Carlos Saura obituary: leading Spanish auteur of Cría cuervos

Among the greatest of Spanish filmmakers, Saura was renowned for his collaborations with Geraldine Chaplin, his use of political allegory and his passion for flamenco.

17 February 2023

By Mar Diestro-Dópido

Ana Torrent as the eight-year-old protagonist of Saura’s most celebrated film, Cría cuervos (1976)

Very few filmmakers can have claimed Luis Buñuel as their mentor and friend. The Spanish surrealist even famously remarked that he wished he’d made Elisa, My Life (1977), one of Carlos Saura’s defining reflections on past and present, fiction and reality, remembering and forgetting. A moving metaphor of Spain’s most turbulent years, Saura’s film features his frequent collaborator Geraldine Chaplin at her most ethereal, playing the estranged daughter who visits her father (Buñuel regular Fernando Rey) after 20 years.

Mentee became mentor, and Saura’s most cherished wish was “to have left some valuable legacy to today’s filmmakers”, to see himself “reflected in the cosmos, like a star”, as he wrote in the speech he would have read on receiving an honorary Goya (Spanish Oscar) for his chameleonic career. Except he died one day before the event, at the age of 91.

Saura’s first passion was photography, and in 1952 he abandoned a degree in engineering to enrol in Madrid’s recently opened IIEC (Instituto de Investigaciones y Experiencias Cinematográficas). With tutors of the stature of Juan Antonio Bardem (Death of a Cyclist, 1955) and Luis García Berlanga (The Executioner, 1963), the film school gained a reputation as the breeding ground for the more politically outspoken filmmakers of the New Spanish Cinema.

Carlos Saura

Two events proved crucial in helping Saura define his cinematic style: a week dedicated to neorealism that took place in Madrid in 1954, and his attendance the following year at the (in)famous ‘Salamanca Conversations’, a meeting organised by Bardem, an openly communist figure, to assess the state of Spanish cinema under the dictatorship. Graduating in 1957, Saura remained at IIEC, teaching the likes of Víctor Erice, until he was ousted on political grounds in 1963.

His debut film, Cuenca (1958), was a mid-length documentary filmed in the eponymous Spanish province and formally influenced by Buñuel’s Land Without Bread (1933). But it was Saura’s first full-length film, Los golfos (1960), which announced a great new voice. Co-written with Mario Camus, it follows a group of young delinquents from the outskirts of Madrid and became a landmark of the more documentarian approach of his early phase – his own version of neorealism with elements of Spanish picaresque.

Saura joined Bardem’s production company UNINCI, set up in 1949, but the political scandal caused by their co-production of Buñuel’s Viridiana (1961) meant the company was closed down by the regime the following year. Saura’s next project, Weeping for a Bandit (1964), was butchered, including the excision of seven minutes showing Buñuel executing the titular bandit.

Based on one of those discarded scenes, The Hunt (1966) is the film in which Saura fully developed his internationally recognised style: naturalism with politically allegorical and symbolic overtones (later permeated by the surreal and the fantastic). A rabbit-hunting drama steeped in the trauma of the civil war, it also marks the beginning of Saura’s collaboration with cinematographer Luis Cuadrado and the renowned producer Elías Querejeta.

Elisa, My Life (1977)

Beginning with the Vertigo-esque psychological thriller Peppermint Frappé (1967) – his first collaboration with Geraldine Chaplin, his partner until 1979 – the following two decades were the most fruitful period of Saura’s career. Characterised by complex female leads and political content, the films focus either on characters experiencing profound existential crisis, as in Peppermint Frappé, Stress Is Three (1968), Honeycomb (1969) and Elisa, My Life (1977), or on family and memory, as in The Garden of Delights (1970), Ana and the Wolves (1973), Cousin Angélica (1974), Mother Turns One Hundred (1979) and Sweet Hours (1982), his last project with Querejeta.

But Saura’s outstanding meditation on history, family and memory is the masterful Cría cuervos, made in 1975 as Franco lay on his deathbed. Filmed in evocative Eastmancolor, it features Ana Torrent – in a performance of similar tenderness and intensity as her turn in Erice’s earlier The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) – playing an eight-year-old girl who believes she’s poisoned her womanising, Francoist father. The soundtrack’s catchy pop song, ‘Porque te vas’ (‘Because you are leaving’), became an international hit and was heard again – interpreted once more by British-born Spanish singer Jeanette – at Saura’s funeral.

Just when was Spain was heading towards democracy, and La Movida – the cultural and social explosion that followed the ‘Transition’ – was in full swing, Saura made a sharp turn to focus on dance, his long-term passion. In 1981 he entered into collaboration with the most important male dancer and choreographer of his generation, Antonio Gades, to make his immensely popular flamenco trilogy: Blood Wedding (1981), Carmen (1983) and El amor brujo (1986). Each of these were filmed during rehearsals and with the involvement of guitarist legend Paco de Lucía; Carmen’s raw sensuality making it a worldwide phenomenon.

Blood Wedding (1981)

Saura’s subsequent filmography alternates between what he defined as Zen-like minimalist musical documentaries and fiction features. His taste for backstage life constituted the basis for Saura’s most celebrated film in Spain, ¡Ay, Carmela! (1990), the bittersweet tale of a troubadour couple caught between the two fronts during the civil war. It won 13 Goyas, including one for its female lead, Carmen Maura, in a performance full of warmth, courage and candour. Meanwhile, his fascination with artistic creativity led to biopics on the likes of Goya (Goya in Bordeaux, 1999), Buñuel, Lorca and Dalí (Buñuel and King Solomon’s Table, 2001), and Bach, on which Saura was recently in production.

Including his most recent film Walls Can Talk (2023), a meditation on the origins of art, such later studies on music, dance, painting and photography form part of his personal quest to understand the artist through tradition. Less relatable and more introspective than his earlier work, they still constitute a phenomenal legacy on the process of creativity itself.

Saura was a magnificent raconteur and careful listener, who would consistently charm audiences with his sharp sense of humour. Like his films, he always spoke his mind. Gentle, outright engaging and a boundless enthusiastic, he carried on working till the very last day with the unrestrained passion of the curious amateur he always considered himself to be.

  • Carlos Saura, 4 January 1932 to 10 February 2023
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