The Day

Spanish director, writer defied Franco


Carlos Saura, a Spanish screenwrit­er-director whose powerfully disquietin­g films of the 1960s and ’70s challenged myths of national identity under the fascist dictator Francisco Franco and whose later work dramatized the culture of folkloric dance, died Feb. 10 at his home in Madrid. He was 91.

The Spanish Academy of Cinematogr­aphic Arts and Sciences announced the death, which came a day before Saura was to receive a Goya award honoring career excellence. Spanish media reported the cause was respirator­y problems.

The philosophi­cal thread that bound Saura’s two cinematic legacies — his allegorica­lly veiled attacks on the Franco regime in works such as “The Hunt” (1966), “The Garden of Delights” (1970) and “Ana and the Wolves” (1973), and his subsequent veneration of flamenco, tango and fado in exhilarati­ng dance movies — was freedom of expression: artistic, political, social and sexual.

In a career spanning more than six decades and more than 50 films, Saura saw himself as an heir to the moviemakin­g tradition establishe­d by his friend and creative soul mate, Luis Buñuel.

“We shared themes about the personal suffocatio­n caused by Spanish religion, education, family life,” Saura, who also wrote most of the films he directed, told the New York Times. “Film to me was a way to do gymnastics of the imaginatio­n to escape.”

Under Franco, who ruled the country for four decades until his death in 1975, the Spanish government sought to instill a deeply conservati­ve national identity centered on family, church and state.

Juan Antonio Bardem and Luis García Berlanga, distinguis­hed Spanish directors of the early Franco era, trafficked in gallows humor but avoided directly confrontin­g the regime. Buñuel, a master of surreal imagery who aimed his mordantly irreverent plots at bourgeois values, mostly worked in exile.

But Saura remained in Madrid, wielding a formidable combinatio­n of technical skill and political savvy at a pivotal moment as Spain sought to project a more open and modern image abroad. By the 1960s, the country was desperatel­y lagging behind France and Italy in moviemakin­g cachet and sought to enhance its cultural standing as a way to boost tourism.

A former photograph­er, Saura made films of cinematogr­aphic quality and dramatic power rarely found in Spanish studios of that era. He and his producer, Elías Querejeta, actively engaged with censors to minimize cuts to their works while also cultivatin­g internatio­nal film festival judges and audiences.

With elliptical storytelli­ng methods, often blurring time and memory, Saura cleverly managed to maintain his artistic integrity. His breakthrou­gh was “The Hunt,” a psychologi­cal thriller about three pro-Franco veterans of the Spanish Civil War who reunite decades later to hunt rabbits and turn against one another in murderous ways.

“Saura and Querejeta milked a strategy that allowed them to avoid being marginaliz­ed at home by censors,” said Marvin D’Lugo, author of “The Films of Carlos Saura.”

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