Carlos Saura's saudade: The poignant song and dance of Fados re-opens the SFFS Screen at the Sundance Kabuki Friday, June 5.

'Fados' finds Saura on his toes

Dennis Harvey June 4, 2009

It is a typical complaint amongst older people that they miss most the passions, the fervent enthusiasms of their youth. Some folk, however, discover some new passion late in life that they pursue with unprecedented ardor—possibly to the bewilderment of those (including grown offspring) who now miss the more level-headed, more single-minded person they used to be.

One might conjecture something like that happened to Carlos Saura, the Spanish director who from the late 1950s onward made frequently striking films like Peppermint Frappe (1967) and Cria! (1977). Both of those starred his wife Geraldine Chaplin, who quickly became fluent in Spanish and had just the right sort of grave delicacy to inhabit his alternately sorrowful and caustic portraits of life in Franco’s Spain—a muzzled world whose strictures he (mostly) managed the artist’s trick of criticizing just slyly enough to avoid censorship.

Then Franco died in 1977. Five years later, the long shadow now comfortably lifted, Saura made an unexpected, shamelessly sensual (if not exactly frivolous) left turn with Blood Wedding, the first of several exercises in something cinema too seldom dares: Full-length dance drama, without desire or need for dialogue. That, Carmen and El Amor Brujo (all choreographed by and starring Antonio Gades) interpreted in pure movement and music of classic stories that served flamenco’s traditional temper by themselves being all about love driven to the point of madness and violence.

Then in 1992 Saura commenced an ongoing series of features that eschewed even the distraction of narrative to showcase short dance works, like a stage program—although their impact much heightened by the camera’s own brilliant "choreography," particularly once he acquired the genius of Vittorio Storaro (of Bertolucci and Apocalypse Now fame) on 1995’s Flamenco and 1998’s Tango.

The latest of these is Fados, which opens this Friday on the SFFS Screen at the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas. Fado is a Portuguese musical genre that’s been around for over two centuries—though one might be a bit bewildered by the variety of sounds which fall under its umbrella here, as they run from traditional stark balladry to jazzy band arrangements and even a rap number. There are top singers and musicians not only from Portugal but also Mexico, Spain and Brazil, from the youthful to the elderly.

I suppose the real stars here are the vocalists, song and singer being fado’s traditional focus. But even when the camera is still, the stagings (often making use of figures silhouetted against hotly colored scrims as well as occasional film clips, stills and back projection) "dance" in their way. And elsewhere there’s a variety of dance accompaniment, from hiphop improv to modern-dance ensemble, from dramatic vignette to abstraction.

Billed onscreen as "Fados by Carlos Saura," the film’s use of disparate performances required more than just assembly by the director. By now Saura is an effortless master at weaving together such elements. Shot on a soundstage, Fados’ editorial (Julia Juaniz), cinematographic (Jose Luiz Lopez-Linares, Eduardo Serra?) and production design (Saura) elements are as ravishingly essential to creating its organic whole as the musicians and dancers themselves.

Now nearing age 80, Saura hasn’t entirely abandoned talking pictures. But aside from 1990’s Ay, Carmela! with Carmen Maura, few of his other non-dance films have gotten U.S. distribution, despite some notable stars (Antonio Banderas, Isabelle Adjani etc.) and intriguing subjects. (2001’s Bunuel and King Solomon’s Table probed the enigmatic Bunuel-Lorca-Dali cabal, no doubt to better effect than the lamentable recent English-language Little Ashes.)

The dance films invariably travel widely, however, and one suspects they keep Saura on his toes, too. While a dancer’s career is notoriously short, limited by the impact of exerting such stress on the aging (even at 30) body, it seems reasonable that observing and recording such inspirational physicality might be an elixir of youth for the truly aged. If that’s true, then Carlos Saura may well be making dance films past his personal centenary.