Carlos Saura Challenge, Part 9: La prima Angélica / Cousin Angelica (1974)

Director: Carlos Saura
Screenplay: Rafael Azcona, based on a story by Carlos Saura and Elías Querejeta
Cast: José Luis López Vázquez, Lina Canalejas, Fernando Delgado, Lola Cardona, María Clara Fernández de Loayza, Josefina Díaz, Encarna Paso, Pedro Sempson, Julieta Serrano.
Synopsis: 1973. Luis travels from Barcelona to fulfil his late mother’s wishes to have her remains interred in the family crypt in Segovia. The trip brings him face to face with the family members he stayed with during the Civil War and leads him to confront the memories and ghosts of his childhood.

Link: My original post on the film, from the old version of the blog.

My favourite of Saura’s films from this 1962-1979 period, La prima Angélica returns to the issue that preoccupies so much of his work: memory, and how it inflects our understanding of the past and present. As in El jardín de las delicias, José Luis López Vázquez portrays the lead character (Luis) in both adulthood and childhood, as familiar places and faces cause Luis to relive events from more than thirty years ago. Family ties set events in motion in both time periods: in 1973, Luis is travelling from Barcelona in order to fulfil his mother’s wish for her remains to be interred in the family crypt in Segovia; in the 1930s, Luis is taken to the safer Segovia to stay with his mother’s family (on the right, politically) while his parents return to Barcelona. We first see Luis-as-child when Luis-as-adult pulls his car to the side of the road when he sees Segovia in the distance, and he becomes lost in the memory of the first time he was at this roadside: his father’s car pulls up behind him, and his mother (dressed in 1930s attire) comforts Luis, trying to reassure him about his stay with her side of the family. As the Civil War developed, Barcelona became cut off, and Luis will see out the war separated from his parents and in the midst of a family from the ‘victorious’ side. His return to Segovia as an adult in his 40s shows how those war years shaped the person he became and why he now feels the need to confront the past.

Still living under the dictatorship, any discussion of the Civil War that diverged from what had become the official narrative was a taboo in Spain and the losing side was rendered invisible by the silence. In this context, Marvin D’Lugo observes that La prima Angélica stands as ‘the first compassionate view of the vanquished’:

‘In choosing the theme of interdicted history – the Civil War years as remembered by the child of Republican parents – Saura pursues more than just the external demons of censorship that had suppressed all but the triumphalist readings of the war. He confronts the psychological and ethical traumas that the official distortions of the history of the war years in public discourse had conveniently ignored but that had scarred and even paralysed a generation of Spaniards’ (1991: 115-116).

In the context of Spain today – where the contentious issue of ‘historical memory’ has been openly fought over for some time – Ángel Quintana argues that Luis ‘gains symbolic force as the first fictional character that recovers the power of memory as an act of resurrection of the hidden and of justice to that which is silenced’ (2008: 95).

The past is not simply evoked, but reenacted. Although it is perhaps more accurate to say that it is being ‘relived’ because these are not the theatrical stagings of El jardín de las delicias, but rather Luis weaving in and out of the present and the past as the return to the family apartment envelops him in memories. As with his habit of having Geraldine Chaplin play multiple roles, here Saura has several actors play more than one character: Lina Canalejas plays Angélica’s mother in the 1930s segments and the grown-up Angélica in the present; María Clara Fernández de Loayza plays Angélica in the 1930s and the grown-up Angélica’s daughter (also called Angélica) in the present; and Fernando Delgado plays Angélica’s father and later her husband (although the grown-up Angélica shows Luis a photo of her father to prove that there is no resemblance to her husband). This ‘doubling’ obviously aids the transition back and forth in Luis’s memory onscreen, which occasionally becomes confusing when Luis loses himself in the past, and the lines between the two eras become deliberately indistinct.

López Vázquez is the only actor to play the same character in both eras. Luis-as-child is distinguished by voice, body language, and facial expression: for example, López Vázquez tucks his chin down so that he is looking up (his eyes wide), serving not only to indicate the shy and withdrawn nature of the boy, but also to make the actor seem physically smaller. One particular sequence that I like comes almost halfway into the film, at the point when Luis has carried out his mother’s wishes and is now driving back to Barcelona. He stops at the same roadside that we saw at the start of the film, and the same memory plays out again. But this time, instead of being immersed in the memory, reliving it, he observes it from the other side of the road; in revisiting the sites of childhood trauma, he has acquired some of the distance required to review the past objectively. He turns his car around and heads back to Segovia to confront the past head on.

D’Lugo, M (1991) – The Films of Carlos Saura: The Practice of Seeing, Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Quintana, À. (2008) – ‘A Poetics of Splitting: Memory and Identity in La prima Angélica (Carlos Saura, 1974)’, in Burning Darkness: A Half Century of Spanish Cinema, edited by J.R. Resina, Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, pp.83-96.

Carlos Saura Challenge, Part 8: Ana y los lobos / Ana and the Wolves (1973)

Director: Carlos Saura
Screenplay: Rafael Azcona and Carlos Saura, based on an idea by Carlos Saura and Elías Querejeta
Cast: Geraldine Chaplin, Fernando Fernán Gómez, José María Prada, José Vivó, Rafaela Aparicio, Charo Soriano, Marisa Porcel, Anny Quintas, María José Puerta, Nuria Lage, Sara Gil.
Synopsis: An English nanny, Ana, arrives at a house in the Spanish countryside to look after the children of one of three brothers living with their mother. All three brothers become captivated by Ana, who finds herself living in an increasingly dangerous situation.

Link: My original post on the film, from the old version of the blog.

Note: the post below is largely the same as my original one from 2013.

From the first appearance of the men in the film – José (José María Prada) entering the newly-arrived Ana’s (Geraldine Chaplin) bedroom and insisting on seeing her passport / inspecting the contents of her suitcase – there is the unsettling sense that the foreigner has wandered into something beyond her ken. Her passport may show her to be much-travelled but she is naive. Soon enough she has José showing off his collection of military uniforms to her and commanding dominance of the household, Fernando (Fernando Fernán Gómez) explaining his pursuit of a union with God (or at least levitation) in the whitewashed cave at the bottom of the garden, and the children’s father, Juan (José Vivó), making amorous advances and sending her erotic letters with international postmarks (by using stamps from the family’s stamp collection). The men essentially represent three taboos of Spanish culture at the time – the military, religion, sex – but in a more neutered form than they might have taken (José isn’t in the military, he just collects uniforms, and Fernando isn’t a priest) and living a kind of stunted adolescence. Or rather, in still living with their mother (Rafaela Aparicio), they have managed to avoid maturing into adults; there’s something quite childlike about their enthusiasm for their respective ‘interests’.

But the doll is an indication that what is going on is not just harmless fantasy. The three children (María José Puerta, Nuria Lage, Sara Gil) dig up a doll that has had its hair cut off before being wrapped in a shroud, tied with string and buried in the garden. Ana intuits that there is something disturbing at play (the children say that ‘the wolves’ have done it) and insists that Juan tells her who has ‘tortured’ the doll, but seemingly takes no further action (or precaution) on being told that it was Fernando. It’s interesting that Virginia Higginbotham – in her book Spanish Film Under Franco – refers to the film as a ‘grim parable’ (1988: 86). There is something fairytale-like about it, and it also carries the sensation that certain sequences could be being dreamt by one of the characters; the parallels between Fernando’s ‘vision’ of the various members of the household early in the film and the set of events leading up to Ana’s eviction from the house and the brutal finale (several characters – most pertinently, Ana – are wearing the same clothes in both sequences) suggests that not everything we see actually happens.

In the final sequence Ana is expelled from the house when Mama realises how much discord she has sown between the brothers. As she leaves the grounds, the wolves pounce: Juan rapes her, Fernando cuts off her hair, and José handcuffs her before shooting her in the head. The film ends on a close-up of her agonised face. Saura has said that he saw the final sequence as imaginary, which explains how the family (and Ana) can be revisited in Mamá cumple 100 años (1979).

The film made me feel uneasy, mainly because of the extent to which Ana plays games with the brothers, teases them, and plays the coquette, apparently unaware that she is seriously out of her depth. There is a creeping sense – heightened after the doll is found – that something terrible will occur (which it does – whether imaginary or not).

Higginbotham, V. (1988) – Spanish Film Under Franco, Austin: University of Texas Press.

Carlos Saura Challenge, Part 7: El jardín de las delicias / The Garden of Delights (1970)

Director: Carlos Saura
Screenplay: Rafael Azcona and Carlos Saura
Cast: José Luis López Vázquez, Francisco Pierrá, Luchy Soto, Lina Canalejas, Esperanza Roy, Charo Soriano.
Synopsis: Important businessman Antonio Cano is left partially-paralysed and an amnesiac after a car crash. His family and friends try to recreate key moments in his life in order to give him an emotional jolt and aid his recuperation.

Link: My original post on the film, from the old version of the blog.

In structural terms El jardín de las delicias was by far the most complex film Saura had made to date. A deliberately intricate structure was intended to act as a smokescreen for the more political aspects of the film in an era when censorship by the Franco regime was becoming increasingly arbitrary. The original script was passed by the censors – with one writing in his evaluation that ‘the advantage of such an intellectualised plot is that nobody can grasp the key to it, and the set-ups are so extremely limited in meaning that nobody can identify with anything’ (D’Lugo 1991: 106) – and although specific cuts were later made to the film by the censors, the excised sections have either been reinstated or did not undermine the overall whole. The shooting script identified five temporal planes, which we move between without transition (following Antonio’s own amnesia-befuddled consciousness): the recreated past; the evoked past; the present; the hallucinated world; and the future. [see my original post for more detail as to how these planes have been interpreted by different writers].

Although the structure of these temporal planes appears complex when written out (which is no doubt why the script censor thought that nobody would be able to follow what was going on), it is perfectly comprehensible when watched onscreen. Some confusion/disorientation is intentional – it is a point of connection between Antonio and the audience – but differing levels of theatricality are utilised to mark out the different planes. For example, there is some wonderful over-acting by the actress hired to impersonate Antonio’s late mother in the scenes from his childhood, whereas his wife Luchy (Luchy Soto) is more subtle in her manipulation of ‘reality’ – we see that she is playing ‘mood music’ on a cassette player when she takes Antonio for a walk (the film is often darkly funny).

In terms of the way moments in Antonio’s life are shown to parallel key episodes in Spanish history, you don’t need to be aware of all of the references to know that a point is being made. For example, I didn’t know until reading up on the film that Antonio’s car crash was inspired by the 1962 death (in a car crash) of Juan March, an industrialist who had helped bankroll the July 1936 military uprising against the Republic. There are enough parallels with that story to see Saura as deliberately baiting the censors, but even without being aware of the specifics, the backgrounds and social status of the characters are sufficient to signpost their alignments within the political landscape of the time. Tatjana Pavlović argues that the moments of historical significance that parallel (and interrupt) the restaged moments of Antonio’s life clearly indicate that his ‘identity is inseparable from a broader historical context. […] These national “traumas” give rise to personal ones, showing how the individual is an inscrutable product of the nation’ (2006: 156).

Meanwhile the ‘ideal’ family, so deified by the state, is shown to be anything but: not only are they collectively a suffocating and repressive force in Antonio’s life, but we eventually find that their interest in his recuperation isn’t motivated by love and affection (his father needs to know the number of the Swiss bank account, and his wife wants the combination to the safe in the bedroom). This mercenary – rather than therapeutic – intent behind the need for his recovery explains why some of the events that they chose to recreate to jog Antonio’s memory include childhood traumas: being locked in a dark room, aged 5, with an enormous pig that you’ve been told will eat your hands off, seems an horrific thing to inflict on someone twice in their lifetime (although, again, in keeping with the thread of dark, esperpentic humour that runs through the film). The final sequence of the film, another of Antonio’s hallucinations – each family member in their own wheelchair on the vast lawn – has been taken as a contemporary approximation of Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Delights. But with his family in a similar state to Antonio (who having made progress, is now regressing), I read it as representing the wilful amnesia of people avoiding their own culpability, and also (as they are all facing in different directions) unable to see things from alternative viewpoints.

The impression that we get of Antonio as he recovers what he was – before he seemingly consciously rejects that vision and slides back into oblivion – is that he was not a likeable man. But when we first meet him, he is a blank slate and as confused as we are by the events being staged in front of him; I think that the audience remains on his side because of that initial blankness (the innocence of a child), and also because of the associated affability of López Vázquez, who is quite brilliant in the role.

D’Lugo, M (1991) – The Films of Carlos Saura: The Practice of Seeing, Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Pavlović, T. (2006) – ‘Allegorising the body politic: Masculinity and history in Saura’s El jardín de las delicias (1970) and Almodóvar’s Carne trémula (1997)’, Studies in Hispanic Cinemas, 3:3, pp.149-167.

Carlos Saura Challenge, Part 6: La madriguera / Honeycomb (1969)

Director: Carlos Saura
Writer: Rafael Azcona, Geraldine Chaplin, Carlos Saura
Cast: Geraldine Chaplin, Per Oscarsson, Teresa del Río, Julia Peña, María Elena Flores, Emiliano Redondo.
Synopsis: Five years into their marriage, the arrival of a collection of inherited furniture puts a strain on Teresa and Pedro’s relationship.

Link: My original post on the film, from the old version of the blog.

The third of Saura’s eight cinematic collaborations with Geraldine Chaplin is an odd film, but it’s interesting that Chaplin gets a writing credit for the first of their films where her character is essentially the lead. Teresa (Chaplin) and Pedro (Per Oscarsson – dubbed and looking like a permanently-peeved Jon Voigt, which is to say decidedly un-Spanish) have been married for five years and are settled in a routine, and a rather sterile home. He manages – and possibly owns – a factory, while she is a lady of leisure. The arrival of a collection of furniture from Teresa’s childhood family home triggers a nightmare and subsequent sleepwalking, followed by regressive and childish behaviour. Teresa replaces their furniture (in keeping with the modern – verging on Brutalist – architecture of their house) with what has arrived, which is distinctly different in style (dark wood and richly coloured fabrics). The film then settles into a series of extended role play ‘games’ between husband and wife that gradually get out of hand.

I didn’t hear an explanation as to why Teresa was receiving the furniture now (there are no subs on the VOD, so something may have flown past me), but it seems like an inheritance. The nightmare triggered by the arrival of the furniture and childhood mementoes appears to be a recollection of being at boarding school, woken by two nuns in the middle of the night and taken to an office (I took it to be the memory of being informed of a death)…at which point Teresa sits up in bed screaming but doesn’t wake up. During the subsequent sleepwalk she unpacks the first of the furniture – an armchair and a rug – and proceeds to act as if her father is sitting in the chair: she implores her father not to send her away, says that she wants to stay with him and the rest of the family, and begs him not to make her marry Pedro. Pedro – who has followed his wife during her sleepwalk – at this point sits in the chair and takes on the father’s role (and this is as creepy as it sounds), asking what Teresa wants to do instead of getting married (“go to college” is her reply). Later in the film when Pedro goes through some of Teresa’s possessions he finds photos of her as a child (contemporaneous with her appearance in her nightmare), a child’s drawing of a plane crash (with ‘Mama’ and ‘Papa’ written next to two bodies) and a funeral notice – the suggestion is that Teresa’s parents died when she was a child (supported by her nightmare), but that doesn’t really fit with the conversation with her father during the sleepwalk.

The next day Teresa has no memory of the night’s events – and is visibly embarrassed when Pedro tells her some of the things she said. But she becomes increasingly giggly and childish as she continues to unpack toys and mementoes – she glues her milk teeth and a keepsake loop of her infant hair onto a photo of herself as a child – and seemingly decides to use what Pedro has told her about the sleepwalk in order to force her husband to play with her (he thinks that she is sleepwalking again but the audience knows that she has deliberately woken him up). From this point on, the role play games blur the lines between dream and reality (the blurring of dream, performance, and reality would be something Saura would develop in much greater detail in El jardín de las delicias (1970)) and Pedro’s perception of reality is also altered. At the same time, the question of who is ‘playing’ whom (in the double sense of who they are actually meant to be, but also which of them is in control of the game) fluctuates. There’s a caustic humour and an undercurrent of violence to many of their interactions – Pedro bites Teresa’s ankle while he’s pretending to be a St Bernard rescue dog (long story) but doesn’t take kindly to her smacking him in the face with a mop handle as a result – and as in the later Ana y los lobos (1972), there is an uneasy sense of foreboding to the games.

The house is central to the story; all of the scenes between Teresa and Pedro take place either inside the house (designed by Javier Carvajal and located in Somosaguas, an affluent neighbourhood in Madrid) or the surrounding garden. The sense of a limited and clearly defined space gives the film a theatrical feel, as do the curtains that they pull across the floor-to-ceiling windows, and overall it is quite a stagey production. It also picks up the recurring motif in the Saura/Chaplin collaborations of the actress playing multiple roles or personalities (whether real or imagined) within the same film, or the idea of women performing different versions of themselves to different ‘audiences’. The expressiveness of Chaplin’s face – not to mention her gameness in throwing herself into various outlandish scenarios – is put to full use, but she again also clearly delineates the different women she performs through gesture and body language.

Overall I found the hysteria somewhat forced and Oscarsson a bit wooden (although that may not be entirely his fault given that he was dubbed into Spanish) – but the film has a curiosity value given how difficult it is to get hold of (like Stress es tres, tres, it is included in the expensive French DVD boxset of early Saura films but it doesn’t appear to have been issued separately and it has never been released on DVD in Spain – I watched it on Spanish VOD site, Filmotech).

Carlos Saura Challenge, Part 5: Stress es tres, tres / Stress is Three (1968)

Director: Carlos Saura
Screenplay: Angelino Fons, Carlos Saura
Cast: Geraldine Chaplin, Juan Luis Galiardo, Fernando Cebrián, Porfiria Sanchíz, Humberto Sempere.
Synopsis: A husband’s jealous paranoia poisons his relationships with his wife and a family friend when the three take a road trip into the Spanish countryside.

This is one of those films where I’ve struggled to find a way ‘in’ to writing about it. Not because there’s nothing there to discuss – for example, the fractures and tensions in the social identities of the Spanish bourgeoisie as they grappled with the contradictions between urban modernity and the social/religious/familial ideals promoted by the Franco regime – but because I didn’t connect with it, and therefore feel that I have little to say about the elements Saura was trying to weave into his fifth film. I think that it’s one of his slighter works, although it gives further evidence of both his refusal to be pigeonholed and willingness to experiment. Its lack of reputation is probably in part because it is virtually impossible to see – a couple of years ago it was released as part of an expensive French boxset of Saura’s early films but wasn’t available on its own. I found it on YouTube with English subtitles in 2016 (since taken down) and although I managed to buy an individual French DVD early in 2017 (French subs only), I think I bought it from someone who had decided that they could make more money by selling the films secondhand individually rather than selling the collection as a boxset because I haven’t since seen the film listed anywhere on its own. So if you spot it online, watch it before it vanishes again.

Saura apparently felt that Peppermint frappé‘s narrative was too conventional (in an A to B to C sense) and Stress es tres, tres was his experimentation with something more free-flowing, using a road trip to set up a series of scenarios that don’t need to be held together by a concrete plot. Taking place over the course of a day, married couple Fernando (Fernando Cebrián) and Teresa (Geraldine Chaplin) travel with friend Antonio (Juan Luis Galiardo) by car through the countryside to the Almería coast, with the aim of visiting the site of a project that Fernando is trying to persuade Antonio to oversee. From the start, tensions between the men are apparent (although somewhat one-sided because the easy-going Antonio isn’t easily riled) and there are signs that all is not well between husband and wife either (Fernando taking a drag of Teresa’s cigarette without asking leads her to immediately stub it out when he hands it back) – the thread that ties the various scenes together is Fernando’s jealous paranoia and the increasing sense that violence is imminent.

That this jealousy creates different ‘versions’ of Teresa – in the sense that Fernando interprets her actions in a manner that contradicts the reality, or imagines her behaving otherwise – also connects to the idea of a trilogy with Peppermint frappé and La madriguera. Via Fernando’s voyeurism (spying through a crack in the bedroom door when they stop off at a farm owned by his family), we see what initially appears to be a confrontation between Teresa and an unseen second person – confirming Fernando’s suspicions of an affair – but actually turns out to be her rehearsing how to confront her husband about his behaviour. As Fernando bursts in, the camera reveals that Teresa is looking in the mirror while she practises what she wants to say, and the use of mirrors in combination with an acknowledged performance (by which I mean that the character is aware that they are performing, whether there is an audience beyond just the camera or not) is a recurring motif in Saura’s later films.

So Chaplin is afforded another opportunity to play versions of the same woman (and switches from blonde to brunette again as well) but the difference here is that Teresa perhaps has more agency than the women in Peppermint frappé; although some ‘versions’ of Teresa only exist in the eye of the beholder (i.e. her husband), she nonetheless can be seen to choose how she presents herself on other occasions (e.g. practising in the mirror – when she pointedly states “I am not an object” – or the scene on the beach where she and Antonio humorously consider how much he would pay for her). Maybe a different way of viewing Teresa is to take her to be multi-faceted; distinct aspects of her personality – rather than delineated ‘versions’ – come to the fore at different moments of the narrative. Chaplin is not yet the lead (this is Fernando’s story) but it feels like she exerted influence over the development of her character, and managed to create a woman who has more to her than simply how she is seen by men.

Carlos Saura Challenge, Part 4: Peppermint frappé (1967)

The woman from Calanda

Director: Carlos Saura
Screenplay: Carlos Saura, Angelino Fons, and Rafael Azcona
Cast: Geraldine Chaplin, José Luis López Vázquez, Alfredo Mayo.
Synopsis: Julián’s childhood friend Pablo returns to their hometown with his new wife, Elena. Julián becomes obsessed with Elena, who reminds him of a woman he saw beating a drum during the famous Holy Week ritual in Calanda. Although rebuffed, Julián continues his pursuit while simultaneously remodelling his assistant, Ana, in her image.

Link: My original post on the film, from the old version of the blog.

Peppermint frappé is dedicated to Luis Buñuel (and there is a lot of Buñuelian sexual fetishising going on) but the director who most sprang to mind from the opening credits – with Julián (José Luis López Vázquez) assiduously cutting out images from women’s fashion magazines and pasting them into a scrapbook – was Pedro Almodóvar. Except, of course, Pedro’s career didn’t start until more than a decade later. Obviously Buñuel also had a strong influence on Almodóvar, but the central conceit of Peppermint frappé – a man is driven mad by jealousy and sexual obsession, and attempts to mould one woman into the image of another before moving on to murder – and the way in which the women are effectively reduced to the accoutrements of femininity (false eyelashes, lipstick, lace stockings), struck me as being particularly Almodóvarian. I wasn’t expecting to see connections between Saura and Almodóvar because they’ve always seemed to me to be very different filmmakers in both style and content, but it would appear that their common influences allow for some crossover.

The film marks Saura’s first collaborations with two actors who would be key figures in his films of the next 10-12 years: José Luis López Vázquez and Geraldine Chaplin. I personally think that López Vázquez’s best performance for Saura is in La prima Angélica (1974), but he is never less than great. Longstanding director/actor collaborations – and the idea of directors having what the Spanish call an actor fetiche (not necessarily a lead actor, but an indispensable member of the director’s habitual team) – often receive a lot of critical attention, but I have yet to encounter any writing that specifically examines the Saura/Chaplin films from that perspective. Chaplin and Saura’s professional (and romantic) relationship lasted for eight films: Peppermint frappé, Stress es tres, tres (1968), La madriguera (1969), Ana y los lobos (1973), Cría cuervos (1976), Elisa, vida mía (1977), Los ojos vendados (1978), and Mamá cumple 100 años (1979).

Peppermint frappé forms a trilogy of sorts with the pair’s two subsequent films – Stress es tres, tres and La madriguera. Collectively the three films explore dysfunctional relationships, with the later two focussing on duplicitous games between husbands and wives. But this first film also begins the recurring motif of Chaplin playing multiple women within the same film, or multiple versions (either real or imagined) of the same woman – this is a common thread across most of the films she made with Saura. Here she plays three characters within the narrative: Elena, the new wife of Julián’s boyhood friend, Pablo (Alfredo Mayo); Ana, Julián’s assistant in his medical practice; and the unnamed woman in Calanda, who made such a powerful impression on Julián. The last woman is ‘performed’ (or impersonated) by both Elena and Ana in different contexts, but Chaplin delineates all three women through her performance(s) – body language, voice, facial expressions – as well as costume.

Watching the film again, four years after the first time, there were a couple of things that stood out. I was struck by how spiteful Pablo and Elena are to Julián; the sly digs are there from the start, but before long they openly mock him and his foibles. Also, the degree of manipulation being applied to Ana is more open to interpretation than I remembered: she knows that she is being shaped to resemble someone else, and by the end of the film is complicit in her transformation (and Julián’s other actions). Chaplin often portrays a kind of ‘new woman’ in the Saura films, and her foreignness (or non-Spanishness) is key to how he positions her as representing the arrival of modernity in Spain – highlighting the resulting discord when the modern is juxtaposed with the social norms favoured and promoted by the Franco regime. Her characters are often disruptive forces within male worlds, and the three women she plays in Peppermint frappé encapsulate certain elements that she and the director would refine over time. The film also shows Saura’s aptitude for experimenting with style and pace – it is very different to the three films that precede it, although certain elements are constant (e.g. the elegance with which he frames actors within defined spaces within the frame – windows and mirrors are frequently used in this film – and the centrality of music as expression of character).


Carlos Saura Challenge, Part 3: La caza / The Hunt (1966)

Director: Carlos Saura
Screenplay: Carlos Saura and Angelino Fons
Cast: Ismael Merlo, Alfredo Mayo, José María Prada, Emilio Gutiérrez Caba, Fernando Sánchez Polack, Violeta García.
Synopsis: Old ‘friends’ José, Paco, and Luis reunite after eight years for a day’s hunting, with Paco’s brother-in-law Enrique also enthusiastically tagging along. As the day wears on, old tensions become apparent and violence bubbles to the surface.

Link: My original post on the film, on the old version of the blog.

Generally considered Carlos Saura’s first masterpiece, La caza won the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival in 1966 (the director’s first international award) and is a landmark in Spanish cinema, one of the most representative films of what became known as Nuevo cine español [New Spanish Cinema]. It also marks a new stage in Saura’s career as the first of his collaborations with producer Elías Querejeta, and represents a stylistic leap on from Llanto por un bandido courtesy of Luis Cuadrado’s cinematography and the sharp editing of Pablo G del Amo (two members of Querejeta’s preferred team of technical crew).

Watching the film today – and cognisant of Saura’s continuous problems with the censor – it’s somewhat amazing that the film exists as it does. Set over the course of one scorching day as four men – former colleagues José (Ismael Merlo), Paco (Alfredo Mayo) and Luis (José María Prada), along with Paco’s brother-in-law, Enrique (Emilio Gutiérrez Caba) – hunt rabbits in the arid countryside. The film takes place in a location (specified in titles at the start of the film) that had been a battlefield during the Civil War, and ‘the war’ (the censors ensured that the Civil War is not explicitly mentioned) permeates the narrative and the relations between the men (the older three served together). Saura cannily employs the landscape as a metonym for the psyches of those who survived the war: battle-scarred, with secrets and remnants of violence hidden in darker recesses. In The A-Z of Spanish Cinema, Alberto Mira observes that the use of metaphor and strong imagery ‘went beyond narrative needs: the heat that drives characters to madness could be read in terms of the stifling atmosphere created in the country after the Civil War, and the butchery was easily read as a reference to the conflict itself […]’ (2010: 71).

For the most part the film is realist in its depictions, but frequent extreme close-ups of sweating faces (a technique that also signals how claustrophobically trapped each man is in his own behaviour), weapons and ammunition – and of rabbits in their death throes – ramp up the tension and give a slightly surreal edge to proceedings. It’s almost a ‘heightened’ reality, as if the camera is feeling the effects of that relentless heat. It feels like a very modern film, not just visually but also in our access to the interiority of the characters, conveyed through their private thoughts in voiceover and also in having them break the fourth wall in moments of honesty and confrontation (although talking to each other, they individually face directly into the camera as they speak). Likewise their states of mind – or at least the unspoken animosity under the surface – is signalled early on via the editing in the sequence where the men are preparing their weapons: a series of shot-reverse-shots show Paco in extreme close-up checking his sites facing right, then cuts to an extreme close-up of José doing the same but facing left (making it appear that they could be aiming at each other). The sequence of shots then repeats before a mid-distance shot establishes their actual positions in relation to each other (sitting alongside one another facing in opposite directions).

Saura’s use of the implicit includes the casting of Alfredo Mayo, who had a particular set of associations for contemporaneous Spanish audiences. As Marvin D’Lugo explains in his book on Saura’s films:

‘As a young man, Mayo built his career upon a series of forties films playing the role of the stalwart Nationalist hero fighting the Republican scourge. By far, the most influential of these was the role of José Churruca in Sáenz de Heredia’s Raza. Not only did Mayo play the part of the nationalist patriot; his role was fashioned as a sanitised version of the Caudillo, replete with narrative parallels to Franco’s own biography. Nowhere in [La caza] is there any overt reference to Mayo’s former screen persona, yet implicitly, the character of Paco seems to represent a sequel to the earlier Alfredo Mayo, film-actor-as-national-hero. It is a shattering statement of the passage of time and the transformation of a bygone mythic hero into a venal and narcissistic old man.’ (1991: 57)

In contrast, as an outsider to this clique – and crucially of a younger generation – Enrique is at one remove from the associations generated by the older men. He therefore acts as witness, and audience proxy, when bitter resentments and disappointments finally cause a breakdown and the men turn on each other with spectacular violence. The film ends with a freeze frame of his face in profile – his panting still audible on the soundtrack – as he runs from the scene in horror.

D’Lugo, M (1991) – The Films of Carlos Saura: The Practice of Seeing, Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Mira, A. (2010) – The A to Z of Spanish Cinema, Plymouth: The Scarecrow Press.

Carlos Saura Challenge, Part 2: Llanto por un bandido / Lament for a Bandit (1964)

Director: Carlos Saura
Screenplay: Carlos Saura and Mario Camus
Cast: Francisco Rabal, Lea Massari, Lino Ventura, Philippe Leroy, Manuel Zarzo, Agustín González, Fernando Sánchez Polack
Synopsis: 19th century Spain. The Spanish people have expelled the French but now have to deal with the unjust Fernando VII in their stead. A group of bandits led by ‘El Tempranillo’ garner a Robin Hood-like reputation by robbing only the rich, dealing fairly with normal people, and continuing to defy the King.

Link: My original post on the film, on the old version of the blog.

The reception of Los golfos had demonstrated that depicting the Spanish here-and-now was a sensitive issue with the dictatorship’s censors, but if Saura thought that delving into historical drama might allow him some leeway, he was mistaken: Llanto por un bandido (1964) was heavily cut. The opening sequence in particular has been mangled so heavy-handedly that I thought my DVD had jumped a chapter. Here Saura mischievously used playwright Antonio Buero Vallejo (who deployed symbolism in his own work to criticise the Franco regime) as the town-crier, while Luis Buñuel (persona non grata in Spain at this point due to Viridiana (1961)) cameos as an executioner preparing to execute the condemned men by garrotting.

Whether because of the gaps left by the ‘editing’ or my own lack of familiarity with the historical period, I didn’t really pick up on the political subtext with which Saura apparently imbued this tale of a bandit (‘El Tempranillo’, played by Paco Rabal) who acquires a certain level of political consciousness when he comes into contact with a fugitive liberal – the argument for ideological commitment was seen as provocative. To be honest, I took his defiance of the King to be your normal bandit behaviour rather than an indication of solidarity with the Constitutionalists – the character is generally a bit of a thuggish arsehole, so the association seemed to be one of expedience as opposed to ideological inclination.

Overall, it’s not really my sort of film – I also haven’t rewatched it since my original run of the Carlos Saura Challenge, and there isn’t much about it that has stuck with me.

However – aside from providing Saura with additional impetus to be more oblique when presenting politically contentious perspectives – there are a number of elements that are significant in terms of how Saura’s cinematic style developed. Saura’s evident eye for painterly allusions and compositions – which José Arroyo highlights in a post on the film – can be seen most obviously in the homage to Goya’s Duelo a garrotazos / Fight with Cudgels in the fight sequence between Rabal (who several decades later would play the artist for Saura in Goya en Burdeos (1999)) and Lino Ventura where, buried up to their knees, they batter each other with branches. There is also already a distinctive use of music. This is manifested in the way that sequences are either cut to the music or actions on camera are timed to follow the rhythm of the music (for example, in the Rabal/Ventura fight scene their blows fall in time) in a way that seems unusual (to me) for the time. But it is also very striking that the music is often diagetic, i.e. we see the music being performed onscreen within the scene, emphasising musical performance (and specifically the performance of traditional forms of music from Spain, most obviously flamenco) in a way that would become one of the director’s trademarks.

Carlos Saura Challenge, Part 1: Los golfos / The Delinquents (1962)

Director: Carlos Saura
Screenplay: Carlos Saura, Mario Camus, Daniel Sueiro
Cast: Luís Marín, Oscar Cruz, Manuel Zarzo, Juanjo Losada, Ramón Rubio, Rafael Vargas, María Mayer.
Synopsis: A gang of juvenile delinquents pool their resources to pay for one of their number to be put on the bill of a bullfighting contest.

Link: My Eye for Film review from 2014.

Link: My original post about the film, on the old version of the blog.

To date, the only one of Carlos Saura’s 39 films that I have watched on the big screen is his directorial debut, Los golfos (1962). The film had long been unavailable in any home viewing format (I don’t think it has ever been released on DVD in Spain) and in my original run of the Carlos Saura Challenge, this was the 7th film I watched because – with no way of obtaining a copy – I’d had to skip it until a fortuitous screening at Manchester’s ¡Viva! Film Festival in 2014. A French DVD was released at the tail-end of 2013, but it has French subtitles only and was made with a far-from pristine print – as you can see from the images below.

The film shows a conscious effort to break away from the studio-set films of the time; wide establishing shots emphasise the urban setting, while domestic scenes play out in locations of palpable poverty and degradation. Unsurprisingly the film fell foul of the Spanish censor (its release was delayed for two years – and ten minutes was cut – after it was shown at Cannes in 1960) because the dreary backdrop builds into an implicit social critique, with the young protagonists (played by non-actors) fully aware that their social environment limits their prospects.

The excised footage appears to have been reinstated in the version I saw – at least there are no obvious gaps as there are in Saura’s subsequent film, Llanto por un bandido (1963) (which jumps about abruptly due to cuts). Although some of the editing choices cause sudden cuts, this would seem to have been deliberate on Saura’s part – to disrupt the ‘normal’ narrative form – rather than due to external tampering. At the time, productions had to go through ‘prior censorship’, the submission of their script before they could start shooting, and because the censors were not production specialists they usually focussed on the narrative form. Saura’s filmmaking to date had been in documentary – and he was not overly interested in questions of narrative – but you can see how the experience of going through major rewrites for Los golfos gave him ‘a deeper understanding of the ideological function of narrative as perceived in the censors’ minds’ (D’Lugo 1991: 33). Saura would subsequently move into a more opaque – or metaphorical – style of cinema, which made it more difficult for the censors to point to concrete elements for removal (although the director has said that this was not his primary motive for using metaphors, rather he had decided that he wanted to be more imaginative in the cinema he made), and with which he would make his name internationally.

There is not much in Los golfos that obviously connects to Saura’s later works besides a questioning of Spanish mythology (via bullfighting in this case) and a nascent interest in dance. The central narrative is that only one of the group has a skill that could prove to be their collective ticket out of there – Juan (Oscar Cruz) shows promise as a bullfighter, but is unable to afford the time to train or the exorbitant fee to enter an actual bullfight. On the prompting of senior member Ramón (Luís Marín), the gang agree to raise the money for Juan’s entrance fee through a series of ever more serious hustles and street robberies.

The robberies are carried out stylishly in the chiaroscuro shadows of a moving elevator or with sharp timing in the blazing sun of a parking lot – there is a slickness to these sequences that is difficult to square with other Saura films. However, the truck stop parking lot robbery reminded me of certain sections of La caza (1965); it’s something to do with the lighting (a blazing sun burns with a white heat that almost comes through the screen), but also the combination of that sharp timing with a certain economy of movement. Although Saura didn’t work with Elías Querejeta and his ‘house team’ (including acclaimed editor Pablo G. del Amo) until La caza, there is a kernel of something here that would blossom in that film. The perception that I’ve come across in my reading is that Saura managed to create his first masterpiece with La caza because he started working with Querejeta and Co. at that point, but the flashes of brilliance in Los golfos suggest that something was already forming.

In front of frame, Chato (Juanjo Losada) waits to give the signal to those outside, while Julian (Manuel Zarzo) is on lookout in the rear of frame. The truck driver is sitting at the table behind Chato.
Chato is looking at the parking lot where Ramón (Luís Marín – in the foreground) relays the signal to Manolo (Rafael Vargas – standing between the trucks), who in turn gives the signal to…
Paco (Ramón Rubio) who proceeds to break into the truck. Saura rapidly cuts between close-ups of each of the men, ramping up the tension.

D’Lugo, M (1991) – The Films of Carlos Saura: The Practice of Seeing, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

The Carlos Saura Challenge: 1962-1979

When I first decided to set myself the challenge of watching all of Carlos Saura’s films (back in 2013), the project had two purposes: to fill in a large gap in my knowledge of Spanish cinema (I had only seen a handful of his films); to occupy myself while I was stuck in part-time employment (a situation I’d been in since graduating with my PhD in 2010). The idea had formed months earlier but it took me some time to track down access to the films (some are only available as VOD but I’m watching the majority on unsubtitled DVDs), and to work out whether I could get hold of enough of them as to make the challenge worthwhile. For a long time a lot of ‘classic’ Spanish films were unavailable in any kind of home viewing format (the label Divisa has been addressing this in the past few years); at this point Saura had 37 feature films to his name (that figure is now currently 39), some of which have never had a DVD release and many of those that had seemed to be OOP. After 6 months I had found/acquired 30 of the films, and so I started the initial run of the challenge in February 2013.

My initial intention of short posts on each film interspersed with longer pieces about groups of the films never really materialised, although I covered 6 of the films in the first couple of months. In May 2013 I finally managed to get a full-time job and I didn’t sustain any momentum with the challenge after that point – the gaps between posts got bigger and bigger, until I stopped altogether. This was partly to do with lack of time (and energy) but also a resistance to having the challenge turn into a chore (e.g. I would have had to watch 2 or 3 Saura films each month in order to stay on my original schedule, which was fine when I was part-time, but now that left very little time for watching anything else) – the enjoyment disappeared. The last time I wrote about a Saura film for the challenge (on the old blog) was in January 2015…and then I ground to a complete halt. But I don’t like leaving things unfinished, and obviously I now own almost all of the films (I have access to 38 of the 39 films – there is only one that I’ve been completely unable to track down).

But I wasn’t particularly motivated to re-start last year because – as I detailed in my end-of-year post – my interest in cinema generally plummeted, as did my enthusiasm for writing about films. I decided to take a break from blogging for the first half of this year. I can’t say that my enthusiasm has reignited but I don’t want to get completely out of the habit of writing (I did so in the aftermath of completing my PhD and it took me a long time to regain any feeling of dexterity with language or confidence in my own voice – a situation I have no wish to repeat). So I started thinking about the Carlos Saura Challenge again – could this be a way of getting back into writing more regularly? I started rewriting the original posts, rewatching some of the films when my memory wasn’t clear enough – rewriting seemed like a good way to ease myself back into writing without being confronted by a completely blank page. Posting as and when I’d watched and written about a film didn’t work the first time around, so my intention was to get everything written and then post all of it together over the course of 4-6 weeks, maybe towards the end of the year (the writing is more important than the publishing). Then doubt set in – am I just setting myself up for a fall given that I’ve always struggled with momentum on this project, and I’ve still only watched a third of the films?

The size of Saura’s filmography is slightly overwhelming – he has been working consistently for more than 50 years. Looking at a list of his films, I started to consider where I could draw possible lines of division to break them into smaller groups. The director has said that his films can be roughly divided into three categories: the ‘musical’ films (although, as he points out, music is important in all of his films); the fictional films; and films that he describes as ‘personal essays’ about figures who have inspired him (e.g. Buñuel and Goya). But I don’t want to divide them along thematic lines (and I’ll say now – as I did during the original run – that I’m not sure exactly how I will approach the musical/dance films because I lack both the technical expertise and vocabulary for those art forms). So rather than theme, or ‘phases’, I’ve gone with decades as the dividing lines: 1962-1979; 1980-1999; 2000-2017. The films don’t divide equally between those time periods (13, 17, and 9 respectively) but this was the simplest way to do it. I am sticking with my plan of writing everything for a given collection and then publishing it as a sequence over a number of weeks, but completing the whole thing this year is unrealistic; given the number of films in the 1980-1999 collection, that set will likely not appear on the blog until early 2018 (with 2000-2017 to probably follow by that summer).

But for the next fortnight, the 1962-1979 schedule is as follows:

  1. Los golfos / The Delinquents (1962) [Mon 3rd]
  2. Llanto por un bandido / Lament for a Bandit (1964) [Tues 4th]
  3. La caza / The Hunt (1966) [Wed 5th]
  4. Peppermint frappé (1967) [Thurs 6th]
  5. Stress es tres, tres / Stress is Three (1968) [Fri 7th]
  6. La madriguera / Honeycomb (1969) [Sat 8th]
  7. El jardín de las delicias / The Garden of Delights (1970) [Sun 9th]
  8. Ana y los lobos / Ana and the Wolves (1973) [Mon 10th]
  9. La prima Angélica / Cousin Angelica (1974) [Tues 11th]
  10. Cría cuervos / Raise Ravens (1976) [Wed 12th]
  11. Elisa, vida mía / Elisa, My Love (1977) [Thurs 13th]
  12. Los ojos vendados / Blindfolded Eyes (1978) [Fri 14th]
  13. Mamá cumple 100 años / Mama Turns 100 (1979) [Sat 15th]

I will add links within the titles as the posts are published.