Held in spring 2021 at Madrid’s Fernán Gómez Theater, the exhibition Carlos Saura and Dance began with a wall panel of B&W photos the director took at the 1956 Granada Intl. Festival of Music and Dance.

In one, French prima ballerina Yvette Chauviré struts, arms held high standing in a field, recalling a Goya pastoral scene; another captures a dancer’s sculptural buttocks.

First cut’s the deepest. 65 years later, “The King of All the World” transports Carlos Saura to Mexico, and also returns him to his first professional love, the world of dance, in a fiction film which plays heir to “Carmen” and “Tango.”

Sold by Latido Films, and acquired by Eurozoom for France, the musical interweaves, moreover, two great Saura obsessions: Violence, critiqued in career highs such as 1965’s “La Caza” and 1981’s “Deprisa, Deprisa”; and the travails of women in a machista world, a focus of 1976’s “Raise Ravens” and 1983’s “Carmen.”

“The King of All the World,” is not, however, a trip down filmic memory lane, but a verdict, made for 2021 by two masters in full control of their craft, Saura and “Apocalypse Now” cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, on how the dial has moved, in personal and historical terms, on both issues, as well as cutting edge film technology.

Classic Saura with a very contemporary edge, “The King of All the World” begins with celebrated Mexican choreographer Sara (Ana De la Reguera) being invited by Manuel, (Manuel García Rulfo), a stage director, to help him prepare a new musical.

Yet he does so on a stage in a scene later re-shot, though from a different angle, as the first scene in the finished musical, performed before an audience.

Even from the get-go, “The King of All the World” splinters into a dizzying mix – when seen first time round by an audience – of imagination and different fictional realities.

Manuel and Sara select Inés (Greta Elizondo), just 20, a beautiful young dancer from Mexico City’s humble outlying districts, as the female lead. But her backstory – her fickle dad owes money to the mob –  introduces an undercurrent of violence which builds to a doubly shocking climax.

“The King of All the World” is produced by Eusebio Pacha for Pipa Films in co-production with Pacha Producciones e Inversiones Audiovisuales, UDG Canal 44 and the Comision de Filmaciones del Estado de Jalisco (COFIEG). It was shot entirely in Mexico’s Guadalajara.

Variety chatted to Carlos Saura as he prepared for the Spanish premiere of “The King of All the World” at the Valladolid Festival, which also plays at the Malaga de Cine-Spanish Screenings:

The Madrid exhibition Carlos Saura and Dance has photos you took at the 1956 Granada Intl. Festival of Music and Dance of dancers, caught between rehearsals or staging an impromptu dance in a field. I sense that 65 years later you still retain his sense of excitement at creativity, the rehearsal rather than the final performance, and that’s one of the major delights of “The King of All the World.” Could you comment?

Once I’ve established what I’m going to tell and put myself in the shoes of a character who wants to stage a musical, I ask: ‘How am I going to tell it?” They have to invent the story and the artists who will participate in it. That opens up the possibility of shaping the story and at the same time growing with the actors. I did that in “Carmen,” in “Tango,” in “Io, Don Giovanni” and now in “The King of All the World.”

I’ve always thought that “rehearsals” are more interesting that the final performance, perhaps because they show the effort needed to get to the final result. I always cite “42nd Street,” from Lloyd Bacon, made in the 1930s, which laid the basis for film musicals.

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The King of All the World Courtesy of Latido Films

One major innovation of “The King of All the World” compared to, say, “Carmen,” is its technology. You’ve commented before on the use of light, high-quality digital cameras, powerful low-consumption projectors, the possibility of recording sound live with tiny microphones on the shoot. What did such cutting-edge advances allow you to do which you couldn’t do before?

In my musicals, I’ve always used structures including projections, photos and sketches. This allows me to work with broaden the options of scenography. In “The King of All the World” there are hardly any natural backdrops, the rest are photographic panels and artificial elements.

Digital cameras have eased our work. Today, we can control every movement of the two cameras I’m accustomed to using via screens. We control image and sound. This was just a dream when I started to make films. Here I should mention the essential collaboration as the cinematographer of my friend Vittorio Storaro. We’ve now made seven films together. He is one of my most sensitive and effective collaborators.

Many of your biggest films “Raise Ravens,” “Carmen” – reflect on the fate of women in a machista world. That machismo is slightly subtler in “The King of All the World,” but it still exists. Could you comment? 

Mexico is still a machista country, by tradition and history, but little by little women are playing the role they merit. Women, above all the younger ones, are battling for independence. Today, in general, women have important positions in all facets of society. For example, my daughter Anna Saura is now an agent and producer.

Set in present-day Mexico City, “The King of All the World” also picks up on its biggest contemporary challenge: Violence. The theme runs through your fiction films in Mexico, you suggest it is institutionalized and atavistic. Again, could you comment?

The violence in Mexico isn’t my invention. Every day, Mexican newscasts announce the murders, rapes and extortion cases suffered by its population. When you get to Spain, you’re surprised you can walk city streets, at day and at night, without any protection. Violence seems endemic in some Latin American countries.

As many of your films – “Deprisa, deprisa,” for example –  “The King of All the World” has extraordinary songs, such as Cuco Sánchez song which inspires the film’s title, “30-30 Caribines” or Lila Downs’ “La Cumbia del Mole.” How did you choose the songs?

We worked a lot on the film’s music. I know Mexico’s corridos well, rancheras and traditional songs: Many I listened to in Spain when I was young. We selected the music with Alfonso G. Aguilar and the Mexican singer Carlos Rivera. I also knew Lila Downs because we worked together on my musical “Fados.”

In Mexico the choreographer Edgar Reyes made the work much easier, as well as the selection of dancers.  I thank them all for their enthusiasm and collaboration. I can say that I’ve worked in Mexico, Costa Rica and in Argentina and I’ve always felt as comfortable as in my own country, Spain.

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The King of All the World Courtesy of Latido Films