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Award-Winning Spanish Film Director Carlos Saura Turns 90: A Look At His Journey

"Who rests, rusts" is the motto Carlos Saura lives by. "I make films to stay alive," the director told Spanish newspaper "El Pais" in an interview on his 85th birthday in 2017. Five years later, it remains his motto. Despite turning 90, the Spanish directoris not thinking about retirement. "I always have something in mind. And if there's nothing, I invent something," says the nonagenarian, who was born on January 4, 1932, in the northern Spanish town of Huesca.

Saura has had a considerable workload in recent years: his documentary film about the architect Renzo Piano was released in 2018, followed in 2021 by the musical drama "The King of All the World," for which he also wrote the screenplay.

However, his oft-postponed pet project "33 Dias" has yet to make progress. The film is supposed to be about the 33 days in which the Spanish painter Pablo Picasso created his famous anti-war painting, "Guernica." Antonio Banderas, who had already portrayed the painter in the miniseries "Genius" by Ron Howard and Brian Grazer, was cast in the leading role.

Breakthrough with dance films

Music and dance traditions of Spain feature prominently in the director's work. In 2016, the documentary musical "La Jota," known in Germany as "J: BeyondFlamenco," was released. The tribute to the jota dance of his native Aragon, it was Saura's 45th film since he began in 1955, and came on the heels of the Spanish director's other films that focused on flamenco, tango or fado.

Through this genre, he also achieved a breakthrough in the film world. His greatest commercial success was a flamenco trilogy based on Spanish classics. In 1981, he collaborated with choreographer Antonio Gades on "Bodas de sangre" ("Blood Wedding"), based on a play by Federico García Lorca.

Two years later, in 1983, came the sensationally successful ballet film "Carmen," which won best artistic contribution at the Cannes Festival and was nominated for an Oscar in the best foreign film category.

"It was crazy how well Carmen was received in Germany at the time. And the film is still shown on TV, while here in Spain it's been totally forgotten." In general, he said, it is "much better known and more popular" abroad than in his homeland. "El amor brujo" ("The Bewitched Love"), based on Manuel de Falla's ballet, completed the dance trilogy in 1986.

Films from the Franco era

But to reduce Carlos Saura to hisdance films would do no justice to the award-winning director. Even before the breakthrough with his dance trilogy, he was making socially critical documentaries and feature films.

While teaching screenwriting and directing at the Madrid Film School, which at the time was one of the most politically active universities in Spain, Saura had connections with the communist film organization Uninc, which produced films by the veteran communist and director Juan Antonio Bardem. This left its mark on the young Saura, and so his first role models included directors such as Sergei Eisenstein or Vsevolod Illarionovich Pudovkin, the German Expressionists and Italian Neorealists.

In 1959, he released his first feature-length film, "Los golfos" ("The Street Boys"), an illusion-free, semi-documentary account of a bullfighter's career. The film screened atCannes, but didn't find a distributor until two years later. However, the trip to the South of France was not entirely in vain. In Cannes, Saura met surrealist Spanish-Mexican filmmaker Luis Buñuel. The two became friends and Buñuel strongly influenced his work.

Saura finally landed his first major success with the 1966 film "La Caza" ("The Hunt"). A critical portrayal of the self-destructive tendencies of the Spanish bourgeoisie, the film won the Silver Bear at the Berlinale. "Peppermint Frappe" (1986), about a love triangle that ends in death, also won a Silver Bear in Berlin. In the film, the Spaniard collaborated with actress Geraldine Chaplin, with whom he also lived until 1979.

Although it was never Saura's intention to make political films, his works were labeled as such. Even small gestures and certain shots were interpreted as alluding to politics. The 1970 film "El jardin de las delicias" ("Garden of Delights") inevitably reminded Spanish viewers of the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, his vocabulary, and the way he spoke.

Consequently, Saura waged a constant battle with the censors: some scripts were banned, some finished films, like "Ana y los lobos" ("Anna and the Wolves," 1972) had to wait months for permission to screen, while others were let through with dialogue changes.

To this day, Saura continues to make films which speak critically of his homeland. Topics include the behavior of top politicians, corruption and what he considers to be censorship on television.

Jack-of-all-trades

In addition to his numerous directorial works, Saura is also known for different talents. Before he started working with film at the suggestion of his older brother, the famous painter Antonio Saura, who died in 1998, Carlos Saura also painted. But his favorite pastime in addition to making movies. was photography. The 85-year-old owns a collection of more than 600 cameras. He takes "at least one picture every day so as not to get out of practice," as he has said, and regularly exhibits his multi-award-winning photo collections.

Between 1997 and 2004, Saura published three novels, wrote several screenplays and published works on photography. He staged Georges Bizet's opera "Carmen" several times — making his debut in Stuttgart in 1991 — and in the 1990s and 2000s. In 2004, the jury of the European Film Awards honored Carlos Saura for his life's work.

Currently, drafts for a series about the Spanish lyricist Federico Garcia Lorca, a documentary about the origins of art and a film about the composer Johann Sebastian Bach are in the works. For now, all that's left is to get the story of Picasso's "Guernica" right.

This is an updated version of a German article published in January 2017.

Source: DW

Story first published: Tuesday, January 4, 2022, 0:01 [IST]