Monday, June 13, 2011

Sometimes you eventually get to see an elusive film and you wonder not only how on earth you managed all this time without seeing it but also why the film itself is such a hidden treasure.

On Friday I finally saw Carlos Saura's CRÍA CUERVOS at the National Film Theatre - BFI Southbank m'arse - and sat entranced, puzzled, and moved by it.

This milestone of Spanish cinema, filmed literally in the dying gasp of Franco's rule, is an allegory of the stifling grip the dictatorship had on the Spanish psyche through the story of an imaginative but sad little girl trying to comprehend the emotions of loss.

The film stars the astonishing child actress Ana Torrent (who was nine at the time of filming) in only her second film after her haunting performance in Víctor Erice's THE SPIRIT OF THE BEEHIVE in 1973. Her blank, wide-eyed stare follows you for hours afterwards.

Ana is the middle daughter of a military general (Héctor Alterio) living in a large house in Madrid but the busy city rarely impinges on their shuttered rooms or forlorn walled garden with it's drained swimming pool. Although close to her sisters, Irene (Conchi Perez) and Maite (Maite Sanchez), Ana is still quietly distraught at the recent death of her mother Maria (Geraldine Chaplin). The lonely girl gravitates towards the family's no-nonsense maid Rosa (Florinda Chico) who also looks after their maternal Grandmother (Josefina Diaz), wheelchair-bound and speechless.One night Ana sees a woman running from her father's bedroom in distress, when she goes in she passively observes him dead, seemingly from a heart attack. Ana empties his bedside glass of milk into the kitchen sink and meticulously cleans it.

The three girls seem non-plussed by this new tragedy but are dismayed when they are told that their new guardian will be their strict aunt Paulina (Mónica Randall). As Paulina attempts to stamp her authority on the girls and a resentful Rosa, Ana continues to imagine conversations with her dead mother. Another layer is added by having the adult Ana (Chaplin also) address the audience of her memories from that time.Ana's odd behaviour on the night of her father's death is slowly explained during the film: her mother asked her once to throw away an old tin saying it was dangerous to keep. Ana believes her mother to mean that it's a deadly poison and, thinking her father was ultimately responsible for her mother's early death she 'poisons' his glass of milk. The contents are revealed to only be bicarbonate of soda but Ana's belief in it's lethal qualities comes into play later in the film.

There are so many memorable scenes: the three sisters dancing to their only record, the oppressively jaunty pop song "Porque Te Vas" by Jeanette; the strict aunt's absence one day giving the sisters the chance to play dress-up with her clothes and make-up leading to a game of "mummys and daddys" in which they re-enact their parents arguments; the grandmother staring forlornly at photos on a wall of her lost youth; Ana accidentally wandering into her mother's bedroom as she lies contorted in agony, and most poignant of all, Ana's reverie of her being told her favorite bedtime story by her mother's ghost only for her to vanish a few minutes into it.This was the first film that Saura finally had complete artistic freedom over after a 15 year career of battles with Franco's censors and it tells with his sure grasp on the film's narrative, tone and imagery, in regards to which, the current restored print is marvellous - it's clarity and rich colours make you doubt you are watching a film over 35 years old. The film's odd diversions and elliptical moments are easy to go with as you are always aware that here is a filmmaker fully connected with his vision.

Saura's allegory of the Franco regime is easy to read with hindsight but at the time it must have seemed a radical statement of how things would be changing in the not-too distant future. It is telling so much of the film is about the holding on to memory as a way of dealing with loss, as even now, Spain still struggles to reconcile itself to aspects of the Civil War. I was struck too how certain aspects of the film reflect Lorca's THE HOUSE OF BERNARDA ALBA with it's closeted daughters, all-knowing maid and the grandmother left alone to her thoughts and memories.
Saura's vision also accounts for the excellent performances he elicits from his ensemble. The battle for the control of the children is beautifully played by Florinda Chico as plain-speaking 'Rosa' and Mónica Randall as the aunt 'Paulina', Saura taking care to show she is not in herself a bad person, just one unable to read the family situation.

As I said earlier Ana Torrent gives one of the finest performances by a child actress ever, all the more so as you are never aware of Saura 'manipulating' her performance from her. The surprise for me was Geraldine Chaplin. Hard to believe that this is the same actress who has given such milquetoast performances - here as the dead mother 'Maria' she gives a performance of arresting subtlety, complexity and strength.

CRIA CUERVOS, which won the Grand Jury prize at the 1976 Cannes Film Festival is a film which truly haunts you.

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