by Matt Levine
You know Flamenco, Flamenco is something special from its very first image: a gorgeous, swooping crane shot that cradles the curves of a huge domed ceiling, buttressed with crisscrossing steel bars, in a seemingly abandoned warehouse. The camera glides across windows and beams, defying gravity, until it sidles through a maze of beautiful paintings basked in meticulous lighting. The paintings are of elegant Spanish women, scenes from Spanish history, rulers, battles, a picturebook of a culture’s legacy. Finally, the camera discovers a small group of flamenco performers—guitarists, percussionists, singers, dancers—arranged on a stage so polished that the floor seems like a reflective pool, with jaw-dropping sets painted the fiery colors of a vivid sky, like something out of the Japanese horror movie Kwaidan (1964). It’s the kind of opening shot that smacks you awake, forces you to sit up and take notice, and it rarely loses grasp on your attention during the ensuing hour-and-a-half.
Director: Carlos Saura
Producer: Jesús Caballero
Writer: Carlos Saura
Cinematographer: Vittorio Storaro
Editor: Vanessa Marimbert
Cast: Sara Baras, José Miguel Carmona, Montse Cortés, Paco de Lucía, Farruquito, Israel Galván, José Mercé, Estrella Morente, Soledad Morente, Niña Pastori, Miguel Poveda, Manolo Sanlúcar, Tomatito, Eva Yerbabuena, Antonio Zúñiga
Premiere: September 17, 2010 — Latin Beat Film Festival
The graceful majesty of Flamenco, Flamenco’s imagery serves as a testament to the power of cinema, but the film is in fact a celebration of art in general—how it unites us, impassions us, speaks to a distinct culture yet also spans national borders. Its subject of focus is, of course, the eponymous musical style, which grew out of northern Spain in the 18th century and features a combination of finger-plucking guitar work, passionate, throaty singing, dancing styles both serene and frenetic, and elaborate rhythms of handclaps. For a flamenco neophyte like myself, the style has a mysterious eroticism—both ethereally calm and intensely thrilling—that Flamenco, Flamenco further exoticizes by providing no expository information on the subject. The film truly is 97 minutes of flamenco performances, with no dialogue, no narration, no plot; but to assume that leads to a dull, challenging slog is to underestimate the excitement and uniqueness of flamenco.
The director, Carlos Saura, has made a very similar movie before: 1995’s Flamenco, which also features hypnotic performances beautifully shot on a soundstage. That predecessor had a bit more contextual information, in the form of an opening narration that lays out flamenco’s eclectic influences and developments over the last several centuries. There is even less context in Flamenco, Flamenco, a primarily experiential documentary that was intended as a companion piece in order to illustrate how dynamically the art form has morphed over the last twenty years. For the uninitiated, it might have been nice to have a sliver of narration (or even onscreen text) to emphasize various dance and lyrical forms in flamenco (there are many), or to summarize how flamenco’s style has morphed over the last couple decades. But Saura’s decision to excise all background information is a trade-off that immerses us entirely in this vivid, captivating art form. There might not be any historical context given, but there is plenty of visual and aural evidence to prove flamenco’s visceral intensity. Saura seems confident that the performances themselves will convince us of flamenco’s cultural vitality (and rightfully so). Flamenco exists here not as a relic of Spain’s rich cultural history, but as a spellbinding art form in the here and now, transcendent without any kind of explanation.
Both Flamenco, Flamenco and its 1995 predecessor were shot by Vittorio Storaro, the legendary cinematographer who also lensed The Conformist, Last Tango in Paris, Apocalypse Now, The Last Emperor, and many more. Without disrespecting Saura’s precise directorial vision, it seems obvious that Storaro is a co-creator of Flamenco, Flamenco’s distinct look—he is at least a co-author alongside Saura. Storaro’s tracking shots have always seemed almost supernaturally graceful, and the colors he’s able to evoke (working with the digital Red One camera) are jaw-droppingly vivid. It might be true that Flamenco, Flamenco wouldn’t amount to much without Storaro’s visual prowess—at the very least, it would be more musically than visually astonishing without his collaboration—but thankfully we don’t have to speculate about that inferior film. As the camera glides over the stage, drinking in an aesthetic awash in primary colors and patterns of light that shower the scene precisely, the film achieves a visual style equally as spellbinding as the flamenco music and dance that it captures.
It sounds like a cliché to say that Storaro’s camera is a dancer alongside the onscreen performers, but one of the finest technical achievements in the film is how our perspective soars and skitters, at varying tempos, to respond to the dancers’ movements. Often, this simpatico takes on a subtle, self-effacing form, with the camera wisely settling down to allow the performers to wield the spotlight. But in other moments, the camera takes center stage with showy acrobatics and restless mobility, sometimes even drawing sultry smiles from the dancers onscreen. Not only is this tango between human dancers and the film camera thrilling to watch; it also emphasizes Flamenco, Flamenco’s infusion of various art forms, from film itself to the music and dance of flamenco to the paintings and photographs that speak to a vibrant Spanish heritage.
The premise of a plotless movie comprised only of flamenco performances may sound daunting to those who aren’t fans of the art form, but it quickly becomes clear that the soul-baring passion of the vocal performances and the delicately violent dance choreography is emotional enough to entrance an audience. Admittedly, one or two performances might have been cut for the sake of avoiding redundancy, but for the most part Saura and his choreographer, Javier Latorre, unleash a fount of creativity and emotional intensity throughout these 21 vignettes. My favorite sequence includes singer Miguel Poveda, seated at a beautifully lit table that two silent men are rhythmically tapping; the camerawork of this scene, in which the stage is adorned with pictures of classic Spanish movies, is impossibly graceful, the music even more so. But any number of performances are thrilling and hypnotic—a dance performed amid an enormous purple dress, a comedic one-man performance that injects the influence of mime, a haunting image bathed in red of tall, beautiful dancers shrouded in long black sheets. As in Saura’s celebrated “Flamenco Trilogy” of the 1980s (Blood Wedding, Carmen, and El Amor brujo), dance is revealed to be a perfectly cinematic method of acting, its pathos conveyed visually and rhythmically.
It’s probably unfair of me to compare Flamenco, Flamenco with Pina, Wim Wenders’ 3D tribute to the choreographer Pina Bausch and her dance company (and one of my favorite movies of the last several years). The two films naturally approach dance from very different perspectives. But it’s also hard not to compare the (relative) lack of dialogue and plot, the visceral immediacy and human athleticism of dance, and the embrace of art as a vehicle for connection shared by both movies. Pina has a penchant for casual surrealism and an emotional undercurrent provided by interviews with the dancers that make the film both strange and poignant, not to mention eye-popping. That emotional connection is more fleeting with Flamenco, Flamenco, but this is more a sign of the high quality of recent dance documentaries than a slight on Saura’s film.
Flamenco, Flamenco's final shot is a bookend to the first: retreating the way it came, appreciating the architecture of this cavernous space while the sound of furious flamenco music diminishes into the distance. (It's reminiscent of Carlos Reygadas’ Silent Light, which also opened and closed with inverse images of overwhelming magnitude). Following all of the other tributes to the arts included by Saura, Flamenco, Flamenco leaves us with one final ode to the splendor of images in motion.