One of the great Spanish directors, Carlos Saura has not had the attention he deserves in the UK, perhaps because his recent output is not on a par with his 70s work. It is all the more welcome then that as part of their season on Spanish cinema after Franco, the BFI are screening Saura’s 1975 masterpiece, Cría Cuervos, a haunting reflection on memory, loss, history and transmission.
Shot in the summer of 1975 as General Franco lay dying, Cría Cuervos perfectly captures a moment of transition: that of a child into an adult, of life into death, and of a dictatorship into an unknown future. Focusing on eight-year-old Ana over the course of a summer after the death of her father, a high-ranking officer, the film is an achingly personal examination of the past that is also obliquely, but no less powerfully, political.
The film starts as Ana, awake at night, listens to whispers of lovemaking in her father’s room before seeing his married mistress leave hurriedly, dishevelled and half-dressed. Ana walks into the bedroom to find her father dead. She strokes his hair and takes the empty glass by his bedside away to wash it in the kitchen, a gesture we will only later understand. In that first scene, sex and death are inextricably linked, one a secret, the other a mystery, and it is this dark matter at the heart of her parents’ lives that Ana will probe throughout the film.
A few scenes later, the cold, rigid Aunt Paulina, now looking after Ana and her sisters, instructs them to kiss their father’s corpse in front of both his military colleagues and the mistress, who is there with her husband. But Ana refuses to perform the expected ritual; it’s her first act of resistance against her aunt’s determination to keep up appearances and maintain established social rules. Ana’s gesture, in this room lined by officers in uniform, is of course highly resonant.
Ana, the observer of adult life, unblinkingly lays her intensely serious eyes on all around her, her limpid, dark gaze in itself almost a reproach for the compromises and betrayals of adulthood. She sees more than she should, but as a child is impotent to alter the course of events - although she thinks she can, having been led by her mother’s innocuous lie to believe that she is in possession of the deadliest poison in the world. Unlike her sisters, the older Irene and the younger Maite, she is in between the adult and the child worlds, maybe because of the strength of the connection between her and her beloved mother.
Her mother appears early on, walking in as Ana washes her father’s glass in the kitchen, later brushing her daughter’s hair before the funeral. It is only later that we realise she is dead, and her playful, tender presence in those scenes makes her actual absence and Ana’s longing for her even more poignant. The film fluidly moves between reality and fantasy, past and present, never delineating them clearly, suggesting they all have the same texture in Ana’s mind and are part of the same continuum.
Adding to the narrative complexity, the adult Ana comments on her past in direct addresses to the camera. We don’t know what her adult life is like, but she talks in a confessional way, trying to piece together the events of her childhood. She is played by Geraldine Chaplin, who also plays her mother, a double role that emphasises the echo between past and present, and the film’s disquieting intimation that history will repeat itself, that the children will reiterate what their parents have passed on to them. This is evoked in the title of the film, a reference to a Spanish proverb meaning ‘raise ravens and they’ll pluck out your eyes’. Tellingly, Ana’s Francoist father bequeaths her his gun.
The large, gloomy house in which they live, and that is the setting for most of the film, is like a last vestige of the past in the middle of encroaching modern life, busy Madrid traffic, advertising billboards and loud city life, an enclave that is both a claustrophobic and repressive space of sadness and death, but also a protected bubble for the childhood imagination. Saura is exceptionally good at conveying the feel of the self-contained world of childhood through his depiction of Ana and her games with her sisters, which are often ambiguously funny, as when they dress up as their parents and re-enact an argument, or when Ana makes her sisters play dead. Particularly affecting is the scene in which they dance to Jeanette’s pop hit of the time, ‘Porque te vas?’, whose melancholy lament for a lost lover colours this bittersweet moment.
Saura could not have painted such a vividly authentic portrait of childhood without the phenomenal eight-year-old actress Ana Torrent, whose uncanny seriousness is mesmerising, and small, expressive face deeply moving. How she managed to come across as so artless and sincere, to so profoundly inhabit her character, is unfathomable. Two years earlier, Torrent had played a similar role in Victor Erice’s Spirit of the Beehive, another film that is as richly evocative of the world of childhood and as indirectly political as Cría Cuervos.
Despite the gloom, there is a real warmth to the film, in the character of the kindly, earthly maid Rosa, and in the scenes of Ana with her sisters or her grandmother. And even though Ana’s childhood is dominated by sorrow, there is a certain feeling of nostalgia. When the film ends with the three girls leaving the house, passing the advertising billboards to start a new school year, there is the sense that this is the end of an era, and the nostalgic feeling comes not from the fact that it was a happy period, but simply from the fact that that time, the time of childhood, has ended and will never come back.