‘Ay Carmela!’ dances to a military beat

Alex Schmerge

“Ay Carmela!” directed by Carlos Saura, combines song, dance, politics and comedy to create a brilliant 1991 period piece set during the Spanish Civil War. A husband-and-wife variety act called “Carmela and Paulino’s Elegant Variety Show” is captured by the nationalist forces and imprisoned in a republican town that has been taken over by Franco’s troops and allies. The two are ordered to entertain and perform for the troops at the front. After being forced from their beds in the middle of the night to make room for wounded soldiers, Carmela (Carmen Maura) and Paulino (Andres Pajares) flee for home, only to be captured by the Nationalists. The Italian lieutenant, a former theater director in Italy, will free them if they put on a show glorifying Mussolini and Hitler. Paulino is persuaded that absolute cooperation is the only way to ensure their survival, while Carmela is offended and does not want to go against her principles. While she holds few political beliefs, Carmela must decide how much she will compromise to save herself and her husband.

Although “Ay Carmela!” is taken from a stage play by José Sanchis Sinisterra, Saura expands the action to show the bombed and ruined towns. This film is still more of a character drama than a war film. Born in Spain in 1938, Saura includes his perspective throughout this film, referring back to his bitter childhood memories. Although “Ay Carmela!” clearly favors the left reflecting Saura’s own political views, he does try to give the fascists some human emotions.

Saura evokes wartime Spain in every aspect, from uniforms, vehicles, weapons, posters, fashions, jokes, songs and dances to the streets themselves. It seems like the producers had to destroy an entire Spanish village in order to shoot the film. Throughout “Ay Carmela!,” the ominous background radio broadcasts real-life Franco speeches, war news bulletins and fascist hymns, giving the film a distinct, realistic quality. The film’s musical setting is a Saura trademark, as he has produced several movies incorporating both song and dance.

Saura’s cinematic recreation of wartime Spain combines comedy as well as suspense. We ponder Carmela’s fate, wondering if she will acquiesce to the Fascists. It is perhaps this unique blend of reality, humor and suspense that led to “Ay Carmela!” earning two Goya prizes, the Spanish equivalent of the Academy Award.

“Ay Carmela!” will be shown on Saturday at 7 p.m., Sunday at 3:30 and 7 p.m. and Monday at 7 p.m. in the Connelly Center Cinema. Admission is $3 for students and $4 for others. It is presented in Spanish with English subtitles. The Monday showing will be followed by a discussion, “Performance and Political Repression in ‘Ay Carmela!’” led by Heidi Rose.