Carlos Saura, Celebrated Spanish Auteur, Dies at 91

Carlos Saura
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Spanish auteur Carlos Saura died on Friday of natural causes, the Film Academy of Spain confirmed. He was 91. 

In a statement, the org stated: “The Film Academy deeply regrets to announce the death of Carlos Saura, Goya de Honor 2023. Saura, one of the fundamental filmmakers in the history of Spanish cinema, died today at his home at the age of 91, surrounded by his loved ones.”

Born in 1932 in Huesca, Aragon – the same part of Spain as Luis Buñuel, whom he recognised as his mentor – Saura was taken by his family to Madrid during its Civil War. As a child, Saura he listened with horror to its bombings, the trauma of its violence never leaving him, inspiring his third feature, 1965’s “The Hunt,” a portrait of a Franquist ruling class which won him a Berlin Silver Bear.

This crowned him as the leading light of a New Spanish Cinema, an attempt backed by the more liberal wing of Francisco Franco’s regime to create a European-style new wave of auteurs.

From 1965 to 1974, Saura’s cinema, abetted by producer Elías Querejeta, attempted the near impossible of making movies, backed by a far right government, which criticised the contradictions and gross lack of freedoms of the very society that Franco had created. They scored big prizes, such as a Berlin Silver Bear for “Peppermint Frappé” in 1967, and a Cannes Jury Prize for 1974’s “La Prima Angelica,” in which a middle-aged man visits his in-laws in Segovia, where he experienced the War as as a child, his memories flooding back and with them, an explanation for his arrested emotional growth.

Brilliantly shot – “There is a Spanish cinema before and after ’La Caza,’” said fellow director Manuel Gutiérrez Aragón – in world opinion, “La Caza” converted Saura into one of its most famous symbols of Spain’s valiant anti-Franco opposition. 

Spain, Franco’s arcane dictatorship insisted, was modernizing fast, entering the booming world of advanced Western capitalism. 

Saura always begged to differ. Heavily influenced by Italian neorealism, his debut, “Los Golfos” showed young second-generation immigrants, living in shacks on the outskirts of Madrid, working as market porters, with no money and no future, unless they made it in bullfighting. Through symbol, association and ellipsis, “La Caza” exposed a Spain still shadowed by Civil War and primed when prompted to descend into atavistic carnage.

Spain’s censor also took note. Six ministers watched the final version of “La Prima Angélica” before it was approved. It was little wonder that Saura was feted wherever he went outside Spain, a mantle he wore lightly, disarming preconceptions with a large sense of humor not always so evident in his movies.  

Saura’s earliest films were made under the large influence of Buñuel, who even played a hangman in a censored initial scene of 1964’s “Llanto por un bandido,” a frustrated Western. Increasingly, as Europe embraced Saura, Saura embraced Europe and the psychological and relationship-based cinema of Ingmar Bergman.  

Liberated from Franco’s censorship, in 1976, Saura finished what many consider his masterpiece, “Raise Ravens,” starring his then partner Geraldine Chaplin, a movie critiquing the travails of women in a macho world, as seen through the confused imagination of a family’s young daughter. Few Spanish films capture with such delicacy the dizzying mix of memory, day-dream and hallucination of young minds, which will leave hostages to fortune.

“Deprisa Deprisa,” a departure, and another of his greatest films, captures with sympathy, sluiced by a rambunctious rumba soundtrack, the often short lives of four Madrid delinquents who pull heists, snort heroin and hotwire cars. Through it Saura made the point that democracy had failed to bring a quick fix to the lot of Spain’s humbler classes. It was his last film of overt political import.

Saura first made a living as a photographer at 1950s dance festivals in Spain. He returned to his first love for a final protracted part of his career, making an early dance trilogy – 1980’s “Bodas de Sangre,” 1983’s “Carmen” and 1985 “El Amor Brujo” – stood out by staking a new space for musicals, merging the emphasis on spectacle of Hollywood classics with the European auteurist tradition of the full-on and playful subjectivity of an auteur.

He followed up with dance documentaries and a return to fiction in 1998’s “Tango” and 2021’s “The King of All the World,” which at its best sums up much of Saura’s gamut of achievements as a cineaste: The innate kinetic energy of his camerawork; the flamboyant primal colours of his dance films: a shocking impact of violence; the portrait of women, 45 years after “Raise Ravens,” still suffering at the hands of men: a sense of the huge weight of the past on any present.

Wounded by critics’ savaging of his Oscar-nominated “Mama Turns 100”  (1979) and in order to accommodate his ever bigger family, Saura moved from Madrid to a large house in the hills just from the railway between Madrid and Segovia, in the placid village of Collado Mediano. There he would greet friends for lunches sluiced by wine and laughter. His most social moments were his shoots and the palpable joy at making movies can be felt in many of his later films. 

He never thought of stopping. As he hit his eighties, his interests broadened with a doc feature about “Renzo Piano” (2018) and, in his final feature, “Walls Can Talk,” a doc feature world premiered at San Sebastian. Exploring the origins of art, down the millennia wall paintings at France’s Chauvet Cave, made 36,500 years ago, down to the work of modern graffiti arts. In it, implicitly, he questioned his own compulsive drive to create down long decades from when he exhibited his first dance photos back in 1951 at the Real Sociedad Fotográfica de Madrid.

Carlos Saura is survived by his four partners, who all marked his career: Journalist and documentarist Adela Medrano, actor Geraldine Chaplin, Mercedes Pérez and actor Eulalia Ramón, as well as seven children including producers Carlos, Antonio and Anna Saura. Antonio Saura also serves as the head of sales company Latido Films.