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Spain, 2010; Carlos Saura

Often, watching movies like Thor and The Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, not to mention SIFF's overload of uninspired fare, a movie-lover can sink into despair, convinced that contemporary directors are totally incompetent when it comes to creating coherent form and movement within framed spaces. Then you luck into Carlos Saura's Flamenco, Flamenco, a visual banquet that serves up so much cinematic artfulness and beauty, your faith in the power of movies is reborn.

In his 10th celebration of Spanish music and dance, octogenarian Saura re-teams for the sixth time with master cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (The Last Emperor, The Sheltering Sky). Storaro's gift for painting with light is perfectly suited to capturing the fluid spaces which Saura fills and energizes with flamenco's fierce, colorful forms.

We enter the film via a long pan of the curved ceiling of the Seville Expo 1992 pavilion, shining metal girders that form ultra-modern patterns. The camera slowly lowers, to glide between large sumptuous canvases of flamenco artists, then deeper into stage space. Finally, we reach the huge backdrop, a screen-spanning mural of heated forest and molten-gold sun; impossible to tell where golden stage ends and wall begins. Suddenly, a woman's naked, muscular back claims center stage/frame. That flesh, sensual reality within reach, comes as a shock to our eyes, the climax of an excursion from hard modern patterns to highly stylized faces and forms on canvas to an impressionistic setting in the heart of sunlight.

That backdrop's locale and weather change during the performances that follow—including classic as well as "fusion" flamenco dance and music. As the film unreels, golden sun gives way to moonlit night, forests and fields to island shadowed by a single bare-branched tree. The standing canvases are actually scrims, alternately transparent and opaque, while live performers often seem to become part of painted settings. The dancers' powerfully arched bodies sculpt space, creating form and movement that become mise-en-scène. Takes your breath away, so rich are these fertile zones of color, motion, sound, a multiplicity of aesthetic images and styles.

In the film's many performances, women, old and young, contort their bodies into sensual forms of dark or luminous passion, using the hue, texture and shape of skintight dress, trailing ruffles and fringed shawls to project their emotions across the stage/frame. Three men sit at a wooden table, one wailing flamenco blues, the others keeping time by knocking wood. An old man, his face as delicate as a child's, cradles his guitar across his knees, entranced by the exquisite music it makes.

Every one of these accomplished artists dominates and defines the space in which he/she performs, though by virtue of Saura's directorial alchemy they all become exquisite elements in his over-arching design, his golden bowl. Forget 3D, CGI, and hulking superheroes; this is the true wizardry, the birth of art before your very eyes.

Sunday, June 12, 8:30 p.m. at the Admiral

                              Copyright 2011 by Kathleen Murphy