He is quietly spoken, but 67 year old award-winning Spanish director Carlos Saura -
whose latest film Tango is up for a Best Foreign Language Oscar - retains the passion that
has defied his work for 30 years. Apart from many of his wonderful political dramas that
occupied much of his career, his dance films are regarded as his most visually striking,
from Dance Wedding and Carmen through to the newest, Tango. They all mirror his
fascination with dance, but where that comes from, he doesn't really know. "When I
was a 17-year old, I would loved to have danced Flamenco," he explains.
"That was the beginning of both my love for dancing -
"One day I went to this famous Flamenco teacher to see if I could take classes
with her. She was a Gypsy and a fantastic dancer; she looked at me and I was very thin and
she said: Well, you've got the right shape; I will see how you dance. So she started
clapping to a rhythm and I tried to dance. So she said ok, ok, and paused before
concluding: 'It would probably be better if you dedicate yourself to something else'. That
was the beginning of both my love for dancing - and movies."
Saura began his professional life as a photographer when his brother talked him into
attending film school in Madrid. Here he came into contact with the works of the Italian
neo-realists, whose influences were evident in his first feature, Los Golfos (1960), with
its location shooting, use of non-professional actors and concern with social issues. Los
Golfos was poorly received and it was not until Saura's third feature, La Caza/The Hunt
(1966) that his abilities were noticed.
"What I like to do is develop a true idea"
Saura's films of the next ten years were much influenced by the Spanish artistic
tradition of ‘esperpento,’ an absurdist type of black humour in which fact and
fantasy are intermixed.
Then Saura embarked on his acclaimed dance trilogy: Blood Wedding (1981),
"Carmen" (1983) and El Amor Brujo (1986). These films, among the most popular in
Spanish box-office history, were adapted with choreographer Antonio Gades from classical
ballets and placed in contemporary settings. The trilogy earned a special award at the
1988 Montreal Film Festival.
Blood Wedding was the beginning of Saura's re-acquaintance with dance and music,
describing the film "as my first musical. I incorporated a lot of things in that film
that I learnt as a photographer of dancers. It was the rehearsal process itself, more than
the performance that drew me in, and the finished show doesn't interest me as much."
His dance films, including Tango, are more than about dance, they often explore
parallels between the lives of his characters and the dance itself.
"What I like to do is develop a true idea, and that's what a lot of dance films
are about - how you CONSTRUCT the dance, and that's the case in Tango." The film
revolves around Mario (Miguel Angel Sola), a theatrical director trying to put together a
sophisticated stage revue that will achieve his politically dicey artistic vision, while
pleasing the production's conservative financial backers. He falls into a dangerous love
affair with Elena, a lithe young company dancer, the girlfriend of the Mafioso helping
bankroll his show.
"Every dance has its own language and narrative
The film's major highlights are its dazzling array of dance sequences, which Saura
creates, he says, intuitively. "That's how I allow myself to be guided. Every dance
has its own language and narrative technique. Sometimes it's better just to stay quiet and
just watch, because what's being offered to you if you try and make a suggestion you can
actually destroy it. Then there are other times when the camera should PARTICIPATE in the
choreography, so I go a lot by intuition. I watch rehearsal, and depending on how I feel
about what I'm seeing in that rehearsal, is how I make the decisions."
As for why he chose the Tango, not an overtly Spanish style of dance, as his latest
cinematic metaphor, Saura believes that this is close to its predecessors, culturally and
artistically. "There's a lot in common between the Tango and Spanish music, and a lot
of new Spanish music and influence in the tango, and it's not as excessively distant from
Spanish culture as people might think. Tango is really a combination of various cultural
influences that combine together, and the rhythm is very Spanish."
Initially, Saura explains, his intention was to make a straight Flamenco-style dance
film, without an additional narrative through-line. He hit upon the idea that his hero
should be a director facing exactly the same challenge as he faced himself. But Saura is
quick to point out that the film's Mario Suarez, played by Argentine star Miguel Angel
Sola, is not his alter ego. "I am not such an egotist that I would allow myself that
degree of focus."
Much of Tango was shot on a sound stage with its systems of movable screens allowing
Saura's cinematographer a combination of lighting possibilities. Saura had a simple but
clear story line for his sizeable cast and crew to follow, but the screens allowed him the
flexibility to modify Tango easily as he was filming it.
"I make movies and forget about them."
Saura says he loved the five months he spent in Argentina working on the film. "A
lot of people suffer when they work, but for me it was a pleasure, an adventure." For
Saura, even as he approaches 70, his work remains his passion, though he never sees his
films once they're finished. "I make movies and forget about them. It takes a
tremendous effort to remember them. I have never made an autobiographical film in the
absolute sense, but when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences honoured me some
12 years ago and presented a long montage of my films, I was so amazed. The characters
were thinking and saying what I was thinking and saying at the time. I was confronted with
my entire life!"