DVD Review: The Flamenco Trilogy, BLOOD WEDDING (1981)

If you had to pick one reason why Carlos Saura is such a great director it would probably be how much the man can convey in a single scene while doing what seems like virtually nothing at all. He shows you a handful of people, no props, no set dressing, practically bare walls - then without warning something changes. There's nothing obvious to mark the transition, but suddenly these aren't actors going through the motions. They've become their roles, stepped into another world in the process, and yanked you along with them.

The Flamenco Trilogy is Saura's first series of films where he used variations on this technique to explore ways of presenting Spain's extensive musical legacy on screen. These ranged from stripped-down, intimate acappella renditions of traditional songs to grandiose, theatrical arrangements of other genres (that had already borrowed liberally from Spanish tradition in the first place). Blood Wedding (1981) is the simplest, the smallest in scale - shot in two mid-sized rooms on the same floor of a single building - and yet because of that, it's arguably the most successful of the three.

Blood Wedding is a loose adaptation of a play by the famous dramatist and poet, Federico García Lorca, beloved of generations of Spaniards and seen as one of the most important cultural figures the country has ever produced. Shorn of most of the extra characters and layers of political subtext Lorca wrapped around his work, it's a relatively straightforward story. A nameless couple are about to be married, but the Bride (Christina Hoyos) is still in love with another man, one whose family is locked in a bitter blood feud with the Groom's (Juan Antonio Jiménez). He and she attempt to elope together after the wedding, but their escape is quickly discovered, with predictably tragic consequences.

Yet this is only around half of what's already a pretty trim running time, at a shade over seventy minutes. Saura spends the preceding half an hour patiently introducing his dance company, as they file into the building and get ready. Dressing tables are laid out just so. People swap off-hand jokes and insults with the nonchalance of professionals who've spent so long in each other's company they've heard it all before. Musicians run through key moments in the performance one last time as they tune up. The leader and choreographer, Antonio Gades (playing the Bride's lover, Leonardo), shares a monologue on how he came to be a dancer.

While none of this quite features the magic moment mentioned earlier, it still slowly impresses on you how Saura is neither making a straightforward documentary or telling a story, but some strange and very idiosyncratic mix of both. His dance company are all real people - Gades collaborated with Saura on the rest of the trilogy and even turned some of it into highly successful stage productions. His roaming camera never intrudes, no matter how close he gets to the action but at the same time you feel he's already looking to convey a message, about these people's dedication to their craft, and how that might relate to what writers like Lorca communicated through their work, for all this filmed version pares it down to the bone.

When Gades moves from the dressing room to the rehearsal space and starts to run through various routines alone in front of the mirror, you can feel the atmosphere charging up. When the rest of the company follow minutes later, and he starts putting them through their paces, it's still more electric. The camera is strikingly active for a thirty-year-old film, flying along the boards as the dancers' feet slam down, watching their faces as they concentrate on what Gades is demanding they do; never in the way, never once caught in the mirror along one wall, but still plunging again and again into the thick of it.

Gades refers to the second half as a dress rehearsal, though no further run-through takes place. We keep going, he says, no matter what, and although no-one really fumbles anything it only strengthens the conviction that once that invisible switch has been flipped, then it's on. That these people are driven by the need to perform, to show how much they love what they're performing. However much of it is a put-on, there's still a vitality to every move they make that all but lifts you out of your seat.

There's no explanation of Blood Wedding the play, and no dialogue bar the songs, when some background could really have helped bring home its significance, as well as the company's appreciation of it. That running time feels annoyingly slight, too. If perfection is knowing when you've snipped out every last superfluous detail, then Saura, Gades and their writers seem to have been somewhat over-enthusiastic with the scissors. Intentional or otherwise, in some ways the opening scene-setting feels more profound than the actual performance, given how much more identifiable and immediate it is.

But in melding culture, dance and theatre to fly-on-the-wall observations on what goes into all three, Saura still created something extraordinary. Few other films feel so strongly about their subject matter, much less take up your attention and get all that passion across in what seems like such an effortless way. One minute it's actors going through the motions in an empty room, and the next you're somewhere else entirely, caught up in the emotion of it all. It won't convince everyone - the ruthlessly cynical will probably remain stuck in that empty room - but if you're even slightly as passionate about flamenco as these people, consider Blood Wedding highly recommended.

THE DISCS:

Studio Canal UK have re-released The Flamenco Trilogy as three separate branded DVDs, available to buy now. These are all bare-bones releases, with no obvious attempt made to clean up the prints, though to be fair when Criterion released the trilogy in the US it was as part of their budget line and given little more attention. Nonetheless, these discs have something of a throwaway feel: the check disc for Carmen still features an Optimum logo and an ugly menu nothing like the cover art, and the UI for all three is fairly cheap and cheerful, if easy to navigate. Blood Wedding and El Amor Brujo have eight chapter stops, Carmen twelve.

AUDIO:

All three discs come with the original mono tracks, which work well enough for the most part. There's some slight distortion but not too much more than most home video releases dating back so long. The Spanish seems clear and distinct enough and the score never overwhelms the mix. The only exception is El Amor Brujo, where the audio sounds as if it's suffering from a frustratingly low bitrate - during some of the songs there seems to be a distinct, recurring flutter and overall tinny, metallic quality, though this could be there on the original. English subtitles don't look burnt in but can't be turned off (at least not on a software player on a PC) though they're clear and easy to read, though again El Amor Brujo skips the occasional line during the musical numbers.

VIDEO:

The pictures are serviceable, but nothing special. Blood Wedding and Carmen come off best - they're soft and fairly blurred but with a reasonable colour palette that means both films are still perfectly watchable on a modest screen. El Amor Brujo is much worse, though, watchable again but with several scenes sporting clearly visible halos around the actors, distracting blocking, static and large pieces of dirt. It's better than videotape, but large televisions or monitors are probably going to make this disc look fairly ropy. Given how much the films rely on their visuals it's somewhat disappointing.

The only extra on any of the discs is a trailer for Carmen.

Carlos Saura's The Flamenco Trilogy largely deserves its acclaim - certainly all three, even the disappointing Carmen, are obvious cultural milestones made by people with a passionate interest in the creative media with which they've chosen to express themselves. Each of the trilogy shows how much Saura, his crew, Antonio Gades and his dancers love their art and the heritage that informs it. But at its best the trilogy is simply great cinema, mashing up the best aspects of stage, screen and story-telling in a way very few other directors have ever attempted, let alone pulled off so well. While Studio Canal's UK DVD releases are somewhat of a letdown for such important, often brilliant films, if you just want an introduction to Saura's work they're a reasonable starting point and come cautiously recommended. 
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