DVD Review: The Flamenco Trilogy, EL AMOR BRUJO (1986)

Cross-breeding cinema with the theatre is a tricky business. On the one hand, you've got a medium where you're encouraged to make-believe it's real, while on the other you've got one where the people who work there have to keep coming up with ever more wryly ironic ways to dress up, rather than paint out the cracks in the background. But every now and then a director comes along to remind you that when you take a camera on stage - rather than just shoot the exact same story on a bigger set - you can end up with a fascinating hybrid of both these things. The world looks so ridiculously contrived it's obviously not real, but the characters seem happy to pretend it is.

For the third film in his Flamenco Trilogy, El Amor Brujo (1986) director Carlos Saura tried to marry stage and screen like this, and for the most part it's a stunning success. Blood Wedding (1981) started off with Saura's long-time collaborator Antonio Gades and his dance company rehearsing in two mid-sized rooms. Carmen (1983) saw Saura trying to broaden his scope by having Gades and company play themselves putting on a troubled production of Bizet's opera, but the constant reminders of what decade it was along with the intermittently successful attempts at psychodrama left the film an arguable disappointment.

El Amor Brujo (Love, The Magician) is a bolder, more grandiose production than Blood Wedding by far, but it keeps the action firmly in the realm of let's pretend, and comes off far better for it. Like the previous two films it's an adaptation of an existing work, by the Spanish composer Manuel de Falla. Saura, Gades and choreographer María Pagés approach the story as part drama, part musical, part flamenco routine, even part ballet, flitting between different approaches to story-telling and score across a giant sound stage housing a meticulously constructed shanty town where the whole thing takes place.

Like Blood Wedding, El Amor Brujo opens with two of the townspeople arranged to be married. Candela (Christina Hoyos) and José (Juan Antonio Jiménez) are getting hitched, but José continues to chase after other women even after the couple have exchanged vows - much to the distress of Carmelo (Gades) who's still carrying a torch for Candela and seethes with bitterness to see her married to a shameless horndog. When a fight breaks out over José's wandering gaze, the groom ends up bleeding to death and Carmelo is jailed for the crime. Years later, he returns to pursue Candela, but finds his old flame still haunted - literally - by the dead man's ghost.

Again, the sound stage is plainly not real. Saura is at pains to point this out: the opening shot of El Amor Brujo is the sight of the freight entrance to the building slowly grinding shut. But the way the camera pans across the catwalks and scaffolding high above before descending into the narrow streets reinforces how, for the duration of the film, the cast are going to pretend this is their world. And technically, it's a marvel - wonderfully put together, with gorgeous, expressive lighting, wind and even rain from overhead. You're immersed in this little hermetically sealed bubble even as you remind yourself it's an obvious fabrication.

The use of a more cinematic score, along with contemporary, flamenco-tinged eighties pop still feels a touch lacking compared to the rough and ready immediacy of Blood Wedding's songs. After the disappointment of Carmen, though, Saura finally nails that bigger, crowd-pleasing sweep the previous film seemed to be searching for. It's partly the return to Blood Wedding's constantly roaming camerawork, partly Gades and company's dedication to keeping up the pretence, partly DP Teodoro Escamilla's gorgeous framing, but at its best El Amor Brujo has the striking flamboyance of a great musical and the emotive presence of arthouse cinema all in one.

Seeing Candela dancing with José's ghost, or wandering through a crowd who've paused mid-step as if frozen in place; watching night fall in the background or the rain batter the tiny shacks; hearing the police draw nearer as José sprawls dying on the ground. These moments carry the sense the dancers have been transformed, that they've given themselves over to the power of the theatre the way Blood Wedding was presented, but there's also a feeling Saura has worked out how to replicate the same technique but make it larger. You want to believe - because the dancers believe - that there's a world out there, even though there obviously isn't, and it's a captivating conviction.

The main problem is that you can't help occasionally thinking that the bigger picture Saura implies isn't that interesting. While you've got fantastic dance routines or visual flair to gawp at El Amor Brujo is fine. But the underlying story is nothing particularly special and again, Gades and company are performers rather than actors, without the ability to elevate something mundane more than so high. It's also unintentionally disturbing, at least in one light - while the Big Reveal is never explicitly acted out, characters do talk about the twist as if it's a happy ending when it seems anything but.

Nonetheless, while it doesn't quite match the highs of Blood Wedding, El Amor Brujo closes Saura's first musical trilogy in grand style. It lacks something of the first film's raw humanity and its attempts to portray what it means for its dancers to perform, but it captures more of that than Carmen did and finds much more artistically pleasing ways to mount its set pieces on a bigger stage. Bold, captivating and haunting stuff, despite the odd misstep and a slightly troubling conclusion, Saura gives a masterclass in why he deserves to be considered a masterful director. For anyone with an interest in dance and the cinema in general, El Amor Brujo comes strongly 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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