"Tears for a Bandit" (1963), which will be shown at 6 tonight at Melnitz Theater, UCLA, as part of the Carlos Saura retrospective, is so shorn of exposition that you should know going in that it's about an actual person, El Tempranillo, the most famous bandit in Andalusia in the early 19th Century.
An Hispano-Italo-French co-production, it suffered from censorship in Spain and editing in Italy. Even though it's hard to follow, it draws you into its "Viva Zapata!"-like story, starring Francisco Rabal as Jose Maria Hinojosa, El Tempranillo, a man for whom the line between revolutionary and bandit blurred.
A tender yet passionate love story between Hinojosa and his wife (Lea Massari) unfolds against the larger story of El Tempranillo's doomed struggle against oppression. This handsome, highly sensual Cinemascope production has at times the formal beauty and restless, ambiguous mood of Jancso's "The Round-Up" and seethes with the fiery, proud spirit of the flamenco.
The initial collaboration between Saura and Geraldine Chaplin, "Peppermint Frappe" (1967), screens tonight at 8. It is a sly, darkly comic fable about a balding, middle-age dentist (Jose Luis Lopez Vazquez, the Spanish cinema's master portrayer of sexually repressed types), who becomes obsessed with the young blond bride (Chaplin) of his lifelong friend (the older, virile Alfredo Mayo).
Ironically, he never before noticed his nurse (also played by Chaplin), a pretty but prim brunette, until he realizes her uncanny resemblance to his friend's glamorous, flirty wife. All of Saura's key films through the '70s can be read as subtle commentaries on life under Franco, and it has been suggested that this film's true meaning is that freedom exists only in fantasy. Chaplin was never more beautiful than in this film, which is a virtual homage to her.
In their next collaboration, the more directly allegorical "Stress Mess" (1968) (screening after "Peppermint Frappe"), Chaplin is once again at the apex of the eternal triangle, but the key figure is her rich husband (Juan Luis Galiardo). The couple, plus the husband's equally handsome friend (Fernando Cebrian), have gone on an outing in the country. There are many asides on the stresses of modern life, with an emphasis on overpopulation. In the immediate situation, three's quite literally a crowd as the up-tight, determinedly \o7 macho\f7 Galiardo becomes increasingly jealous of the laid-back Cebrian, who remarks that he enjoys the freedom of possessing nothing. This is an edgy, intimate little black-and-white film reminiscent of Polanski's "Knife in the Water" and loaded with such telling details as the live bat impaled on a wall inside a cupboard.
The "New Spanish Cinema," concurrent with the Saura retrospective, continues at Melnitz Friday at 8 with Saura's "Blood Wedding" (1981), that stunning and popular flamenco-ballet collaboration with dancer-choreographer Antonio Gades. It will be followed by "The Holy Innocents" (1984), one of the most powerful films of the '80s, written and directed by Marcel Camus (who had collaborated with Saura on his first film, "The Hooligans"). A depiction of the hard life of a peasant family in Northern Spain in the '60s under conditions so feudal that the sight of a modern tractor is jarring, it is at once an irresistible domestic saga and a corrosive, gratifying social satire. Saturday brings the silly, overbaked melodrama of crime and passion "Fanny Straw Hair" (1984) and "Lola" (1985), directed by Bigas Luna (maker of the notorious "Poodle") and unavailable for preview.
This week's offerings in "MGM: The Silent Twenties" at Melnitz on Thursday at 6 are Reginald Barkers's "Body and Soul" (1927), Eric Von Stronheim's "The Merry Widow" (1925), and Rex Ingram's "The Magician" (1927). The second is one of Von Stronheim's least compromised films, a dazzling Ruritanian romance with his ususal kinky undertones (some of which never got past the censor). It's said that Mae Murray, aptly cast as an American showgirl making her way through corrupt European aristocracy, often screamed at her director, "You dirty Hun!" No matter, for this film is Murray's claim to immortality. Information: (213) 825-2345, 825-2481.