Sunday, March 4, 2007

The Artists From Aragon

The Artists From Aragon

Originally Published in Preview July/August 1999

Maybe it's because, like the painter, he's from Aragon (he was born in the northern Spanish town of Huesca in 1932). Maybe it's because his own older brother, Antonio, was himself one of Spain's best-known painters. But mainly, one suspects, it is because Carlos Saura, like Goya, has spent the best part of his life capturing the world through colour and light that it was inevitable that their paths would eventually converge.

Whatever the reason, a film about Goya has been one of Saura's longest-held ambitions, predating the internationally acclaimed dance films which, from Blood Wedding (Bodas de sangre, 1981) and Carmen (1983) through to this year's Oscar nominee, Tango, have marked the second major phase in the career of one of Spain's most eclectic film-makers.

Now the ambition has been realised, with a little help from two of Europe's best-known behind-the-camera artists, plus producer Andrés Vicente Gómez, working on his third film with Saura, and Fulvio Lucisano of Italian International Film, who came in on the project just after shooting started. The result is Goya in Bordeaux, which was shot in a remarkably brief nine weeks, following meticulous pre-production planning by Saura and the multiple Oscar-winning team of cinematographer Vittorio Storaro and production designer Pierre-Louis Thèvenet - in the latter part of last year in a studio in Madrid.

"Goya has always been my favourite painter," declares Saura, who began his career as an assistant to Luis Buñuel and, in his early films (shot under the Franco dictatorship), developed an elliptical way of treating the social problems of fascist Spain which enabled him to circumvent the censors. No surprise, then, that he found in the life of Francisco de Goya y Lucientes (1746-1828)-which spanned one of the most turbulent periods in modern Spanish and European history-subject matter that linked both phases of his career. Goya in Bordeaux is a film about an artist who was at the heart of historical change-the perfect subject for a Saura film.

"There are some people who live at the centre of the hurricane and who seek to express the convulsions of a world in transformation," says the director. "Goya was a witness to and part of a country where intolerance, disease and war were part of everyday life. I don't believe we have more reliable testimony to the violence of war than his engravings. There is neither sentimentality nor tenderness in them-simply a powerful vision which tries to express the horrors which he experienced and imagined."

Saura's film is told in flashback by the 82-year-old painter (played by veteran Spanish actor Francisco Rabal), now living in exile in Bordeaux with the last of his lovers, Leocadia Zorrilla de Weiss (Eulalia Ramón). It is a life in which international fame and the major and minor betrayals of Spanish court politics have been inextricably linked. And there has been passion, too, as the elderly Goya looks back over the ambitions of his youth (in which he is played by Jose Coronado), and on his one great love affair: with the Duchess of Alba (Maribel Verdú), subject of several of his best-known paintings.

Then, at the age of 46, an illness turned him completely deaf and Goya retired from public life, producing a series of increasingly dark works, some of them painted directly onto the walls of his studio in the Quinta del Sordo (Estate of the Deaf), as if to stress that they were for him and him alone. Seen now, these paintings are clear forerunners of the key developments in 20th-century art, despite having been painted in the first decade of the 19th century.

"'I see neither line nor colour, only shadows moving back and forth'-that's what Goya said when he gave his acceptance speech for the Academy," notes Saura. "My brother Antonio, who was a Goya expert [he died shortly before shooting commenced], considered those words to be the clearest statement he knew on the subject of modern painting."

For Saura, Goya was always a project that was going to take him into new areas of film-making. "Goya in Bordeaux goes further down the line than Tango," notes the director, making a comparison with a film in which emotions are portrayed, not through dialogue, but through movement, colour and light. "Space, and above all the light which makes up the space, are essential. The whole thing has been conceived as two large blocks: the acting and the lighting. Light is inseparable from our conception of the set."

The film, Saura adds, would have been inconceivable without top Italian cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, who won Oscars for The Last Emperor and Apocalypse Now and who had previously worked with him on Flamenco, Taxi and, above all, Tango. "Storaro was essential," he says. "He's a master of lighting and here, on an extremely complex project, he's shown it once again."

Saura, Storaro and veteran French production designer Pierre-Louis Thèvenet-whose credits include Pedro Almodóvar's High Heels (Tacones lejanos), Anthony Mann's El Cid and Franklin J Shaffner's Patton (for which he won an Oscar)-put months of planning into Goya's huge and complex set, which boasted numerous innovations, including transparent sliding panels to enable the long and complicated takes that were part of Saura's vision.

"Ninety percent of the shoot took place in the studio," says Storaro. "We reproduced streets, palaces and nightmares. This was because a lot of the story happens inside Goya's head. But there were other parts where a sense of reality was important-for example, when he speaks of his relationship with the Duchess of Alba-because this is a more complex part of the story. All of his creativity, his fantasy, his feelings and emotions... they're all there when he talks about her, so we needed both verisimilitude and intensity.

"We worked with new materials-stamped plastics, projections, surfaces on which paintings or fragments of paintings are reproduced," continues Storaro. "The scenic space was like a huge game where the pieces were all mobile, so that at any point we could construct a bedroom, a drawing room, a corridor, or make a painting or an engraving appear or disappear on the walls..."

For Storaro, as for Saura, Goya in Bordeaux comes at the end of a long road which fellow artists have travelled before him. "I now believe that we are extracting conclusions from what all the artists in the world have ever done," he says. "And not only film artists: I mean painters, writers and musicians. For a cinematographer like me, painters are my direct inspiration. When I visited Madrid in 1960, I went to the Prado and the Quinta del Sordo paintings were a revelation for me, a shock."

It was scarcely surprising, therefore, that Storaro should have responded to the Spanish director's invitation to work with him on the project. "Saura told me that his dream, which had been a constant inspiration to him throughout his career, was to make a film about Goya," he says. "That struck a chord with me, because I remembered that my first contact with Spanish culture had been through Goya and the poetry of Lorca."

And the new film would be a logical extension of what has been one of the great artistic collaborations of the nineties, "With Flamenco, we created a modern vision of flamenco music in Spain," says Storaro. "In Taxi, we took a trip around today's world, around the intolerance that exists everywhere. Goya is a journey around the history of the visual arts."

And how does Saura himself feel about the experience, now that his dream of a lifetime has been fulfilled?

"Goya has pursued me throughout my whole life," he says. "I've always felt a powerful attraction for his painting and his personality. But both are still a mystery to me."

No comments: