In Flamenco Flamenco, director Carlos Saura deviates from his usual marriage of story and dance and commits to representing flamenco in its purest form—the music and dance—in a series of vignettes. The virtuosic performances in each are filmed using various camera techniques in a changing and symbolic mise en scene. Sweeping landscapes and galactic belts turn the dance into something elemental, rejoicing in the human spirit. Every frame is a work of art, and the cinematography, lighting, set design and use of color entrances the audience in pure cinematic bliss.
It is in some ways the film that Saura has been preparing for since he made his first 16mm film at the age of fifteen. His famous trilogy Blood Wedding (1981), Carmen (1983) and El Amor Brujo (1986) features dance within narrative but are not labeled as musicals. El Amor Brujo particularly illustrates his special skill for set design and the integration of dance with dialog. His deep understanding of flamenco and how to film it has culminated in Flamenco Flamenco, which is also not really a musical or a documentary. It is a cinematic expression of flamenco itself, a marriage of the two mediums that achieves a vivid and otherwise impossible intimacy for the audience.
The viewer is taken on a tour of flamenco that includes and exhausts four qualities: cante (singing), toque (guitar), baile (dance and foot percussion) and palmas (hand percussion). Isidro Munoz advised Saura on a careful selection of highly respected artists, including Paco de Lucia (composer and guitarist), Manolo Sanlucar (guitarist), Sara Baras (female dancer) and Marina Heredia (female singer). Baras’ thrilling number near the beginning is perhaps the most iconic of the medium as it is popularly understood, while near the film’s center, Israel Galvan delivers a breathtaking, silent solo that distills baile to its essence.
The modern and traditional themes, dueling piano, acappella, solo foot percussion, traditional, group celebrations and solo meditations—all the diverse elements of flamenco developed over centuries are on display, challenging and delighting the senses and perhaps introducing viewers for the first time to a complex, under-appreciated world.
One of the core themes in Flamenco Flamenco is duality. It is evident in the title—as is the sense of repetition and cyclicality—and in the film is expressed with great artistry through saturated color, chiaroscuro and large scrims of visual art. It is the duality of rising and falling, new and old, joy and mourning, myth and modernity. “Without knowing a definitive spring, one cannot know a fall, and vice versa,” it seems to say. Uses of yellows, imagery of sunrises represent birth and youth, while the use of blues and cool full moons represent maturity and tradition. The living performers disappear into the two-dimensional stillness of a painted scene of performers, or into the watery reflection of them on the stage below—day into night and night into day.
So, too, must any medium evolve, and Carlos Saura’s love of flamenco acknowledges both traditional and contemporary flamenco voices. Trends in dancing or music may go too far in tossing the “old” to make way for the new, and when it comes time to reclaim the former, the technique remains, but the context and its history may be lost.
In the 1960s, partner dancing fell out of favor in the United States; youthful rebellion held up solo dances, such as the “mashed potato” and the “twist.” Now there is again a growing longing to practice partner dance, and new generations of dancers are signing up to learn the “old” stuff—the lindy hop, salsa and tango. Saura honors this generational dynamic and shows that they can perform side-by-side, embrace one another, so that over time the tradition only grows richer rather than divided. The duality is always part of a more perfect whole, and from start to finish Flamenco Flamenco models just that sort of beautiful world.
For those who have not seen Saura’s early work, it is worth taking a peek. In this scene from El Amor Brujo, titled “Reunion,” the lovers Carmelo and Candela dance a flamenco to exhibit their love for one another—even as they are becoming divided. The scene is passionate, eerie and beautiful, and could never be achieved with dialog alone. His skill for explaining the unexplainable is truly the effect of Flamenco Flamenco.