José Sanchis Sinisterra's 1987 play ¡Ay Carmela! was one of the biggest hits of Spanish theater in the decade. The play was a two-hander starring Verónica Forqué (as Carmela) and José Luis Gómez (as her lover Paulino) as two vaudeville performers caught up in and defeated by the politics of the Spanish Civil War. In Carmela's brutal death when she dares to speak out in favor of a group of foreign POWs who had been brought in to see the show, the play reflected the ethos of Francisco Franco's Spain as a repressive society in which artists were not allowed to express themselves.
It was almost inevitable that the play made it to the screen.Rafael Azcona and Carlos Saura's clever script started from the begin-ning, telling the story in a linear way (the play started at the end and featured Carmela coming back from the dead), using a number of locations to open up the narrative (the original was wholly set in the theater) and including other characters, particularly a deaf and dumb assistant to the performers, Gustavete (Gabino Diego), and a vain Italian lieutenant (Maurizio De Razza). Carmen Maura gave one of her best performances as Carmela, and Andrés Pajares, a well-known comedian, worked hard to build a reputation as a serious actor.
For Saura, it was also a change of register: although the memory of the Civil War had been prominent in his filmography (most palpably in La prima Angélica [ Cousin Angelica, 1974 ]), this was his first period film; and, after a series of melodramas, metaphorical films, and musicals, it was also the first time he tackled comedy (in spite of the tragic ending). The result was a perfectly balanced mix of entertainment, satire, and tragedy that went on to become one of the most critically successful films of the year and won 13 Goyas, including awards for best film; for Saura as director and, with Azcona, as scriptwriter; and for actors Maura, Pajares, and Diego.
Historical Dictionary of Spanish Cinema by Alberto Mira