Carlos Saura Essay - Critical Essays

Saura, Carlos

Introduction

Carlos Saura 1932–

Spanish director and screenwriter.

Saura belongs to the generation that grew up under Franco, and the theme of the Spanish Civil War plays a major part in his work. While his early films use allegory as a means of masking political criticism, Saura's more recent work analyzes the psychological effects of a repressive society.

As a film student in Madrid, Saura resented pressure to create heavy-handed religious dramas. Instead, he opted to make a neorealistic film. Los Golfos features a young amateur cast, and its youthful focus helped Saura escape the political commentary of the censors. While Saura was eager to depict the evils of Franco's regime as accurately as possible, he could not be explicit. The necessity to alter the truth creatively stimulated moral commitment as well as artistic inventiveness. In La Caza, a hunting party serves as an analogy for war. However, because of heavy symbolism, Saura's early films are considered too allegorical and ponderous to enjoy.

In his next films, Saura often reverted from past to future to show various stages of character development. The Garden of Delights relies heavily on fantasy as well. Its use of grotesque imagery and surrealistic symbolism have led to comparisons with Buñuel. La Prima Angélica (Cousin Angélica), the first Spanish film to view the war from a loser's vantage point, indicates Saura's interest in the emotional intensity of children. To Saura, childhood is not a time of happiness, but an intensely frightening period. This same emphasis is found in Cría Cuervos, which underplays social forces and concentrates more on children's emotional perceptions.

Some critics feel the political urgency pulsating through Saura's earlier works has disappeared since Franco's death. Saura says he made political films as a moral obligation, but prefers now to concentrate on psychological studies.

Film Journal

The style of Los Golfos is one of a deceptively simple realism. The background is authentic. The industrial and slum areas of Madrid, market places, dance halls, and river banks are areas frequented by the group of boys who form the subject of this film. The camera acts as an observer, conversations are clipped as if overheard, incident follows incident in the apparently formless fashion of real life. Here the intention is to present a certain point of view which will assume the validity of the subject matter itself. It is an artistic method which succeeds because the director creates characters rather than sociological concepts….

[The theme of Los Golfos] is the ultimate innocence of the delinquents. Their determination to raise enough money to launch Juan as a bullfighter has the selfish single-mindedness of the child. Their innocence springs from their lack of a realistic contact with society. No private existence can last for long if cut off from society as a whole. Outside realities intrude, usually accompanied by disaster. In Los Golfos, reality takes the form of failure and ignominy. The film's ending, which is totally crushing, is delineated with the realism already noted, a realism which now emerges in its true form as drama. The grubby bull-ring, the jeering spectators, Juan's humiliating attempts to kill the bull, are the tragic details of an uncompromising reality.

Luis Bunuel may be a more famous director and Los Olvidados a more notable film. But in Los Golfos the young Spanish director Carlos Saura avoids the more experienced artist's clinical coldness and covert sensationalism. He has succeeded in making that rare thing, a good film about juvenile delinquency, the result of an unsentimental realism and an honest humanitarianism.

J. S., "Melbourne Film Festival, 1961: 'Los Golfos'," in Film Journal (copyright by Melbourne University Film Society), No. 18, October, 1961, p. 19.

Robin Bean

Los Golfos [which criticizes Spain's social structure] was obviously subjected to several cuts before being allowed out of Spain, and for this reason is difficult to judge as a complete work….

Saura handles his subject in a harsh but not unsympathetic way. He avoids most of the pitfalls into which most Western directors fall when dealing with delinquents who find robbery an attractive substitute for work. But his film does have two major failings: he gives little insight into the characters of the boys and the motivating circumstances which have led to their present existence (here again this may be due to censorship ties); and he lets his camera roam excessively in street and market sequences. But for all its shortcomings Los Golfos has the imprint of a director who has a natural flair for cinematic invention. Saura's use of background noise for dramatic effect is at times ingenious, and his pictorial images have a compelling effect. His comments, if at times cynical (it is the most likeable of the five who becomes the victim of mob vengeance), make their point.

It demands attention and a good deal of thought, in spite of the mutilation to which it has been subjected.

Robin Bean, "'The Hooligans'" (© copyright Robin Bean 1961; reprinted with permission), in Films and Filming, Vol. 8, No. 3, December, 1961, p. 31.

Bosley Crowther

Carlos Saura's penetrating and increasingly violent "The Hunt" … should give the New York cinema intelligentsia a new regard for filmmaking in Spain.

What is surprising about it is that it cloaks in its lean and cruel account of quarreling and ultimate murdering among four men on a routine rabbit hunt a cynical innuendo of what has happened to some middle-aged men of the generation that fought for Franco in the Spanish Civil War….

To be sure, the average outsider might not immediately perceive in the seemingly nondescript environment and the accumulating details of the hunt all the subtle hints and signals that colloquially identify these men as veteran Falangists and their background as the civil war.

But any Spaniard familiar with his nation's history and geography should recognize the dry and barren region in which these sportsmen arrive in a jeep for a few days of rabbit-shooting as an area southwest of Madrid where some of the bitterest battles of the civil war were fought.

Any Spaniard should catch in a twinkling the significance in the fact that one of the men is nursing (or favoring) an old wound, that another is carrying a pistol of the type that the Germans used in the civil war and yet another is revealed as having good connections with the Government. These men are Franco veterans—all except the youngest in the group, who is evidently the son of a veteran—and they are stricken with morbidity.

This is the daring implication that Mr. Saura has to make: That men who have enjoyed some successes, have evidently lived comfortably (able to indulge themselves in hunting) are now bitter, degenerate and cruel, suspicious and distrustful of one another, avid to shoot and kill—or, as in the case of one of them, to withdraw in a mood of jealousy and hate.

Mr. Saura imparts his drama—his allegory, as it were, of war and of men fighting against their brothers—in some horrifyingly realistic scenes of men handling guns, shooting rabbits as the terrified creatures scurry up the hills, backing in the sun, grimly quarreling and finally blasting away at one another in frenzied duels. Tension grows, violence trembles and finally disaster bursts.

"The Hunt" is a powerful picture….

Bosley Crowther, "Film Festival: 'The Hunt'," in The New York Times (© 1966 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 20, 1966, p. 39.

Henry Hart

[The Hunt] is an immature, and unbelievable, film….

[It] is a jumble of veiled political allegories inappropriately spiced with the sort of perverted symbols Bunuel exploits….

The three men are characterized too synthetically for such triangular carnage to be credible. No, it won't make you believe what happens in Mr. Saura's film to say, "But fascism is self-destructive". If so it cannot be demonstrated in the amateurish way childish symbols are here bumbled about.

Saura's imitations of Bunuel in The Hunt would be laughable were their visual content not so psychopathic—a skinned animal carcass is hacked apart; a sand crab is squashed; a ferret bites a rabbit's eye, and later, when it is shot, as is the rabbit, the camera dawdles over the quivers of their death throes. Also, a man is shot in the face, and, as blood covers everything but one eye, he guns down the "friend" who shot him. There are other pathic odds-&-ends, including a skeleton in a cave, the significance of which is unclear.

So is The Hunt.

Henry Hart, "Film Reviews: 'The Hunt'," in Films in Review (copyright © 1967 by the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures, Inc.), Vol. XVIII, No. 6, June-July, 1967, p. 369.

Roger Greenspun

The pleasantest surprise of the current New York Film Festival may well be Carlos Saura's "The Garden of Delights."…

Recent (i.e. 1930's) Spanish politics are by no means absent from "The Garden of Delights," but now they are made explicit and they become dramatically useful to the Pirandellian permutations of a brilliantly playful and wonderfully funny comic invention….

The crucial moments [involving the paralyzed Antonio's attempts to remember the number of his Swiss bank account] are so ludicrously, so elaborately miscalculated … that they would drive the soundest mind to amnesia. But Antonio makes some progress….

I have my doubts about the machine shop...

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Joan Mellen

Saura deals with the configuration of the fascist personality only in the abstract, and this is the central weakness of his imaginative use of the surreal in depicting how living in fascist Spain immobilizes and laments the sensibility [in The Garden of Delights]….

In the last scene of Garden of Delights Saura, abandoning even the very thin veneer of realism with which he has cloaked his allegory, has all of his characters moving in wheelchairs, not only the still paralyzed Antonio. Staring immobile into space, they cannot look at or see each other: each selfishly pursues his own ends. With Antonio at the center, an image of the failed hope for Spain's future, they pass like...

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Roger Greenspun

[Carlos Saura's "Honeycomb" is] the latest and the least of those movies that mean to unlock the secrets of middle-class matrimony by means of a willful indulgence in everyday unreality. Such films … seem invariably to follow a process of elegant dissolution—never inelegant dissolution—until all is laid bare in the destructive psychodrama of life. But in "Honeycomb" nothing is laid bare except the dullest of make-believe constructions covering for the lack of insight that would be necessary to sustain the most ordinary unhappy domestic drama.

Mr. Saura, normally a director of forceful personality, whether you like him or not …, hardly exists except at the very beginning and end of the movie....

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Roger Mortimore

[La Prima Angélica] is an attempt to explain the significance of the Civil War to a generation, specifically the generation too young to have fought in it. Saura has claimed that his film is the first to be made about the Civil War from the point of view of the side which lost. Luis, the central character, lost the war as a child because it traumatized him, and the film demonstrates that thirty years later the wounds remain. The crippling effects of the traditional combination of church and family are seen here against the background of the national trauma of civil war. The film is notably critical of the church: its characters include a thuggish priest, a vindictive nun with stigmata and a priest expatiating...

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Sylvia Millar

Although Carlos Saura has frequently been accused of 'borrowing' from Luis Buñuel, and although he clearly pays homage to his friend and mentor in La Caza [The Hunt], the film does not set out to be a serious imitation. Saura's images on the whole are not surreal but grow organically out of the characters and landscape; this is no journey into the dreamworld of the subconscious but a finely worked psychological thriller which, without strain, can be taken as a pessimistic parable about Spanish society…. The paucity of action generates an atmosphere of listlessness and ennui: seemingly trapped by the heat and idleness of this endless day, the men are provoked into unaccustomed introspection. The telescopic...

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Derek Elley

Saura's films are explicitly concerned with the problems of Spanish society, a society (as he sees it) which is not yet free of the guilt of the Civil War. This eminence grise colours all his works, in varying degrees; even in such an allegorical piece as La caza its influence can be felt. Much of Saura's output I find mannered and unapproachable …; there is no doubting, however, his technical ability or deep-seated conviction….

Superficial resemblances to [John] Boorman's Deliverance (1972) should not be allowed to diminish the stature of Saura's achievement. His mixed quartet undergoes little physical hardship, and there are no visual thrills to rivet the audience to its...

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Vincent Canby

["Cousin Angélica"] is a voyage into the past quite unlike any other I've ever seen in a movie, both because Spain's recent history is so particular and because of Mr. Saura's way of always dealing with memory so that it becomes an extension of the immediate present.

"Cousin Angélica" is not simply about Luis's childhood before and during the civil war. It's about Luis's recollections of his childhood as he renews contacts with his family….

Mr. Saura doesn't use conventional flashbacks, which are as isolated from time and feeling as postcard pictures are removed from a tourist's actual experiences ….

En route once again to his relatives, the tearful Luis is...

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Vincent Canby

Childhood can be a most terrifying time. One must constantly observe the proscriptions of a primitive system of cause and effect that can be questioned only by the reckless or the ignorant. Squash a spider and it will rain. Step on a crack, break your mother's back. Sleep in the light of a new moon and you may never wake up. There is power in the knowledge of these things, as well as awful responsibility. One must be vigilant. One has to be alert for signs.

Such a child is Ana …, the 9-year-old heroine of Carlos Saura's beautifully acted, haunting Spanish movie, "Cria!" about a childhood so packed with trauma that one can scarcely believe that this acutely sensitive child will ever grow up to be...

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Penelope Gilliatt

A man of early middle age touches a bald place on his head for a moment. In another film, it might be that he was thinking of his looks. In Carlos Saura's wonderful Spanish picture "Cousin Angelica" …, the movement is one of trying to correct the blurring of time and history….

When the hero, called Luis Cano, touches his head, he is trying to retrieve something lost. The idea of having the same actor play both the boy and the man tells us what we all know: that everyone is every age at the same time, eight and forty-eight and eighty, merely embossed in a slowly changing carcass. The film tells us, too, that people have faulty memories. In the present of the film, Luis is trying to put things in...

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Stanley Kauffmann

[What I've seen of Saura's work]—The Hunt and The Garden of Delights—has been rather onerous: gravy-rich photography and ponderous symbolism, like the worst Czech and Polish and Latin-American films. A Spanish moralist without Buñuel's humor makes for a long evening.

Much brighter news from Saura with … Cousin Angelica….

[The] casting mixture is slightly confusing at first, but it's quickly sorted out, and its various points—of psychic implication and inheritance—are neatly made. (p. 26)

Saura handles the interplay of time with mostly extraordinary skill. The whole picture is directed with an ease that comes from no compulsion to...

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Robert Hatch

[Cria and Cousin Angélica] complement, in a way strengthen, each other; their methods are comparable, and they suggest what it is about life that seems to haunt Mr. Saura.

I say "seems," because it is presumptuous to generalize about the preoccupations of a man of Saura's sensibility on the basis of two works. But, speaking tentatively, what moves him are the passions and terror, the courage and ignorant audacity of childhood that go unremarked by the presiding adults whose catch-all admonitions are "mind your manners" and "run off now and play." His way of dealing with this material is to employ parallel time tracks, so smoothly interfaced that one must be alert to recognize from...

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Richard Schickel

[Both Cria! and Cousin Angélica] are about childhood and both of them are by the man who is, next to Buñuel, the most distinguished Spanish director. But that is where their similarity ends. Cria! is a dark and melodramatic comedy, highly original in plot, about how a child misperceives her actions and their consequences in the adult world. Cousin Angélica, though more stylistically unconventional, is a rather ordinary story about an adult attempting to refine and correct the memories of childhood. Cria! is an almost entirely successful work, while the other, earlier film must be regarded as an honorable failure….

[Cria!] is at its best exploring the...

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John Simon

Saura is concerned [in Cría] with apprehending the continuity between the past and the present, and, if possible, finding a resolution for Spain's political tragedy, the civil war that must have been terrible even for a five-year-old, and whose consequences manifestly haunt him still. (p. 72)

As a result [of Spanish censorship], one must read a Saura film to some extent as a coded document; the hateful father figure, for example, that figures in several of [his] movies is, surely, a symbol also of the Generalissimo and the conditions he imposed; the sundered and emotionally riven families must also be viewed as symbolizing a country rent apart. Cría, like other Saura films, has too...

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Andrew Sarris

[For a decade I have been looking at Saura films] and have found less and less to write about them. Some—Garden of Delights, The Hunt—are more ambitious than others, but all seem more intricate, more convoluted, and more fragmented than they have to be. Many of Saura's films … I have found particularly problematical because of their incessant juggling of fantasy and reality. From time to time I have been made aware that Saura is exploring the Spanish soul through the Franco years and beyond, but the director's symbolism tends to be guarded, mysterious, cabalistic, as if he dare not be too explicit. Similarly, his probes into repressed, twisted, often downright demented sexuality tend to be expressed with...

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Will Aitken

I think I'd be willing to settle for a lot less from Carlos Saura and … Cria Cuervos….

[The film's] two levels, the first presented head-on from Ana's viewpoint and the second apparent only from the gradual accretion of seemingly inconsequential detail, are enough for any film to handle. Saura specializes in a kind of allegorical realism, judging from some of his earlier work, particularly The Hunt (1966) and The Garden of Delights (1970). But Saura, trying to live up to critical claims that he is Bunuel's heir, has contrived to load his film down with trimmings it doesn't really need.

Saura is Bunuel's equal in his fluid transitions from reality to...

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Vernon Young

[A] gratuitously baffling chronology is provided by Elisa, Vida Mia, of Carlos Saura. If finally incomprehensible,… the whole is more agreeable than the sum of its parts…. Saura does have a certain respect for his milieu and, as we have seen before, an obsessively trenchant gift for recalling the woes and hungers of childhood and their traumatic reappearance in maturity. I think he has exploited this yield to its limits—in The Garden of Delights, La Prima Angelica, Cria Cuervos—and now repeats himself, precariously (like Resnais, Fellini or Bergman), the more so when he resorts to involutions of narrative that alienate one's attention when he might better be securing it. This film...

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Tim Pulleine

[Cria Cuervos] is nothing if not fragmentary and allusive in venturing on to the fraught terrain of childhood sensibility.

The jumble of family snapshots accompanying the opening titles functions as a correlative for Saura's mosaic approach as well as introducing a key visual theme….

The linking of imagination and memory is the movie's stock-in-trade to the extent of permeating its structure. For while the action has a contemporary setting, it is in effect taking place in the past tense, since the narrative is punctuated by episodes in which a grown-up Ana comments directly to camera about her childhood (not, she says emphatically, a paradise of innocence) from a vantage...

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Cesar Santos Fontenla

If, in a way, Cría cuervos was the culmination of the line taken by Saura in Peppermint frappé, and Elisa, vida mía constituted a kind of questioning on the author's part of his own work and personality, Los ojos vendados indicates a new point of departure. Saura, still true to himself but having exorcised his ghosts, freed from the need to resort to a symbolism that to some seemed excessively obvious and to others unduly cryptic, confronts in a spirit of inquiry the problems of post-Franco Spain through characters who throw themselves desperately into the search for their own identity. Torture, "white terrorism," the struggle to find a reason for living—or dying—and to pass from the...

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Marsha Kinder

[In contrast to Saura's early] operatic films with their dramatic sweep of violent deeds and historical events, Saura's later works are more interior and subtle. They focus more narrowly on an individual within the close confines of a bourgeois family and stress the mental life of a particular consciousness—memories, dreams and fantasies—rather than external events. (pp. 16-17)

Saura's primary focus is the crippling influence of social and political forces on individuals, particularly during childhood, which is revealed through a return to the past or a reunion with family…. Saura's films achieve extraordinary subtlety in their psychological realism. He makes unusual demands on his actors,...

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Tom Allen

Saura is one of those tightly controlled, long-distance filmmakers … who, rather than exploding into Felliniesque self-apotheosis, tends to implode within personal themes and a signatory style. Saura's Garden of Delights and Cousin Angelica … seethed in their contemporary portraits of familial disintegration and bitter memories of past repressions.

A funny thing, however, has happened to Saura on the way to the '80s. The director's latest films reveal a desperate, unconscious need for Franco and the good old bad days of repression that had added an urgency and subtextual sting to his films. Without a relevant nemesis, Mama Turns 100 emerges as a lightweight parody of...

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