Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Apr 15, 2006 9:10 pm 
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Worthy, but not Saura's best musical film

If Saura hadn't done anything like this before, Iberia would be a milestone. Now it still deserves inclusion to honor a great director and a great cinematic conservator of Spanish culture, but he has done a lot like this before, and though we can applaud the riches he has given us, we have to pick and choose favorites and high points among similar films which include Blood Wedding (1981)--a turning point in the director's work from social commentary to music, theater, and dance, Carmen (1983), El Amor Brujo (1986), Sevillanas (1992), Salomé (2002) and Tango (1998). I would choose Saura's 1995 Flamenco (1995) as his most unique and potent cultural document, next to which Iberia, however similar on the surface, ultimately pales.

Iberia is conceived as a series of interpretations of the music of Isaac Manuel Francisco Albéniz (1860-1909) and in particular his "Iberia" suite for piano. Isaac Albéniz was a great contributor to the externalization of Spanish musical culture -- its re-formatting for a non-Spanish audience. He moved to France in his early thirties and was influenced by French composers. His "Iberia" suite is an imaginative synthesis of Spanish folk music with the styles of Liszt, Dukas and d'Indy. He traveled around performing his compositions, which are a kind of beautiful standardization of Spanish rhythms and melodies, not as homogenized as Ravel's Bolero but moving in that direction. Naturally, the Spanish have repossessed Albéniz, and in Iberia, the performers reinterpret his compositions in terms of various more ethnic and regional dances and styles. But the source is a tamed and diluted form of Spanish musical and dance culture compared to the echt Spanishness of pure flamenco. Flamenco, coming out of the region of Andalusia, is a deeply felt amalgam of gitane, Hispano-Arabic, and Jewish cultures. Iberia simply is the peninsula comprising Spain, Portugal, Andorra and Gibraltar; the very concept is more diluted.

Saura's Flamenco is an unstoppably intense ethnic mix of music, singing, dancing and that peacock manner of noble preening that is the essence of Spanish style, the way a man and a woman carries himself or herself with pride verging on arrogance and elegance and panache -- even bullfights and the moves of the torero are full of it -- in a series of electric sequences without introduction or conclusion; they just are. Saura always emphasized the staginess of his collaborations with choreographer Antonio Gades and other artists. In his 1995 Flamenco he dropped any pretense of a story and simply has singers, musicians, and dancers move on and off a big sound stage with nice lighting and screens, flats, and mirrors arranged by cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, another of the Spanish filmmaker's important collaborators. The beginnings and endings of sequences in Flamenco are often rough, but atmospheric, marked only by the rumble and rustle of shuffling feet and a mixture of voices. Sometimes the film keeps feeding when a performance is over and you see the dancer bend over, sigh, or laugh; or somebody just unexpectedly says something. In Flamenco more than any of Saura's other musical films it's the rapt, intense interaction of singers and dancers and rhythmically clapping participant observers shouting impulsive olé's that is the "story" and creates the magic. Because Saura has truly made magic, and perhaps best so when he dropped any sort of conventional story.

Iberia is in a similar style to some of Saura's purest musical films: no narration, no dialogue, only brief titles to indicate the type of song or the region, beginning with a pianist playing Albeniz's music and gradually moving to a series of dance sequences and a little singing. In flamenco music, the fundamental element is the unaccompanied voice, and that voice is the most unmistakable and unique contribution to world music. It relates to other songs in other ethnicities, but nothing quite equals its raw raucous unique ugly-beautiful cry that defies you to do anything but listen to it with the closest attention. Then comes the clapping and the foot stomping, and then the dancing, combined with the other elements. There is only one flamenco song in Iberia. If you love Saura's Flamenco, you'll want to see Iberia, but you'll be a bit disappointed. The style is there; some of the great voices and dancing and music are there. But Iberia's source and conception doom it to a lesser degree of power and make it a less rich and intense cultural experience.

Iberia, 99 mins., debuted at Toronto Sept. 2005. Screened for this review as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival of 2006. It was not released in the US theatrically and there is no US-code DVD (2014).

See also my review of Saura's Fados (NYFF 2007).


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