At the height of the Spanish Civil War, Republican troubadours Carmela and Paulino are captured by Franco's forces agree to perform for an audience of Fascist soldiers and condemned prisoners of war.
Using showbusiness as the prism through which to view the atrocities of the Spanish Civil War, Carlos Saura's rousing musical comedy has much in common with Ernst Lubitsch's 1942 masterpiece, To Be Or Not To Be. Unlike Joseph and Maria Tura in occupied Poland, Carmen and Paulino are devoted to one another.
But, despite billing themselves as the `Tip-Top Variety', they are under no illusions about their talent and are far more concerned with self-preservation than performance. Indeed, it's pragmatism rather than patriotism that keeps them on the road in their rickety truck, as neither seems particularly wedded to the Republican cause when we first encounter them and their mute jack-of-all trades, Gustavete (Diego).
Indeed, when they're captured by a combined force of Spanish and Italian Fascists outside Valencia and interned in a POW camp, Carmen and Paulino prove amenable to the idea of putting on a show, even if it means tweaking their lyrics to give them a pro-Franco slant. However, Carmen's burgeoning friendship with a Polish officer in the International Brigade (Zentaro) changes her perspective. Ay, Carmela! is strewn with coarse comedy, with gusts of wind and references to Carmela's menstrual problems jostling for position with homophobic snipes and double entendres. Yet, Carmen Maura's refusal to perform anti-Republican propaganda before volunteers who were willing to die to preserve her liberty is intensely moving and there an immense dignity in the way in which this blowsy dame comes to embody the spirit of resistance by baring her breasts and belting out the rallying anthem before she's felled by an assassin's bullet.
This may not be Saura's tautest film and there are occasional uncertainties of tone. But the performances are impeccable and it still has a power that has eluded many weightier treatises on the futility of war.
The atmosphere is terrific, the cast superb, with Maura at the centre of things energetic, incorrigible, and irresistible as she takes on the world - friends and enemies alike. See this one.