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by Mel Valentin

"A sensuous celebration of Spanish culture through music and dance."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2006 SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Spanish filmmaker Carlos Saura, once known for his complex explorations of Spanish history, politics, ideology, and class under Francisco Franco's authoritarian regime, turned away from narrative filmmaking and toward the non-narrative (or loosely structured) musical format half a decade after Franco's death. In 1981, Saura directed "Blood Wedding," a musical interpretation of Federico García Lorca's play of the same name. Two years later, Saura adapted Bizet's "Carmen" (1983). Other adaptations followed, including "El Amore Brujo"(1986), "Sevillanas" (1992), "Flamenco," "Tango" (1998), and "Salomé" (2002).

Although centered on Spanish composer Isaac Manuel Francisco Albéniz's (1860-1909) music, primarily his "Iberia" suite, Saura's latest film, aptly titled Iberia, is a sensuous celebration of Spanish dance, culture, history, and geography. Saura, however, also celebrates the potential of film to work in tandem with dance, music, and sound to create a unique cinematic experience that places aesthetics and form at the same or higher level than intellectual engagement or content. To say that, though, shortchanges Saura's dense, interlaced approach to Spanish history and culture, most of which will be unfamiliar to non-Spanish audiences. While missing historical and cultural referents arguably diminishes the viewing experience, the overall effect is relatively minor (and might spur viewers to seek out Albéniz's work as a composer and brush up on Spanish history and culture).

Saura structured Iberia around different movements from Albéniz's work as a composer, primarily his "Iberia" suite for piano. Saura introduces each movement around a title drawn from Albéniz's work, beginning with "Evocation," a solo for piano as Saura's camera playfully travels along the piano, lingers on the pianist, then moves through a set still under construction. What at first appears to be a split screen, isn't (it's a mirror sliding horizontally across the frame). Saura breaks the "fourth wall," showing us the film crew and performers preparing for the segments that will follow, eventually circling back to the pianist completing the solo. It's a striking, bravura opening, filmed in a single take that hints at Saura's desire to create an immersive experience for his audience.

The second sequence, "Aragón" subtly suggests that Iberia is meant both to preserve a cultural heritage through the permanency of film and to extend that heritage to future generations. An instructor leads her young charges through basic flamenco moves with musicians half-hidden in the background. The children, dressed in casual clothing, respond enthusiastically, watching themselves in a full-length mirror, slipping off in twos as period photographs are projected in the background.

The next two segments, "Bajo la Palmera" and "Granada," are even more stylized, opening with silhouetted figures against red/orange/yellow backgrounds for "Bajo la Palmera" and, in a recognition of Spain's complex historical association with Arabic/Muslim culture (and presumably Jewish culture too), three groups of women, dressed in black, blue, and white, dance separately at first, before joining together as a group in front of white screens (but blue is the dominant color).

"Cadíz," the next segment set to Albéniz's music is probably the least successful. The attempt to modernize Albéniz's music through the addition of a "soulful" saxophone really doesn't work. It's more muzak than music. Set around a single woman and multiple suitors, the performances remain vital and engaging, but the music undercuts whatever involvement viewers might have with the dancers or the basic storyline. Saura noticeably also uses performers of various sizes and shapes, suggesting more openness toward the female and male forms in Spain.

In "Triana," two performers engage in a romantic duet as their faces are half-hidden in dramatic lighting and shadow (as oversized period photos, presumably of the composer and his family, hang in the background). "Torre Bermeja" is remarkable, not only for the set design and lighting (a given by this point in Iberia), but in Saura's decision to use middle-aged, female performers for the traditional vocalizations, foot-stomping, hand-clapping, and dance steps of flamenco.

Constructed around dueling groups or "gangs" in modern dress, "Alemaría" falters by having one dancer adding break-dance moves to his repertoire (not to mention the dancer looks like Rico Suave) as he challenges his rival in a "West Side Story"-like dance-off. Contrary to Saura's presumed intention to prove Albéniz's relevance to contemporary dance styles and movement, the end result is cheesy, campy, and unintentional comical. Luckily, " Cadíz" and " Alemaría" are the only two missteps Saura makes.

The remaining segments cover everything from a full orchestra and women in traditional mourning dress, "Corpus Sevilla" (the lead singer's vocalizations are equally traditional), to a single performer dancing in front of movie screen that doubles and triples her image on a time delay (she's accompanied by a trio of piano, violin, and violoncello), "Rondeña." The subsequent segments, while distinguished by lighting and set design, aren't quite as distinctive. The second to last segment, however, again centered on a lone female performer, is starkly symbolic, suggesting the painful struggles necessary to create and maintain cultures (birthing metaphors are front and center). The segment titles begin to repeat themselves, eventually circling back to the stage set that opened Iberia as students, instructors, and adults perform first in a group and then in pairs.

This final circling back and moving forward, as culture passes between generations, is a fitting coda for Saura's optimistic celebration of Albéniz's music and its impact on Spanish culture. As for Carlos Saura, he may have turned away from his critiques of contemporary Spanish society, but his non-narrative films suggest that filmmakers can make late-career changes in direction and focus and still produce meaningful work.

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originally posted: 04/24/06 09:37:48
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Toronto Film Festival For more in the 2005 Toronto Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 San Francisco Film Festival For more in the 2006 San Francisco Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Seattle Film Festival For more in the 2006 Seattle Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

11/16/11 dipanjan biswas it's a treat to watch. 4 stars
10/31/09 dev good 5 stars
4/23/06 Blutarsky To quote Dick Vitale, "Awesome Baby!" 5 stars
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Directed by
  Carlos Saura

Written by
  Carlos Saura

  Sara Baras
  Antonio Canales
  Manolo Sanlúcar

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