The Spanish Civil War, a presence one way or another in much of Carlos Saura’s work, is the period of his new film, “Ay, Carmela!” (AMC Century 14), a touching semi-comedy in which idealism collides poignantly with survival.
Saura’s seemingly light film has a grave question at its core: can artists be politically neutral or are they duty-bound to speak out? It’s a question that makes the film seem eerily well-timed today.
It’s 1938 and entertainers Carmela and Paulino, “Tip-Top Variety,” are hard at work near the front. Their audience is part of the raggle-taggle of the Spanish Republican Army, transfixed by Carmela’s heartfelt and spectacularly second-rate dancing and Paulino’s recitation of inspirational poems about liberty. Only the sound of German planes overhead brings a deadly pause to the proceedings in this makeshift theater.
Saura keeps the tones of the settings muted, reflective, full of mists. Against these, the vaudevillians’ act is life itself, bawdy, raucous, not a little raw. An encore of Paulino’s, featuring rude body noises, is especially in demand by the troops. Carmela is earthy and practical, good-hearted to the point of sentimentality--and beyond. Although she and husband Paulino are on the side of the partisans, one picks up the sense that they may not be the most deeply committed Spaniards ever born.
They’re at the front because of the choice given Paulino: play the front or enlist in the Republican Army. Along the way to this hazardous booking, they’ve picked up a shell-shocked boy, Gustavete, who may be mute but can double on guitar and, in a costume emergency, sewing machine.
Carmen Maura, the bustlingly ironic centerpiece of so many Pedro Almodovar films, is the splendid Carmela to whom “Ay, Carmela!” owes its substantial sympathy, its center and a lot of its owlish humor. She turns an almost anecdotal film memorable.
Andres Pajares is droll and suitably slippery as Paulino, who almost made it to the priesthood but, instead, found true love and a theatrical soul-mate in Carmela. With his round eyes grease-penciled for their act, Pajares looks like a silent-film comedian, but as a screenwriter, Saura has short-sheeted him in the inventiveness department. (“Ay, Carmela” is based on a play by Jose Sanchis Sinisterra.) This throws the film straight back at Maura, who rolls up her sleeves and wades in cheerfully, more than up to the job.
Trying to make their way to Valencia, the trio is picked up by Fascists, and Carmela’s real political awareness begins. First, as they’re questioned by a Franco loyalist, she has to keep Paulino’s gift for declamation from getting them shot. “Wrong side!” she hisses as he begins a tear-jerker about the death of Garcia Lorca, the anti-Fascist poet. Then, when they’re imprisoned with villagers considered communists by the Franco forces, she meets some International Brigade volunteers, in particular one young Pole. Although neither can understand the other, her maternal side comes to the fore and she gets teary-eyed imagining his mother’s reaction to his imprisonment, or worse.
Saura never lets the comedy override the surroundings; each time it threatens to, he issues reminders of how unfunny, how downright perilous the situation really is. Even the setting of a love scene carries a bittersweet reminder of the war’s oppressiveness.
A foolish Italian lieutenant (Maurizio di Razza), who fancies himself a writer-director, seems for a while to be the Tip-Top’s salvation, but things only get stickier: the trio is pressed into a command performance before Italian and Spanish Fascist troops. Priding himself on his professionalism, “We’re artists, we do what they ask,” Paulino is ready to adapt to anything, including desecrating the Republican flag onstage. Carmela, however, is troubled by her encounter with this Polish soldier, whom she is afraid will be brought to see their act.
She is not thrilled that she is going on with no rehearsal, that she is dressed in an ex-curtain, that her period is due and that the script is . . . unmentionable. There is a worse problem: How can she square this idealist’s view of her as a patriot with what she’s about to do onstage?
Maura’s performance, without ever losing its comic delicacy, steers the film into its deepest moments. She makes this a fearful moral conundrum for a character entirely unused to such complexities and turns Carmela’s passionate solution into the film’s high point.
If it’s Maura’s film, it’s so from the writer’s skimping on the other characters, not any overt scenery munching of hers. Gabino Diego as the mute Gustavete, however, gives particularly sturdy support. Terrified at where Carmela’s talent for improvisation will land them next, he is diabolically funny, particularly in the scene in which he, alone, has a clue as to the origin of the meat Paulino is wolfing down. Who could imagine that two little words, scribbled on a tiny blackboard, could bring down the house?
Carmen Maura: Carmela
Andres Pajares: Paulino
Gabino Diego: Gustavete
Maurizio de Razza: Lt. Ripamonte
A Prestige release, a division of Miramax Films. Producer Andres Vicente Gomes. Director Carlos Saura. Screenwriter Carlos Saura, from the play “Carmela” by Jose Sanchis Sinisterra. Camera Jose Luis Alcaine. Editor Pablo G. Delamo. Sound Antonio Rodriguez. Art director Rafael Palmero.
Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes.
Times-rated Mature for the briefest semi-nudity and one character’s rude noises, which may offend the hyper-delicate.