A child of the Spanish Civil War and its aftermath, writer-director Carlos Saura flowered during the waning years of Franco's dictatorship, dodging the aging regime's censorship by leading his films into allegory, dreams and symbolism. His features exploring fascism's repressive effects on society became portraits of Spain in a dark mirror, poignantly expressing the country's uneasy relationship with its past. While Franco lived, the filmmaker felt compelled to speak against tyranny, but the Generalissimo's death in 1975 freed Saura to speak for himself. Although he has done fine work since, many disappointed by his unwillingness to address political themes in the post-Franco era believe his best films are behind him, that the Franco years encouraged his creative personality like freedom could not. After making pictures for more than 40 years, he has retained a trademark of highly unorthodox but unfailing routine: he begins at the beginning and shoots chronologically. "I write the end at the start, but then, when I get to it, I always change it according to how I feel."
Saura was already established as a still photographer when his brother Antonio convinced him to attend film school in Madrid. Here he came into contact with the works of the Italian neo-realists, whose influences were evident in his first feature, "Los Golfos" (1960), with its location shooting, use of nonprofessional actors and concern with social issues. Though the abbreviated cut (10 minutes lost to the censors) shown at Cannes received a cool reception (and a hostile one when released in Spain), the story of slum boys trying to escape poverty as bullfighters marked a refreshing return to realism for the Spanish cinema after years of Franco-ist escapism. Because its producer was also co-producer of Luis Bunuel's controversial, scandal-producing homecoming pic "Viridiana" (1961), it was three years before Saura directed again, and that experience, "Lament for a Bandit" (1964), ended as an unhappy compromise with his producer, resulting in a more orthodox and spectacular swashbuckler than was originally intended, convincing Saura of the necessity to make films over which he had total control.
Producer Elias Querejeta came aboard for "La Caza/The Hunt" (1966), inaugurating a long-standing association, and director of photography Luis Cuadrado joined the team which also included Pablo G. del Amo, Saura's editor since the documentary "Cuenca" (1958). Set in a barren valley near Madrid, still cratered by wartime shelling, it tells the story of four men--three who fought for the fascists in the civil war--out for a day of hunting which ends in a murderous explosion of violence. Without mentioning Franco by name, "La Caza" was a powerful indictment of the society he created, as well as a taut psychological thriller. It received the Silver Bear at Berlin as did his follow-up, "Peppermint Frappe" (1968), the first of many films with companion and muse Geraldine Chaplin. Saura's flight from objective reality reflected both the influence of Bunuel's surrealism and the Spanish artistic tradition of "esperpento," an absurdist type of black humor in which fact and fantasy intermingle. Esperpento was strongly in evidence for "Garden of Delights" (1970), a film in which Saura's criticism of the Franco regime became even more overt, once again provoking the censors' scissors.
"La Prima Angelica/Cousin Angelica" (1974), a Jury Prize winner at Cannes and the first film made in Spain from the viewpoint of the losing side, somehow made it past the censors without cuts. Scenes like the disturbing one of a boy being beaten to the tune of a Franco-ist anthem enraged the Falangists (fascists), and the film so impressed Bunuel that he declared he would have given part of his life to have made it. Saura's partnership with Chaplin (an exquisite face in the shadows of so many of his films) reached its peak with "Cria Cuervos/Raise Ravens/Cria!" (1976) and "Elisa, vida mia/Elisa, My Life" (1977). Most critics admired the former for the delicacy of its psychological perceptions rather than as any kind of political statement, and the director himself placed the latter on the other side of the divide separating his pre-Franco and post-Franco work. Functioning as a metaphor for the relation between art and life, creation and death, the intensely personal picture starred Fernando Rey as a novelist reunited after a long separation with his daughter (Chaplin), who continues his last book after he dies.
Since Franco's demise, Saura has most frequently immersed himself in dance musicals, including a celebrated trilogy ("Blood Wedding" 1981, the Oscar-nominated "Carmen" 1983, "El Amor Brujo" 1986) with choreographer Antonio Gades. Adapted from classics (a play by Garcia Lorca, an opera by Bizet, a de Falla ballet) and set in contemporary settings, they are among the most popular films in Spanish box-office history and just one example of the surprising diversity displayed by the director post-Franco. "Deprisa, Deprisa" (1980) returned to the issues Saura had explored in "Los Golfos", and if he was repeating himself, he was doing so with a clarity previously absent, perhaps owing to the contributions of the four street youngsters who worked with him on the script. "Dulces Horas" (1982), "Antonieta" (1982) and "Los Zancos" (1984) were all soul-searching stories dealing with the impact of suicide; "El Dorado" (1988) was a lavish historical epic based upon the life of Conquestador Pedro de Ursuo (which also formed the basis for Werner Herzog's "Aguirre, the Wrath of God"); and "Mama Turns One Hundred" (1979) showed that the director could also make people laugh.
In that same vein was "Ay, Carmela!" (1990), a clever, rapier-witted farce which made a clean sweep of that year's Goya Awards. Starring Carmen Maura as a vaudevillian who entertains partisans during the Spanish Civil War, the funny and poignant story chronicles her plight when she, her husband and their mute assistant get trapped behind enemy lines. Saura stumbled with "Dispara!/Shoot!" (1993), his tale of a circus performer who goes on a rampage after being raped by three men, but roared back into the winner's circle with "Flamenco" (1995), his fifth dance film (also "Sevillans" 1992) and his first collaboration with director of photography Vittorio Storaro. Filming in an abandoned train station in Seville, the pair created a magical, minimalist world of light in which the singing, dancing and guitar-playing traditions of the flamenco could hold the viewer's undivided attention. Unable to resist the lure of a winning formula, he returned with "Tango" (1998, his third picture with Storaro), which earned an Academy Award nomination as Best Foreign-Language Film. Again, with Storaro's input, Saura crafted a behind-the-scenes look at filmmaking complete with romantic entanglements (the director falls in love with the star) that also functioned as a richly textured, lyrical evocation of the tango's spiritual and political significance in Argentina.