This rarified movie is 100 minutes of flamenco - dancing, singing, guitar and nothing else. It will be of enormous appeal to fans of Spanish culture. Spain's most revered director Carlos Saura returned to the flamenco form time and again, with semi-narrative versions of works like Bodas de Sangre (Blood Wedding) and the very desirable Carmen from 1983. These exist in so-so versions on old videotapes and rotting Image laser discs that haven't yet come out on DVD. This high-quality New Yorker disc is a good first step.
I incude the chapter headings as evidence to the informed of how rigorously detailed are the film's performances:
Flamenco de Carlos Saura tries to distill the form by shooting on a simple stage with stylized screens, mirrors and lighting. Dancers are sometimes backed by colored panels or made into backlit silhouettes against screens, or both. The lighting is carefully modulated and, I assume, designed around Italian cameraman Vittorio Storaro's psychological color theories.
Flamenco is a lot more than two dancers prancing and tapping to guitar music. This film is packed with name talent of all ages, including a number of living legends still dancing decades after they began. Paco de Lucía, Manolo Sanlucar, Lole, Joaquín Cortes and Farruco are famous names in the form, and we see all of them perform.
There is a wide variety to the dancing sections, with a couple of episodes centering on the classic sleek female dancer or the muscular male in high-heeled tapping shoes. Several older men dance solo, presumably creators or greats in the form. One heavy-set aging woman takes center stage among twenty-five or so young bailarinas and shows a grace of movement equal to any of them. The general rap is that flamenco is about lust and pain, and that the dancing boils down to stylized erotic displays. The dancers (when male and female) are like prancing birds in some mating ritual that evokes pride, sexual spell-casting and emotional anguish in equal proportions.
It can embody all of those qualities in a traditional setting, but can also simply be abstract. We're shown only a couple of examples of modern flamenco hybrid dancing, which looks more interesting here than when I've seen it in person.
The part that fascinates me is the singing, which often comes off as an unintelligible wail that seems a mixture of the Moslem call to prayer with a soulful howl. The men cry about their desires and cruel women, and the women about hard men and cruel fate. Removable subtitles display Spanish lyrics which I doubt Spaniards can really make out. I don't think they're supposed to be understandable. The important part is the emotional intensity and the soulfulness ... it either gets to you or it doesn't.
Everyone likes the flamenco guitar style, and here the rhythyms are augmented by clapping, tapping of feet and fists and sometimes accompanying percussion instruments. Without the distractions of story or elaborate camera choreography, we get a straight-on flamenco experience. The dances were obviously rehearsed for camera because some do make use of dynamic cuts and expressive moves, but the talent stays screen center and the dancers are always seen full-figure.
The chapter headings for each group of songs appears in the (removable) subtitles. In the theater, they simply were repeated in the end credits, zooming by with the names of the performing talent attached. New Yorker's disc does this one better with a text extra that provides a general history of flamenco and its cultural sources, and a full description of each chapter's offering. For instance, No. 3 Guajira is explained as Latin American in source - and the song has lyrics about Cuba in it. Viewers wanting to learn more about the dances will have a wealth of information at their disposal, including the specific names of the talent performing at any given time, something theater viewers had to do without.
A narrator is among the fanciful names in the long cast list; I don't recall any narration in the film.
New Yorker Video's DVD of Flamenco de Carlos Saura is a fine non-enhanced transfer (1:66) with excellent color and clear mono sound. The color is bright and clean. Besides the lengthy text extra explaining the performances, there's a career rundown and filmography for Carlos Saura.
For dance fanatics Flamenco de Carlos Saura will be a great find. Educators and the curious will have a classy performance disc with an informative text extra. The soundtrack alone makes a great work background.
I really wish Carlos Saura's Carmen would surface on DVD. I understand that Orion has lost its hold on it. As an emotionally-accessible experience, I think it's the one most likely to please a non-aficionado audience. I was dragged to see Carmen in 1984, and afterwards couldn't wait to see it again.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Flamenco (de Carlos Saura) rates: