Best known to most cinephiles as the director behind one of the great out of print Criterion Collection releases, director Carlos Saura is so very much more than just the auteur at the center of Criterion’s sixth Eclipse series release. Making films starting in the late 50’s, the now 84-year-old filmmaker has been behind some of the most visually striking works spanning fiction and non-fiction storytelling. Be it his bravura Flamenco Trilogy for which he is most widely known, or the features like Cria Cuervos featuring one of star Geraldine Chaplin’s greatest performances, Saura’s filmography is filled to the brim with singular visions truly without comparison.
Argentina is the latest film from Saura, and this owes more to his aforementioned documentary work than some of his narrative features. In the vein of a film like Flamenco, Flamenco, Argentina takes an approach to discussing the history of Argentina and tales from Argentinian folklore that is decidedly performative. Through stunningly composed performances of traditional music and dance, Saura’s documentary plays as much like a stage performance as it does a singularly cinematic work. Describing this film as a documentary even seems to do the film a disservice. Not so much interested in hearing specifics about Argentinian history from scholars and historians, Saura’s film gets to the purest form of expression and gives the stage to men and women who have made it their lives to express the rich history and tradition from within Argentina.
Superficially, the film doesn’t set its sights incredibly high. More or less structured as vignettes all taking place on what appears to be a theater stage, Saura’s film comes to life in the director’s crafting of each respective tableau. There are deeply moving, incredibly subtle sequences like the film’s greatest set piece, that involving a group of school children watching a video of Mercedes Sosa as she performs “Todo Cambia,” each student seemingly getting lost in the performance that they are both watching as well as taking part in. It’s a gorgeously structured set piece, and one that seems to hit just the right note. There are a handful of more simplistic pieces, as numerous performances here are relatively straightforward in their composition (there’s an early dance between two dancers accompanied by a singer that’s disturbingly static in its design and execution), making this feel like a minor achievement.
The biggest misstep here, at least in comparison to the director’s aforementioned 2010 release, is the cinematography. While quite pretty in many of the productions (there’s one involving a large group of performers that begins with them standing behind a backlit sunset that’s quite stunning actually), the film jettisons Flamenco DP Vittorio Storaro with Felix Monti taking his place. Monti’s work here is occasionally elevated thanks to some inventive production design, but in comparison to the shockingly evocative Flamenco, Argentina feels mostly flat with Saura’s camera only occasionally having the same energy as his performers. Seemingly hypnotized by these performances, the film’s pulse is barely palpable for much of the run time.
Overall, while this is a minor work from Saura, it’s also one that features some of truly bravura set pieces. For anyone with a passing interest in folklore or discovering new aspects of cultures from throughout the world, Argentina is a film that’s as moving emotionally as it is statically shot.