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.