Two “Flamencos” are better than one.
“Flamenco,” octogenarian Spanish director Carlos Saura’s 1995 celebration of the musical genre that has long been his obsession, presents an eclectic bill of dancers, singers, and instrumentalists in an unadorned format. It is a delight for flamenco fans and provides a fascinating introduction for those unfamiliar with the music. But as cinema, despite the lush cinematography of Vittorio Storaro, it is lacking.
Not so 2010’s “Flamenco, Flamenco,” which more than doubles the artistry of the first film. With a conceptual structure as inventive as that of Jonathan Demme’s “Stop Making Sense” and a use of theatrical effects and staging as ingenious as that in the films of Hans Jürgen Syberberg, the newer film combines images (again photographed by Storaro), sound, editing, and a poetic narrative of sorts to integrate the power of film with the seductive passion of the music.
Saura emphasizes the artifice from the start. As percussion intensifies on the soundtrack, a crane shot reveals the arced steel skeleton of a Seville Expo ’92 pavilion. The camera descends, passes through rows of reproductions of flamenco-themed paintings, and frames the singers Carlos García and Maria Ángeles Fernández and their backup musicians performing a melancholy rumba. They appear in front of a somber backdrop depicting a Goya-esque sunset, and are radiantly immersed in it like a tableau vivant.
This strategy of merging the performers with paintings of Spanish themes mostly by Spanish painters, by means of backdrops and scrims and similar stage effects, creates a kind of dance of veils as the film passes from one number and motif to the next. Boston viewers will recognize John Singer Sargent’s “El Jaleo” from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum as the trompe l’oeil background mirroring the dancer Eva Yerbabuena in her performance of “Soléa.” But the dour background of the opening sky dominates, changing from dawn to dusk to night as it reflects the evolving mood of the music.
The layering of painting, stagecraft, music, dance, and film does justice to the subject. Though quintessentially Spanish and originating in the 18th century, flamenco draws from eclectic sources — Roma, Arabic, Caribbean, and Catholic. The latter is represented by a number in which six spectral, robed figures — women garbed like monks from El Escorial — march in moonlit darkness to José Enrique de la Vega’s funereal “Oración a la Virgen Macarena.” One never expects the Spanish Inquisition.
Perhaps Saura might have indulged non-Spanish-speaking audiences by subtitling the lyrics, though this might have marred the film’s visual integrity. And at times the thematic arc lapses into repetitiveness and ambiguity. But as an homage to its subject’s outcries of pain, anger, aspiration, and joy, “Flamenco, Flamenco” deserves its emphatic title.
Peter Keough can be reached at email@example.com.