The magnificent dance film Flamenco Flamenco begins, as it must, with a lady in red. Scarlet red, the dress clings to the impossibly lithe body of Sara Baras, Spain’s preeminent female dancer, who stretches her long arms to the sky, and then, with a slight hitch of that dress and an inward smile, begins tapping her thick high heels against the floor, hard and fast, and then faster still, in a rhythm that is, all at once, the sound of power and sex and hope.
Flamenco, whose roots date back to 18th-century Spain, embodies life’s core themes, so it’s no wonder 82-year-old writer-director Carlos Saura can’t get it out of his system. Of his 40 films, 10 have been designed around flamenco music and dance, including the musical dramas Blood Wedding (1981) and the Oscar-nominated Carmen (1983). The narrative-free Flamenco Flamenco, filmed on a Seville soundstage and photographed by master cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (Apocalypse Now, Reds, The Last Emperor), contains 21 untitled three- to six-minute musical performances. A viewer may not connect, emotionally, with every number, and may even dislike a few, but that, too, the film suggests, is the nature of flamenco. We bring to it whoever we are in the given moment.
There are male dancers and singers in Flamenco Flamenco, including a joyous two-man, two-piano musical duet, and a dazzling solo by Israel Galván, which finds the minimalist master using side-stepping staccato-speed heel-work and snapping fingers as his only musical accompaniment. But it is the women who own the screen and stir the soul. Early on, six young dancers, covered from head to toe in gorgeous blue veils, perform a formal, synchronized “prayer to the Virgin Mary” only to return later in sleeveless, contemporary dresses, their pony-tailed hair whipping in time to the firm tempo of their steps, and their attitude, too, which seems to be declaring an official break from the burdensome expectations of the past.
Celebrating the traditions of flamenco while exulting in its boundless possibilities is what appears to drive Saura. The work of young renegades like Galván and Rocío Molina is juxtaposed against numbers by legends such as the 79-year-old singer María Bala, whose stunning, pain-etched vocal solo will stand as her last filmed performance. She died earlier this month.
In Flamenco Flamenco the performers are set against painted backdrops that literally radiate the turbulent passions of the music and dance — blues and browns and purples so breathtaking you may long to ask the projectionist to freeze the frame, so that the image can be studied like a painting. Saura’s cinematographer, the 74-year-old Storaro, would surely reject the idea of his lighting design as an end unto itself. His job is to enhance the artistry of each performer; to illuminate the themes in their every note and step. Storaro and Saura have worked together many times, and here, as always, the cinematographer serves the director’s vision, yet it must be said: Flamenco Flamenco is the most beautifully photographed film in recent memory. Come for the dance, stay for the light.