Breed crows, warns a Spanish prisoner, and they'll pluck out your eyes.
Nurturing one's own destruction may be a hobby known to all humanity, but it's a blood sport in Spain, whose tragic and comic forces unite in bullfights, flamenco, the civil war, the best jokes, the worst lovers' quarrels and most Spanish films. Indeed, Breed Crows -- in Spanish, Cria Cuervos -- is the title of a great 1975 film directed by Carlos Saura, showing this week at the American Cinematheque, where a tribute to Saura forms the spine of the new series "Recent Spanish Cinema." The circumstances could not be more fitting. A brief sequence in Cria Cuervos addresses us from the late '90s, when the heroine, grown up, looks back at her tortured '70s childhood. Moreover, the film was made on the threshold of a seismic change in Spanish society: Francisco Franco, Spain's Fascist dictator of nearly 40 years, died while the film was in production. Saura, long a witty and unsparing critic of Franco, consciously created a "transitional" work. Its last shot shows a wall filled with political graffiti, every slogan blacked out by police, except one: Long Live King Juan Carlos. Despite being handpicked by Franco, Juan Carlos has since proved a great champion of democracy, but in 1975 he was a question mark, which Saura framed with a crooked grin. Irony is, after all, a shared joke with one's audience that is impossible for bureaucrats to prove, much less censor. Yet, in retrospect, one can also see that Saura was spray-painting Franco's tombstone with a note of cautious hope.
The future Saura was addressing has arrived, and going on the evidence of this festival, that hope has been fulfilled to a fare-thee-well. Between Your Legs is a Hitchcockian thriller set among a circle of confessed sex addicts, complete with a Bernard Hermannesque score and a Saul Basslike title sequence, whose very title would never have made it past the generalissimo's censors. Perdita Durango, a demonic road picture made in English, set in the U.S. and starring Rosie Perez, mixes voodoo, transgressive sex and emotional mayhem in defiance of what we can even get away with today in the USA. Torrente, the Dumb Arm of the Law is an unhinged comedy best described as so sick and so proud of itself that it could never have been financed here. The hero is a potbellied, horny and perpetually half-drunk police detective (played by Santiago Seguro, who also directed), and the film has a shamelessness on the order of the late Sam Kinison's, with a comparable sweetness: It hints that if you're offended, you've joined a very big club.
One period piece, The Stolen Years, picks up the graffiti brush where Saura left it -- spinning a romantic and suspenseful yarn, based on a true story, about two Madrid university students in 1947 who get sentenced to eight years' hard labor for painting anti-Franco graffiti. They manage, with the help of two American women, to make a break for the French border, a journey that somewhat overabounds in clever and romantic twists. There seem to be a dozen climaxes, mostly formulaic adventure stuff (freedom from censorship doesn't always sharpen one's craft), though director Fernando Colomo shapes his tale to the fond satiric point that most Spaniards beat fascism by bravely outliving it.
FEDERICO GARCEA LORCA -- POET, PLAYWRIGHT and martyr, killed by fascist thugs in 1936 -- has beaten fascism twice, first by living courageously in the face of it, now by triumphing in posterity. Director Pilar Tavora brings his verse beautifully to life in Yerma. No particular time period is indicated. Like King Lear, the tragedy of the eponymous Yerma, whose whole existence hinges on the passionate wish to conceive a child, takes place neither "then" nor "now" but in a Spanish eternity made archetypal by the face of actress Aitana Sanchez-Gijon. She shrivels from beauty to ruin without resorting to makeup, collapsing from within as if possessed by a spirit of inconsolable bitterness.
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For the rest of it, these new films are exuberant, and fun. Twice Upon a Yesterday is a romantic fantasy about second chances whose sensibility is deeply Spanish, despite that the film is in English. Director Maria Ripoll approaches the supernatural as Buñuel did, concretely, as if recounting a dream, eschewing trick effects and extraneous music. Tangos Are for Two (which also stars Sanchez-Gijon) is a lush period piece centering on the Elvis-like frenzy that surrounded Argentina's '30s singer Carlos Gardel. The First Night of My Life, owing to a witty script by Elvira Lindo, looks ahead to New Year's Eve 1999 and sees visions of flat tires, angry lovers and a man dressed as a giant prawn. Things I Left in Havana is a light but tough-minded look at racism and classism in present-day Madrid, where Cuban expatriates are about as welcome as Liverpool Irish at Buckingham Palace.
The variety and vitality of these films is predicted in the works of Carlos Saura. His place in Spanish film history is literally central: His work draws strength from the anarchic surrealism of Buñuel and paves the way for the erotic and romantic anarchies of Almodóvar and Bigas Luna. In the past, Saura survived censorship by creating characters so archetypal, in dramas so clever, even surreal in their political double-entendres, that there was never any secure place for the censors' scissors to land. He held up such a vivid mirror to Spanish life that a civil servant confronting Cria Cuervos must've felt like he was being invited, even taunted, to cut off his own nose. Its little heroine (played by the amazing Ana Torrent) is a 9-year-old girl who believes she has murdered her father, a fascist who drove her sensitive, artistic mother (Geraldine Chaplin) to an early grave. A darker, funnier, more blistering epitaph for Franco cannot be imagined. The mystery is that, since Franco's death, Saura himself has changed radically, primarily using his newfound freedom to make the apolitical flamenco operas for which he's best known in this country: Carmen, El Amor Brujo, Blood Wedding and the Academy Awardnominated Tango.
In his Biographical Dictionary of Film, David Thomson salutes the politically repressed but clever Saura, dismissing his flamenco films as "tourist movies." Admittedly, the transformation is a surprise, but at bottom it's in perfect keeping with Saura's most enduring obsession, which is to capture lost time. The past obsesses the men and women of his political films -- especially Peppermint Frappé, The Hunt and Cousin Angelica. Indeed, men whose memories have been amputated by fascism's codes inevitably become violent against women, an insight unique to Saura. "The Stolen Years" would be a nice title for Saura's collected works, and "Time Regained" might serve as a group title for these recent works. For that's what tyrannies do: They steal precious time from the lives of their subjects.
As his country left censorship behind, it must have seemed to Saura that what was most precious about Spain -- Spanish art -- was in danger of being lost in the shock of the new. Best get a buried half-century of great flamenco and tango artists recorded now, before the present moment becomes nothing but more time lost. As Spain has enjoyed a relatively cloudless quarter-century under Juan Carlos, and Saura managed to torpedo Franco's tyrannical underbelly quite effectively when the old general was alive, it would be false to keep restating the themes of his youth. Why dwell on the past? Why not capture the present, for a change? By taking on such classical disciplines as flamenco, Saura is volunteering to subvert an even higher dictate than any political order. He's submitting to the yoke of Spain's richest traditions, using his freedom to rebel, in a spirit of pure play, against what he chooses, and to imprint upon Spanish eternity the personal stamp of his understanding and experience.