Carlos Saura Tangos with Cinema
by Stephen Garrett
For over forty years one of Spain's most important and internationally
recognized directors, Carlos Saura has created a legacy devoted to the
politics and culture of his country. Whether it be the literal and
metaphorical exploration of violence in the Franco-era film "La Caza
(The Hunt)" (1965) or a more free-spirited tragicomedy like "Ay!
Carmela" (1990), chronicling a cabaret trio during the Spanish Civil
War, Saura's cinema is a virtual map to the sociological terrain of his
But his most acclaimed and innovative work has always been his dance
films -- movies devoted to uniquely Spanish forms of dance while using
Spanish source material: from his ballet-troupe adaptation of Federico
Garcia Lorca's play, "Blood Wedding" (1981), to a reinterpretation of
Bizet's most famous opera, "Carmen" (1983), to an imagining of Manuel De
Falla's "El Amor Brujo" (1986) that embraces artifice by creating an
entire village on a sound stage. Saura's next two dance films,
"Sevillanas" (1992) and "Flamenco" (1995) dispense completely with story
and concentrate solely on choreography, stringing together a dazzling
procession of dance and music culled from the rich gypsy heritage of
The Argentina-based "Tango," his latest movie (sumptuously shot by
legendary Italian cinematographer Vittorio Storaro) is his first dance
film outside of Spain. It is also a return to interweaving narrative
within the dance. The result is yet another transfixing portrait of a
culture's ability to mirror its soul through its art.
indieWIRE: You've made so many dance films, and yet the bulk of your
films are more traditional narratives. Which do you prefer?
Carlos Saura: It's hard to say. I don't have a preference as such. I
remember all my films with a certain sentiment, because I like all of my
films very much. But not necessarily for the films themselves -- it's
because I have a memory [of the filmmaking], or I met somebody there, or
one of my wives worked with me. It's hard to say. For me, cinema is
part of my life, and there it is. And then you forget about it. Because
you've got to keep doing more things and have something to do, new
iW: That's refreshing to hear, since some directors say they can't
watch their own films without being reminded of the things that went
Saura: I don't feel that way, because in that sense cinema is
inexorable. You can't change it, you know that going in that it's done
and you can't change it. You can write a novel, for example, and do a
second edition, and change some things -- correct some things. There
are poets who are constantly correcting the same poems for new
editions. Even a painter, if he wanted to, could go and touch up his
work. But we can't. Film is there and you can't do anything more to
iW: You could re-edit, or make a compilation, say, of the dance films.
Saura: (Laughs) No, it's not worth it. One thing that I would do,
actually, that I've never done: I would do the same film over again, but
with years in between them. But for curiosity more than anything else.
iW: With the same actors, and the same location?
Saura: Yes, yes. I've done only one film that's somewhat like that. I
did a picture called "Anna and the Wolf," and ten years later I took the
same characters -- some of the actors had died -- and I did a
continuation of the story ten years later. And it was called "Mother
Turns 100 Years Old."
iW: In a way, I think of "Flamenco" as being somewhat of a sequel to,
or an elaboration on, "Sevillanas."
Saura: It's like an evolution, yes.
iW: And especially in those two dance films, you decided not to have any
sort of narrative thread.
Saura: Yes, those two films are musicals in a pure state, in the sense
that there's no script -- just musical numbers. Different from "Carmen"
iW: Do you feel that those non-narrative films are closer to, say, a
pure cinema that is much more about the experience of the image and the
Saura: It's a strange genre of cinema. I don't know if it really
exists. On the one hand, it's almost like a documentary; but on the
other hand it's very creative: in the cinematography, in the intentions
of the total creation, and in looking for a connecting rhythm of the
dance numbers. I've talked about this with Vittorio Storaro, above all
in "Flamenco," and I don't think it's a documentary, although it's got
documentary elements. But the intention is to go beyond that -- I'm not
sure where, though.
iW: With "Flamenco," I understand that you and Storaro created a
temporal thread -- the cinematography mimics nature, in that the film --
shot entirely on a sound stage -- starts at first in late afternoon,
then goes through the night and into the morning. Did you create that
sort of mood or have thematic discussions about the lighting and
composition for "Tango"?
Saura: Yes, that's true. There's this time movement through
"Flamenco." And my collaboration with Storaro is actually more like a
complicity; and always, more and more we get to know each other better
and better. He's not just a cinematographer who conforms to that role.
He needs a justification for his work, a justification above the simple
photography. So he comes up with proposals and we talk about that, how
we'll do the cinematography. And not just the lighting, but the
progression of that lighting.
So he raises and lowers the lights, depending on what's happening
dramatically. We've worked a lot on that. Lighting evolves a lot
within one scene, not in a naturalist way, but in an artificial way. In
"Tango," there's a lot of that, how the light changes and modifies
throughout a scene, even though the audience may not pick up on that.
And we're going to keep working on that in our future films together.
Storaro's very obsessed with a study he's been doing of the way people
perceive color, depending on your state of mind or the way you're
feeling -- how lighting and color effects you. For example, in Las
Vegas, the illumination is so aggressive and so powerful, it's one of
the reasons people keep on gambling and lose all sense of day and
night. For him, night is very important, it means a lot. There's
something feminine about the night, while the sun has something
masculine about it. He has all of his own theories which are very
interesting -- I agree with some of them, but not with all of them
(laughs). And he always brings this to his films, so he does lighting
that no other cinematographer has ever done. He even uses landing
lights from airplanes!
iW: The images in "Flamenco" seem so abstract -- what with the lighting
as well as the spare stages and different background scrims, and the way
dancer's bodies interrelate. In "Tango" there seems to be a fusion of
naturalistic settings with this abstraction. Did this grow out of your
collaboration with Storaro?
Saura: Yes. There's an evolution in my thinking that has happened
since "Sevillanas," in which everything at first took place in a cube,
so that everything's geometrical, very rational. I've always been very
fascinated by aspects of Japanese culture -- certainly those moveable,
simple structures that remind me of Mondrian. So I used them in
"Sevillanas" for the first time because I was looking for elements that
wouldn't distract from the dance. Because normally the documentary
tradition is much different, and this idea was exactly the opposite: to
eliminate everything superfluous to the potential of the dance, and to
use light as a collaborative element. And so there are a lot of these
structures in "Flamenco."
I actually first met Storaro in Kyoto, Japan. I was promoting a film of
mine in Japan, and there was a festival there for which Storaro was one
of the jury members. So I gave him some drawings that I had done, with
ideas about how to do a film on flamenco -- the structure, the scenes --
and he immediately was very fascinated by this, and said, "sure, yeah,
I'll work on the film with you." And so we've worked together on the
form of lighting, and we'll keep on working together.
In "Tango" the collaboration is even closer, and a lot of times we
decided between the two of us the position of the various elements of
the scene. Another obsession I have is with mirrors, throughout all of
my dance films, which gives a great complexity to the film.
iW: Does the blocking of the dance sequences take a long time? Onscreen,
they're very elegantly orchestrated.
Saura: It is complicated, but Storaro is very fast -- he solves problems
very quickly. He's fantastic. And he understands things very quickly.
So between the two of us, we're pretty fast, once we have the idea. The
problem, really, is first to have the idea (laughs).
iW: "Tango" is your first dance film outside of Spain. And going back
through to "Blood Wedding" is like watching a cultural history of Spain
told through dance -- at least, that's how I, as an American, interpret
your films. And now "Tango" explores Argentine history, particularly
the dance near the end, where the soldiers massacre the peasants.
Saura: The main character of "Tango" mirrors myself, as a director
following the same paths in trying to tell the story of tango. And in
this story, there are some terrible aspects, like the military's record
of bestial repression -- it's still a very conflicted matter; a lot of
Argentines don't want to talk about it. And many of the repressors hold
public office. It's like Chile. I know Argentina pretty well, in fact,
above all Buenos Aires, because a long time ago I made a film there,
called "South," based on a Borges story. So I've been interested in
Argentine culture for a while, and even did a film in 1975 on the use of
torture, with Geraldine Chaplin, called "The Blinded Eyes," which
utilized the testimonies of women who had been tortured and made a play
within the film in which reality and fiction are confused. So it's a
theme that I know. And I've worked with a lot of Argentine actors and
known a lot of great Argentine writers. And furthermore, it's very
similar to the type of repression we went through in Spain after
Franco. There's not much difference. So I informed myself very well
about these facts and created my own version. And I feel that that
repression forms a part of Argentine life. Any Argentine forty years old
or older has lived that experience and knows it very well. That was an
extremely painful experience, and that had to be in the film.
iW: Are there other countries whose forms of dance you'd want to film?
Saura: Yes, of course. The producer of "Sevillanas" and "Flamenco,"
Juan Lebron, and I would love to do a film on the music of the
Caribbean. But there's still one problem, and that is that the
relationship between the United States and Cuba isn't sufficiently good,
but a lot of very good Cuban artists are in the United States. So we're
waiting for a more favorable moment because I want to film it in Cuba,
or at least the main part in Cuba. It would be a betrayal otherwise.
iW: Have you ever thought about doing an American dance film?
Saura: I've thought of it, yes, but I've never really come to a
decision about it. I'm convinced that it would be extraordinary,
though. Because dance in the United States is so powerful -- but at the
moment, I don't know, because I'm so unfamiliar with the culture. I
feel more comfortable working with things that I know I understand
better. And all of Latin America feels very much like home for me.
The fantastic thing about flamenco, or tango, or jazz, is that it
evolves. It incorporates new elements and it renews itself. So it
doesn't just belong to the past. That's why that kind of thing
There are so many wonderful forms of dance. I was in India this year
for a film festival -- it's fantastic, since the gypsies and their
culture originated in India, and you can see it in the way Spanish
gypsies dance -- it's very similar to the way women dance in India.
Someday I would love to do a film about a group of Spanish gypsies who
go back to India looking for their grandparents. But I don't know if
I'll do that. Maybe someday. And then there's another fantastic thing,
which is Brazilian music! Just fantastic.
iW: You can't stop making these dance films! You have to keep doing
Saura: (Laughs) Too many things to make movies about.