Carlos Saura, Spanish filmmaker who drew global acclaim, dies at 91

Carlos Saura, a Spanish screenwriter-director whose powerfully disquieting films of the 1960s and ’70s challenged myths of national identity under the fascist dictator Francisco Franco and whose later work dramatized the culture of folkloric dance, died Feb. 10 at 91.

The Spanish Academy of Cinematographic Arts and Sciences announced the death, which came a day before Mr. Saura was to receive a Goya award honoring career excellence. They did not provide a cause or place.

The philosophical thread that bound Mr. Saura’s two cinematic legacies — his allegorically veiled attacks on the Franco regime in works such as “The Hunt” (1966), “The Garden of Delights” (1970) and “Ana and the Wolves” (1973) and his subsequent veneration of flamenco, tango and fado in exhilarating dance movies — was freedom of expression: artistic, political, social and sexual.

In a career spanning more than six decades and nearly 50 films, Mr. Saura saw himself as an heir to the moviemaking tradition established by his friend and creative soul mate, Luis Buñuel.

“We shared themes about the personal suffocation caused by Spanish religion, education, family life,” Mr. Saura, who also wrote most of the films he directed, told the New York Times. “Film to me was a way to do gymnastics of the imagination to escape.”

Under Franco, who ruled the country for four decades until his death in 1975, the Spanish government sought to instill a deeply conservative national identity centered on family, church and state.

Juan Antonio Bardem and Luis Berlanga, distinguished Spanish directors of the early Franco era, trafficked in gallows humor but avoided directly confronting the regime. Buñuel, a master of surreal imagery who aimed his mordantly irreverent plots at bourgeois values, mostly worked in exile.

But Mr. Saura remained in Madrid, wielding a formidable combination of technical skill and political savvy at a pivotal moment as Spain sought to project a more open and modern image abroad. By the 1960s, the country was desperately lagging behind France and Italy in moviemaking cachet and sought to enhance its cultural standing as a way to boost tourism.

A former photographer, Mr. Saura made films of cinematographic quality and dramatic power rarely found in Spanish studios of that era. He and his producer, Elías Querejeta, actively engaged with censors to minimize cuts to their works while also cultivating international film-festival judges and audiences.

With elliptical storytelling methods, often blurring time and memory, Mr. Saura cleverly managed to maintain his artistic integrity. His breakthrough was “The Hunt,” a psychological thriller about three pro-Franco veterans of the Spanish Civil War who reunite decades later to hunt rabbits and turn against one another in murderous ways.

“Saura and Querejeta milked a strategy that allowed them to avoid being marginalized at home by censors,” said Marvin D’Lugo, author of “The Films of Carlos Saura.”

He “was the first to make a big splash overseas at a time when there was an audience for anti-Francoism,” D’Lugo said. “So a film like ‘The Hunt’ could be read abroad as an ingenious subversion of censorship norms and also play to middle-class audiences at home because it was essentially a film about hunting, which is an obsession with Spaniards.”

Writing in the Times, movie critic Bosley Crowther proclaimed the film “so good, so substantial and powerful that it would be a credit to any director in the world.” It won a top prize at the Berlin International Film Festival.

Mr. Saura repeated his success at the Berlin festival with “Peppermint Frappé” (1967), a psychological drama that marked the start of his dozen-year romantic relationship and professional collaboration with Geraldine Chaplin (a daughter of Charlie) and that served as an allegory of the political repression in Spain.

Another triumph was the dark satire “The Garden of Delights” (1970), about a Spanish industrialist who loses his memory and the number of his Swiss bank account. Seeking to revive his mind, his self-interested relatives restage scenes of his life. It was an acid sendup of the wealthy businessmen who helped bankroll the Franco government and the frail and aging Generalissimo himself.

“Ana and the Wolves,” nominated for the highest prize at the Cannes film festival, featured Chaplin as a young foreign governess who attracts the lustful attention of her employers, three middle-aged brothers living in a crumbling mansion with their families.

The men, Mr. Saura told the Times, “represent for me the three monsters of Spain: perversions of religiosity, repressed sexuality and the authoritarian spirit, respectively.” Chaplin’s character ultimately meets a terrible fate for leading on the men and indoctrinating their children with ideas that challenge the family order.

“Cousin Angelica” (1974) was one of the first Spanish movies to address the civil war with a sympathetic, even noble view of the losing side. Opponents lobbed stink bombs at the theater where the film premiered in Madrid, and the right-wing press condemned the picture. But the film, about an emotionally stunted businessman trapped by memories of his upbringing among pro-Franco relatives, went on to win the Jury Prize at Cannes.

Two years later, Mr. Saura received the same award for “Breeding Ravens” (also widely known by its Spanish title, “Cría Cuervos”), a depiction of tormented childhood that featured a terrifying performance by Ana Torrent as a girl who believes she holds the power of life and death over her family.

Franco’s death largely liberated Mr. Saura from his brooding mantle. His comic sequel to “Ana and the Wolves” — “Mama Turns 100” (1979) — was nominated for the Academy Award for best foreign language film.

He won Spain’s highest film honor with “¡Ay, Carmela!” (1990), about a troupe of apolitical entertainers who fall into fascist hands amid the civil war. “Goya in Bordeaux” (1999), starring Francisco Rabal as the 18th-century Spanish painter during his final years in exile, spoke to the power of creativity amid adversity.

These were the politically-tinged outliers in Mr. Saura’s post-Franco output. For the most part, he made dance films in which art and artist — fantasy and reality — blended in visually stunning melodrama.

“Blood Wedding” (1981), adapted from a play by Federico García Lorca, marked the start of a trilogy with Anthony Gades, Spain’s leading flamenco dancer and choreographer. The next two installments were “Carmen” (1983), nominated for the Oscar for best foreign language film, and “El amor brujo” (1986), sometimes translated as “Love, the Magician.”

Mr. Saura also received a best foreign language film nod at the Oscars for “Tango” (1998), about a dancer and his fatal attraction to a gangster’s moll. His later works included the dance documentaries “Fados” (2007), “Flamenco Flamenco” (2010) and “Jota de Saura” (2016), the last celebrating the music of his native Aragón region.

Carlos Saura Atarés was born in Huesca on Jan. 4, 1932. His father was a lawyer and government tax official, and his mother was a pianist. An older brother, Antonio, became a well-regarded abstract-expressionist painter.

Mr. Saura was 3 when his family moved to Madrid. Civil war commenced the next year, pitting Franco’s Nationalist forces against the elected moderate-liberal coalition government known as the Second Republic.

He immortalized in “Cousin Angelica” his memory of a classmate being struck by flying glass during a bombing and referenced in “The Hunt” the storage of corpses and materiel in a basement room of his Augustinian-run high school.

Encouraged by his brother, Mr. Saura entered the Instituto de Investigaciones y Experiencias Cinematográficas in Madrid. Raised on a censor-approved diet of propaganda and escapist fare, he was energized by bleak and poetic masterworks by neorealist Italian filmmakers such as Vittorio De Sica.

At the institute, he made several short films that pushed the boundaries of acceptable social critique. One, “Sunday Afternoon,” about the plight of a maid on her day off, qualified him for graduation in 1957. After several of his early features were cut by censors, Mr. Saura vowed never again to lose control over a picture.

In 1957, he married Adela Medrano, with whom he had two sons, Carlos and Antonio, before divorcing. Mr. Saura and Chaplin had a son, Shane, before parting after the filmmaker carried on an affair with the boy’s nanny.

He subsequently married the caregiver, Mercedes Pérez, and they had three sons — Manuel, Adrián and Diego — before divorcing. He had a daughter, Ana, with actress Eulalia Ramón, whom he dated for 15 years before marrying in 2006. A list of survivors was not immediately available.

One of Mr. Saura’s most intensely personal works was “33 Days,” still unreleased after years of production. The film depicts the intense drive of Picasso (played by Antonio Banderas) to complete his monumental antiwar mural “Guernica,” about the 1937 fascist carpet-bombing of the Basque town.

“My brother always said that the toughest moment for a painter is having to stand in front of a blank canvas,” Mr. Saura told the Times in 2012, when he started the film, “which is also the kind of problem that I have repeatedly had as a film director and certainly what Picasso was facing until the news of the Guernica bombing gave him a trigger to really want to get down to work.”

For Picasso all relationships were secondary to his art, Mr. Saura said, intimating the same was true for him. “Of course Picasso loved women, but he was above all a tireless worker who lived for his painting,” he said. “I think that if he hadn’t been so egotistical, he simply wouldn’t have managed to produce the work that he did.”

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