When the Spanish film director Carlos Saura, who has died aged 91, completed his first feature, Los Golfos (The Delinquents), a ferocious story of six impoverished children from the Madrid slums, it was invited to the 1960 Cannes film festival.
However, its implicit critique of the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco meant that it was forbidden in Spain for another couple of years. Taking his films outside Spain to bypass censorship was a strategy Saura adopted several times, although – an awkward contradiction that he recognised – his films’ success abroad made the dictatorship seem more liberal.
His international reputation was established with La Caza (The Hunt), which won the Silver Bear for best direction at the 1966 Berlinale. In an arid landscape, among rising tension, three veterans of the civil war of 1936-39 on a rabbit-hunt end up killing each other. The film was intended and widely read as a metaphor of the arid, violent lives of the victors. It was the first in a decade of Saura’s financially successful, artistically magnificent and politically committed films produced by Elías Querejeta.
The following year his Peppermint Frappé, a polemic about sexual frustration in a repressed and repressive society exploding into violence, won another Silver Bear. A Golden Bear came in 1981 with Deprisa, Deprisa (Hurry! Hurry!).
Saura’s films analysing sterile family life under the dictatorship made him a leading opposition figure. Showings of La Prima Angélica (Cousin Angelica, winner of the 1974 Cannes jury prize) were attacked by Falangists, particularly outraged by a grotesque but hilarious scene in which a character’s broken arm is set in plaster in a permanent fascist salute.
A Barcelona cinema was firebombed; reels of the film were stolen. All this fascist thuggery made La Prima Angélica massively popular. The film glides skilfully between a child trapped in the civil war and a middle-aged man revisiting childhood haunts. Cría Cuervos (Raise Ravens), another disturbing, claustrophobic film told through the eyes of a child trying to understand death and cruelty (the hard-to-forget Ana Torrent), won the 1976 Cannes jury prize. Saura said: “I’ve never agreed with the widespread idea that childhood years are golden … I think childhood is a particularly uncertain period because it is lived almost entirely … in a world of huge fears and needs.”
Carlos was one of four children, two boys and two girls, of Fermina Atarés, a pianist, and Antonio Saura, a state attorney. This comfortable middle-class family of liberal views lived in Huesca, in Aragón, just south of the central Pyrenees. Comfort was brief. When the military rebels took Huesca at the start of the civil war, the family fled to Barcelona.
After leaving school, Saura studied industrial engineering, but abandoned university for IIEC, the Instituto de Investigaciones y Experiencias Cinematográficas, in Madrid. Graduating in 1957, he then taught at the institute before being sacked in 1964 for leftwing opinions.
The 1980s saw Saura move out of the grey misery of the Franco years into musical films in glorious colour. With the dancers Antonio Gades and Cristina Hoyos he made three films fusing with rare intensity classical ballet and flamenco: Bodas de Sangre (Blood Wedding, 1981), an adaptation of the Lorca play; Carmen (1983), after the opera by Bizet, and El Amor Brujo (Love, the Magician, 1986), after the ballet by Manuel de Falla. Several other musical films followed, such as Flamenco (1995) and Tango (1998).
¡Ay Carmela! (1990) was Saura’s most successful film. He returned to the civil war with a tragi-comedy of three travelling players who accidentally cross from Republican into rebel territory. Its audiences laughed even as they wept at the physical and psychological devastation of the conflict.
For the rest of his life, Saura directed a film most years, many of them documentaries. His last, the documentary Las Paredes Hablan (Walls Can Talk, 2022), compared prehistoric wall-paintings and modern city graffiti, to insist that art was essential to human existence. Saura is widely seen as the major Spanish film director between Luis Buñuel, whose films Saura promoted in the early 60s when Buñuel was almost unknown in his own land, and Pedro Almodóvar.
Saura’s work introduced European cinema into Spain in the 60s, with its disregard for sequential storytelling and integration of fantasy, dreams and flash-backs. His films were original and restless: each one was experimental, a new departure. What is constant is the melancholy that runs like a streak through all his work, though this sobriety often combines mysteriously with playful comedy.
Energetic and creative, Saura found time to write four novels and six books on photography, the passion that had led him into films. He was commonly seen with a camera hanging round his neck.
He lived with the journalist Adela Medrano, the mother of his first two sons, Antonio and Carlos, from 1957 till 1963. At the 1966 Berlinale, he met the actor Geraldine Chaplin, who appeared in several of his films and was his partner until 1978. Their son, Shane, was born in 1974. In 1982 he married Mercedes Pérez, mother of Manuel, Adrián and Diego. They divorced in 1993. His last 30 years were spent with the actor Eulàlia Ramón, the mother of his only daughter, Anna, born in 1994. They married in 2006.
His elder brother was the celebrated painter Antonio Saura, who died in 1998. He is survived by Eulàlia and his seven children.
• Carlos Saura Atarés, film director, born 4 January 1932; died 10 February 2023