The agony and the ecstasy
Flamenco, Flamenco, documentary, not rated, Jean Cocteau Cinema, 3 chiles The camera tilts down from the graceful arching girders of Seville’s Expo ’ 92 pavilion into an assembled gallery of huge poster-sized blowups of art, mostly featuring women, mostly Spanish themes and artists, mostly flamencooriented. We move through them, and up onto a hardwood dance floor.
We are in the hands of eighty-two-year-old master filmmaker and connoisseur of Spanish dance Carlos Saura, and his frequent collaborator, the legendary Italian cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, whose name is as fluid as his Oscar-winning camerawork ( The Last Emperor). And we are on our way to see and hear flamenco, the classic Spanish musical form that has been documented since the 18th century.
There is no narrative, there is no dialogue, no voice-over, no subtitles, only titles identifying the performers and the numbers. When they sing, the words are left untranslated, but if you are not fluent in Spanish, you needn’t worry about missing their meaning. Every word, every ululating cry is ripped from the gut, torn from the heart, lifted by powerful voices rasping with emotion. And when they dance, they hit the hard floor with hammering heels, battering out staccato rhythms like bursts of automatic weapons.
Sometimes the setting is as simple as a rude table, with three men sitting around it, tapping out the time with their hands as one of them sings. Sometimes there is a color-drenched projection behind the performers, sometimes a bare stage. There’s even a rainstorm. Some of the dancers and singers are in street clothes, many are costumed. The color red dominates.
They are old, and they are young. They are aging legends, and new rising talents. They are dancers, and singers, and instrumental virtuosi. They are men, and they are women, and this is what the flamenco form seems to emphasize — the power and the passion of the male and the female.
Saura presents the musical numbers, without comment, one after the other, 21 of them, and much of the program is steeped in the anguished melancholy of love lost, but then, when you’re not expecting it, some joy creeps in — some fun, a few sly smiles — and you realize this is an idiom that celebrates love’s exuberance as well as its agony. And even the pain is there to be relished.
Some of the artists will be familiar to aficionados of the genre, singers like Carlos García and Maria Ángeles Fernández, dancers like Eva Yerbabuena, Sara Baras, and Israel Galván. The seventy-seven-year-old legend María Bala, sister of the great singer Manuel Soto Sordera, makes her final recorded appearance here before her death this past March.
Saura knows his way around a dance floor. His 1998 Tango was nominated for an Oscar, and a few years before that he made a documentary called Flamenco. This time he’s doubled the stakes with Flamenco, Flamenco. If you don’t like flamenco, this will give you twice the incentive to stay away. If you don’t know flamenco, this will be a baptism of fire, and by the time you leave you’ll know whether you like it or not. And if you love flamenco, happy holidays!
— Jonathan Richards
Ladies in red: a stampede of flamenco sirens