical confines of the room.
Though the camera is just finding its feet in Saura's first exploration of dance on film, the breathtaking physicality of the dancers is clearly—and lovingly—exhibited. Gades and company give intense performances of intricate grace, stunning beauty and thrilling machismo. I dare say that someone who could never imagine watching a dance performance will stop in his tracks at the sight of Gades at work. Plus, the Spanish guitars that dominate the soundtrack are a pleasure to hear.
With Carmen, more attention is paid to the acting abilities of the dancers. To be sure, the principles are all completely convincing playing dancers who are passionate about love and work. Gades, portraying shades of himself, has a good screen presence as the brooding, lovelorn artist. The camera has grown more confident too, occupying a more three-dimensional space among the dancers. The action takes place within environments rather than just on a stage before the camera. This is the most successful of the three movies as it achieves the right balance of extraordinary dance numbers and backstage narrative business.
The self-reflexive mood of the previous films is dropped for the third film of the collection. This time, Gades and the rest of the cast stay in character at the service of the story. The camera displays a similar attitude by shooting at ground-level and moving among the actors within the set rather than framing them as though on a stage space. Saura essentially makes El Amor Brujo the polar opposite of Blood Wedding. Having started the former with the feel of a documentary in a cold studio, the latter brings the viewer into an entirely artificial setting bathed in fiery colors. In this installment, greater emphasis is placed on storytelling and acting. Consequently, it feels a bit slower than the other films. The dancing is still electrifying but between the dance sequences are long periods filled with a somewhat slim story.
Eclipse Series sets are intended as the affordable alternative to collecting forgotten works of key filmmakers under the Criterion label. As such, the sets forgo the usual wealth of quality extras for which the studio is known. Nevertheless, the inside of each disc case contains an informative micro-essay about its respective film covering its genesis and setting it in context with Saura's body of work.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
It is great to see Carlos Saura's Flamenco Trilogy in a collected set, but these films are showing some fatigue. Dust and other minor blemishes mar the image on all three discs—it isn't distracting but definitely noticeable. Grey, hairline scratches are evident on Blood Wedding and El Amor Brujo though they are isolated to just a few scenes. Edge enhancement is plainly visible in the former, especially in the many shots of dancers in dark costumes situated in front of the white glow of the studio windows. The rich flamenco music cries out for a fuller audio mix but unfortunately the first two films are presented in mono only—perhaps a limitation of the source material. El Amor Brujo features a strong stereo mix which does justice to the music, however the soundtrack is inconsistent in other moments. One scene will have well-balanced dialogue and background sounds but in the next scene the dialogue is flat and weak. These bruises in the presentation keep these dance films from being showstoppers.
Dance films may not be for everyone, but those who enjoy physically expressive performances will get a thrill out of seeing Gades and company through the eyes of Carlos Saura. Viewing his first dance films as a trilogy, you can see how Saura's confidence with the genre grew. With these early steps he developed the style that would make his brand so recognizable in future movies such as Flamenco. Despite the imperfect presentations, it is great to see these three films together in an elegant package. Even though they aren't the belles of the ball, these discs still dance up a storm.
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