A prevailing thread that continues to weave through Carlos Saura’s aesthetically fluid, articulate, and refreshingly (re)inventive cinema is in his instinctual acuity to capture society’s moral landscape – invariably transfiguring and adapting conventional film form in unexpected, often groundbreaking ways that, in their bracing novelty, also becomes a refracted, secondary reflection of their culturally rooted contemporaneity. It is within this creative aesthetic of oblique, yet incisive social observation that Saura’s audacious, deceptively whimsical, and excoriating transformation of civil war as grotesque farce in ¡Ay, Carmela! seems especially prescient in its depiction of human frailty, cultural rupture, and the absurdity of war. Adapted from the play by Spanish dramatist, José Sanchís Sinisterra, the film chronicles a few fateful days in the lives of traveling performers (a malleable profession that is also explored in Theo Angelopoulos’ The Travelling Players, Carmela (Carmen Maura) and Paulino (Andrés Pajares) who, along with their psychologically traumatized mute apprentice Gustavete (Gabino Diego), perform their bawdy, nostalgically sentimental, and overtly propagandist variety show before a motley (and implicitly grassroots) cadre of partisan fighters along Republican strongholds on the Aragonese front. Seeking to escape the austerity and chaos of life in the front lines, the trio impulsively decides to hit the road and take their act to Valencia – a flight to seemingly greener pastures that is soon derailed when the night obscured and sleep deprived performers awaken the next morning to the sight of Nationalist soldiers who immediately detain them and confiscate their incendiary collection of theatrical props deemed sympathetic to the Republican cause. Resigned to a life in the detention camp as prisoners of war, the performers soon find their collective fate hinging with the favor of a theater director turned Fascist officer, Lt. Ripamonte (Maurizio De Razza) who enlists them to organize a variety show program that will serve as a fitting demonstration of Nationalist ideals and sovereignty. Prefiguring Emir Kusturica’s idiosyncratically irreverent film on the breakup of Yugoslavia, Underground, ¡Ay, Carmela! delicately – and eloquently – straddles the precarious, seemingly intransectable bounds between comedy and tragedy, mockery and pathos in its wry, yet poignant depiction of the trauma of national rupture as a darkly comic burlesque. At the root of Saura’s sobering, cautionary satire is the sense of reckless, instinctual self-preservation, egoism, and ideological indifference embodied by the all-too-obliging Paulino – an allegorical cultural complacency that has not only led to a self-inflicted fractured nation, but also enabled the institution of a repressive regime under the guise of maintaining order and upholding moral values (note the similar social criticism that characterizes Ritwik Ghatak’s impassioned expositions on the moral culpability of the Bengali people for the tragedy of the Partition). It is the unrealized toll of resigned complicity and spiritual inertia that is inevitably reflected in the jarring tonal shift of the film’s indelible and haunting denouement – the breaking of silence that paradoxically condemns and liberates the performers, transforming their roles from impotent, peripheral witnesses to the integral moral conscience of a rended and foundering people.
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