The excellent Janus film series has been moving through Los Angeles, but a couple nights ago, the American Cinematheque screened a particularly noteworthy title (one of the films not yet released by the Criterion Collection), Carlos Saura’s CrÌa cuervos (1976). Critics have been summarily referencing Spirit of the Beehive (1973) in reviews of Pan’s Labyrinth, but Saura’s film–at once a sister work to Erice’s classic in theme, tone, even shared actress (Ana Torrent)–is no less rich a reference point.
Torrent plays a young girl named Ana who has to navigate the hushed, repressed adult world of the final days of Franco’s regime, who finds herself oscillating between the present and the past, conflict and speculation, and ultimately, fantasy and reality. Unlike Guillermo del Toro or Erice, however, Saura doesn’t root Ana’s imagination in mythology or folklore, so much as memories. As the film begins, Ana awakens in the night to discover her father (a philandering Franco officer) dead in bed and his panic-stricken lover racing out of the house. Too young to fully comprehend the details and based on her working assumptions, she imagines her own guilt, walking around the dark house, washing a glass of milk, and waiting for the future.
I’m struck by how many of my favorite films that represent childhood–Erice’s movie, Tarkovsky’s Mirror, at least a dozen of Iranian films–were made under repressive regimes with active censors. Hollywood’s commercialism tends to dictate sentimental, cute, awkward children; these other films, however, focus on children in order to explore the contentious adult world, and in the process construct an image of childhood that’s complex, observant, and sober-minded. Saura incorporates flashforwards, and a grown Ana wonders why people associate happiness with childhood when she remembers a lot of sadness and fear.
The household, like Spain at the time, is under transition from old to new (the 40-year dictator, Franco, was on his deathbed during the film’s production), yet with that change comes a lot of repressed baggage, quiet rebellion, and an ambiguous future. Ana’s deeply beloved but fragile and marginalized mother (played by Geraldine Chaplin) soon dies from a painful illness, and as Ana and her two sisters are adopted by their aunt, Ana finds herself remembering or imagining her mother in various moments throughout the film. She finds solace in games reflecting pressures she has endured, heavily criticizing her doll or replaying with her sister arguments her parents had. She finds particular freedom in a catchy pop song by Jeanette, “Porque te vas” (“Because You’re Leaving”), a single that became a major hit in Europe upon the film’s release that emphasizes sadness and loss.
The film’s vaguely uncanny and disquieting tone is due to several factors, including its emphasis on death, loss, and decay: like Clouzot’s Diabolique, Saura uses an empty swimming pool to rich effect, its shadowy, dirt-covered concrete resembling a scar on the landscape, an orifice for the repressed. In many ways, the film is a lament and warning for Spain’s future; its title is derived from the popular Spanish saying, CrÌa cuervos y te sacaran los ojos, meaning “Raise ravens and they’ll tear your eyes out.” Faced with a new world and guardian, the children can only draw from their uncomfortable past to navigate the present; it’s no wonder Ana treasures a secret she feels will offer her ultimate freedom only when all unwanted authorities have died. Yet the film also merges moments of levity and ethereal beauty, providing intimations of hope and escape.
Significantly, the film focuses almost exclusively on women characters (the few males seem wholly defined by the impression they make on the females); once the patriarch passes away, virtually the only major characters are a senile and elderly grandmother, Ana’s aunt, a kindly maid, and the three children (with Ana’s mother making sporadic, imaginary appearances). Saura seems especially attuned to the cost of Franco’s reign on women, their unique difficulties and suffering, and their potential for the future. It’s subversive and moving that he would cloak one of the most progressive critiques of Franco-era Spain in a story about women and children, previous social outcasts with the growing potential to change the world.