Flamenco, Flamenco achieves something akin to pure form in movement, opting to abandon conventional narrative in favor of an unchained camera that engages kinetic dancing and performing not as a musical number or set piece, but as a degree of storytelling in and of itself. Filmed at the Seville Expo ’92 pavilion and adorned with numerous classical artworks ranging from Goya to Picasso, the film finds Carlos Saura rendering 21 different flamenco routines across a span of 97 minutes, though few of the sequences bear visual resemblance to one another beyond their shared form of dance. No context is provided, nor is there a talking head to be found. Saura, working with veteran cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, rebuffs context by charging the performers’ intensity to an uninterrupted state of vibrant cultural expression.
That vibrancy comes via the film’s wildly oscillating color palette, which changes with each number to sometimes jarring, but consistently enlivening, effects. The staging of “Cartagenera y Bulerías,” for example, encloses a pair of dueling pianists within a series of unnamed artworks, adorned in front of a larger landscape background. The décor has changed substantially from the previous performance, though Saura dynamizes rather than stagnates the space by capturing the opening bit in a single take, which dollies out, then back in on one of the performers. Later in the performance, Saura shoots the pianos overhead, actively defying the film-as-theater conceit his film could more simply seek to construct. Yet little of this is surprising given the film’s opening shot, which tilts down from a low-angle shot of the pavilion’s ceiling before slowly tracking through a series of large paintings, and finally arriving at the first set of performers. Saura’s proclivity for capturing and embodying mobility is as enamoring as the music itself.
Saura speaks to narrative through what’s omitted—namely, any desire to actively articulate the heritage endemic to the sounds and images on screen. But Spanish culture abounds throughout; in the most memorable sequence, titled “Copla Por Bulería,” three singers perform around a small circular table, with a single, large overhead light, mimicking the style of a police-interrogation room. The dimly lit background gradually reveals a series of film posters featuring Lola Flores, while the camera tracks around the table, unveiling the 360-degree space. Saura recognizes cinema and flamenco as entwined not just via this film, but also through various forms of pop culture that necessarily bleed into one another, paradoxically seared into cultural memory despite their intended ephemera as performative or disposable art.
The film keeps confined to the same setting for its duration, but the musical numbers are not performed in front of an audience, nor is there any indication of immediate thematic relation between the performances. Instead, Saura offers a procession of distilled exuberance, as if calling the bluff of spectacle-oriented narrative cinema that necessitates excusing its excesses with characters and plotting. There’s a world of narrative in Flamenco, Flamenco, but it remains implicit within the traditions so passionately rendered. Only at the film’s end does the camera stray from the pavilion’s confines, with a tilt toward the sky. Perhaps it’s an act of deference to the concluding shot of Altman’s Nashville, or perhaps it’s offering what’s preceded as a humanist respite from the giant satellite which also occupies the shot. After all, what comprehensively remains just off screen in Flamenco, Flamenco, at least until its final moments, is the technological stranglehold of modernity.
If any film from the past decade deserves a stunning, booming Blu-ray transfer, it’s Flamenco Flamenco. Fortunately, Music Box Films has given it just that. Colors are especially saturated and sharp, with little deviation or dimming even with the many instances of movement within the mise-en-scène. Depth and clarity are impeccable, with no instances of image defect. Glossy and clean, the image consistently impresses from set to set. Likewise, and perhaps even stronger, the transfer’s DTS-HD audio is masterfully mixed, and resounds through a proper speaker system with the force and attention to detail one would hope for based on Carlos Saura and Vittorio Storaro’s artistic precision. There are no cracks or pops, to be sure, but even better, the mix isn’t afraid to be quiet and accentuate the low claps and taps that segue into louder, more boisterous moments.
Music Box provides impressive, if too brief, contextual supplements to explain the film’s origins and production. In a making-of featurette that runs just under a half hour, producer Juan Jesús Caballero reveals the "great challenge" faced by his production team in building and locating arenas suitable to Saura’s vision. To that end, Saura discusses shooting in Seville with Storaro and how the film’s visual construct borrows heavily from famous painters like Romeo de Torres, though the specificities of these aims are merely glossed, rather than fully explored. Storaro talks about the long shooting days and performers share what register more like publicity sound bites than insightful commentary, as when one singer states how "it was truly wonderful to sing in Saura’s dawn." In the best passage, musician Niña Pastori confesses that some of the song choices in the film had never occurred to her and that engaging the history of flamenco deepened her understanding of her own craft. In another half-hour piece, 15 of the film’s dancers and musicians explain their relationship to, and "pride" for, flamenco, which derives from a desire to spread joy and, for several, intent to share the culture with their children. An interview with Saura lasts only a few minutes, but the accompanying visual is a remarkable explanation of how Saura took drawings and paintings of his own in order to sketch the scenes as that would appear in the film. The theatrical trailer rounds out the extras.
As wonderful to see and hear as any film about song and dance ever made, Flamenco Flamenco remains one of the decade’s most unsung masterworks.