Que sera, Saura

Fifteen years on from Franco, the Spaniards are still wary of discussing their Civil War. Director Carlos Saura tackles it, but can’t take it seriously, as he tells Jonathan Romney.

‘Ay Carmela! is the title of a song sung in the Spanish Civil War by Republican brigades. It is also the title, as well as the punchline, of the new film by veteran Spanish director Carlos Saura. This, clearly, puts a rather heavy allegorical weight on the shoulders of Carmela herself, played by Carmen Maura, who in a somewhat melodramatic pay-off, comes to represent the Republic itself. No, that’s not melodrama says the director, ‘it’s just part of the Spanish tradition of expressionism, like Goya. The violence always erupts at the end.‘

One of the avuncular, professorial breed of European directors (Chabrol is another it‘s something about the size ofthe glasses), Saura is discoursing amiably in Spanish, relayed to me via an interpreter at about 70 per cent abridgement rate which is rather better than the 10 per cent I once had from a Japanese interpreter. The fine

' points ofthe exposition get lost, but the gist is that

Ay Carmela is a project Saura has wanted to do for a long time, but had had on hold pending other projects his conquistador epic El Dorado which took ten years to make, and his last film, La Noche Oscura on St John of the Cross, which had been simmering for fifteen years. But he had to get round to his Civil War story at some point: ‘The theme of the Civil War always comes back to me sometimes it gets lost, but it always returns.‘

A film directly on the Civil War is a rare thing in Spain, says Saura, who can only think of two or three on the subject, ‘although lots have been made about the post-war years. It‘s a very delicate thing to talk about, there are still lots ofwounds and traumas. This is the first film I‘ve actually set within the war years, but in many others, there are images that come from the war.‘

In its subject matter, as well as, occasionally, in its sombre realism, A y Carmela is a little reminiscent of those French films, like The Last Metro and Lacombe Lucien which have dealt with the occupation, a subject which has left equally guilty cultural memories in France. In Saura‘s film, a jolly music hall duo, pragmatic Paulino and gutsy Carmela, inadvertantly skip behind Fascist lines and find themselves pleading for the purity of their art. It’s a complex question that somehow has


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been diluted into a schematic political cartoon. The high seriousness and the burlesque farce Northern, Aragonesque humour. claims the director— make an uneasy mix. But that. says Saura, was the risk. "The game with humour in this film was to see what limit one could reach. I‘ve only now been able. after many years. to find humour in the Civil War. I‘ve always been amazed how the Italians are able to laugh at things as drastic as war.‘

Ay Carmela started life as a stage play that impressed Saura so much he ran backstage and told the producer. ‘I should have had this idea myself!‘ Originally a two-hander. it‘s become a minutely-observed realist canvas. with Saura drawing on his own childhood memories (he was six in 1938, when the story takes place). "There are images that have stayed with me from my childhood that I don‘t want to forget -- while the producers still let me! There are songs from that period which have found their way into a lot of my films, and then there‘s the chaos. the brutality. . .‘

The film‘s star attraction is Carmen Maura. best known outside Spain as Pedro Almodovar‘s female alter ego in his films. although. Saura insists, there‘s more to Maura than the campness often associated with her. ‘She sings and dances, she‘s a complete actress and it‘s not easy to find those in Spain. There‘s a certain part ofCarmen which Almodovar has brought out, but she‘s a different actress with him, she‘s very flexible.‘

The other part of the film, the self-preserving Paulino. is played by music-hall star, Andres

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Pajares, who, judging by Saura’s description, seems to be a peninsular Bruce Forsyth, an all-singing, all-dancing family entertainer. ‘He’s done about 50 or 60 films, very bad films, but big hits in Spain. He‘s a fantastic actor, ifyou take him out of his usual context. The trouble is, he‘s too used to playing himself— in this film, I had to persuade him to play a character for once.‘

A)‘ Carmela is, admittedly. a poor showing from the director of such memorable films as Anna and the Wolves and C ria Cuervos not to mention the much debated flamenco trilogy (Carmen, ElAmor Brujo, Blood Wedding) that he made in the ‘805. Still, it‘s a useful reminder that there was a Spanish cinema before Almodovar. The flamenco obsession is on hold for the time being, partly because Saura insisted on working with dancer Antonio Gedes, who has now decided to hang up his heels. There are maybe two more Civil War stories in the pipeline, but more immediately, Saura is working on a TV adaptation of Borges‘ story El Sur and a script about Goya. This summer. he also directs Carmen in Stuttgart. But, as he stresses, it will be straight Bizet opera, rather than his semi-Brechtian flamenco version: ‘In opera, you have to stick to certain rules. Ifyou have the singers moving around the stage all the time, they can‘t sing a note.‘ (Jonathan Romney)

Ay ( 'armela opens at (he ('amt'o. Edinburgh on Fri 3 and Glasgow Film Theatre on Sun I 2.

‘The List3— 16siay-199133