Tag Archives: Spanish cinema



Format: Cinema

Release date: 7 August 2015

Distributor: Altitude Film Entertainment

Director: Alberto Rodríguez

Writers: Alberto Rodríguez, Rafael Cobos

Cast:Javier Gutiérrez, Raúl Arévalo, Mar Rodría Varod

Spain 2014

105 mins

Spain, 1980. When teenage sisters go missing in the remote and barren Andaluz wetlands, two detectives from Madrid are sent to investigate. It’s immediately clear to them that the locals, even the girls’ own father, are virtually indifferent to their disappearance, believing that the sisters, with their ‘loose’ morals, have either run away or brought their fate upon themselves. Although the town’s residents remain stubborn in their refusal to help, the detectives soon discover that the girls are not the first who have gone missing from the area, and that a serial killer (or killers) is sexually exploiting the women before callously disposing of their bodies.

Juan (the excellent Javier Gutiérrez) is the experienced detective with a murky past under the Franco regime. Pragmatic, wily, manipulative, he’s better at needling out information over a few drinks, or, if that doesn’t work, using his fists. His new partner is the idealistic rookie, his future already in jeopardy after publicly criticising Franco’s still-powerful generals. Played by Raúl Arévalo, Pedro is the more earnest, less charismatic of the two, his integrity at odds with the casual way business is done in the marshlands.

Director Alberto Rodríguez’s atmospheric Marshland, (which swept the Goya awards on its release last year) can feel at times like a by-the-numbers police procedural, but it’s saved by its backdrop of social upheaval and unrest. The murders are used as a foil to delve into the legacy left behind by Franco, revealing a country struggling to find its way forward. The climate of fear that existed under his regime still permeates the small, impoverished town, where the police don’t ask too many questions (turning a blind eye to the drug running in the region’s swampy rivers), and where powerful business owners are still untouchable. But things are slowly changing, as men strike for better working conditions, and women are lured away to places like the Costa del Sol with promises of hotel work. But as the women become more independent, more sexually liberated, they are shunned by the community, and left vulnerable to the town’s dangerous predators.

Parallels have been drawn between the film and True Detective, but it’s also reminiscent of Arthur Penn’s excellent Florida-set Night Moves. Marshland is a terrifically well-crafted sunshine noir, with the genre’s usual shadows replaced by the searing bright light and heat of southern Spain. Rodríguez is clearly inspired by the atmospheric, treacherous bayous of the deep American south; the marshes are like fetid pockets of water, where bodies and secrets can lurk unfound just below the surface. The flat, open spaces are stunningly captured by cinematographer Alex Catalan, with some remarkable, abstract aerial shots of the land below, the rivers and tributaries, forming resonant motifs.

Though the violence that the women are subjected to, and its casual dismissal, is deeply disturbing, the victims themselves are never really fleshed out by the filmmaker. It’s the relationship between Juan and Pedro, between the past and future, justice and abuse of power, that is the film’s beating heart. Though the crime is solved, Rodríguez refuses to indulge in a neat resolution, either for the murderer, or the two detectives.

Sarah Cronin

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Open Windows

Open Windows
Open Windows

Director: Nacho Vigalondo

Writer: Nacho Vigalondo

Cast: Elijah Wood, Sacha Grey, Neil Maskell

Spain, USA 2014

100 mins

Is there a regular pattern in the careers of post-Almodóvarian Spanish directors? It would seem that those who get famous enough to awaken interest in pan-European or Hollywood studios lose something when they open up their horizons to the English-speaking world. Alejandro Amenábar’s Agora is stripped of what made the strength of his Spanish films. Alex de la Iglesia’s Crimes in Oxford is his least eccentric and imaginative film. So has Nacho Vigalondo joined the club with Open Windows?

Looking at the plot you might well be tempted to answer that he has. Nick Chambers (Elijah Wood), a fan of the successful actress Jill Goddard (Sasha Grey), running a website devoted to her career, wins an invitation to spend an evening with her. But while he is awaiting the big event in his hotel room he is contacted on his computer and told that his rendezvous is cancelled. As compensation, the man on the phone offers him access to Goddard’s cell phone and much more of her privacy. By the time Nick realises that he is being manipulated by a dangerous psychopath into kidnapping the helpless star, it is too late. From there on Nick – and the viewer – are rushed through a ‘Russian dolls’ scenario, which, like the many computer windows that pop up on the screen, constantly reveals yet another ‘hidden’ reality behind appearances. This eventually becomes so unrealistic and unlikely that, unless you are gifted with a preternatural capacity for suspending your disbelief, you cannot help but lose interest in what is actually happening.

This high-concept film is a 2.0 version of the ‘found footage’ genre, where computer screens replace CCTV or amateur cameras. And Vigalondo sure knows how to exploit the genre’s constraints with creative efficiency, displaying impressive accuracy in directing hours and hours of footage that are then edited to be shown simultaneously on screen. The rhythm never slows down and his inventiveness in providing us with the unexpected is impressive and hardly troubled by realism. Witness, for instance, the spherical cameras in a bag which, assembled into a remote network, recreate the inside of the car boot where Goddard is locked. Yet, as many critics have already complained, in contrast to Vigalondo’s Timecrimes (2007) and Extraterrestre (2011), the constraints of the initial concept of Open Windows have failed to produce a masterpiece. The implausible plot, with a villain whose evil motivations one could not care less about, and the consensual and conventional criticism of the celebrity culture and the dubious role of information technology, leaves us under the impression that there is nothing new here. The easiest conclusion would be that Hollywood got the better (or in this case the worse) of Vigalondo, and we might even be tempted to blame it on Elijah Wood, since he also starred in Alex de la Iglesia’s flop Crimes in Oxford. Coincidence?

Yet there might be more to Open Windows than it may initially seem. If we trust Vigalondo with the talent he displayed previously, then the implausibility of the film’s twists and turns may be a signal rather than a flaw, as in Extraterrestre, where the alien plot was only a way of highlighting the characters’ self-fashioning. What if the director were planting false clues, offering a double discourse that would suit both Hollywood and his acute sense of humour? Open Windows is all about subversion – of identity, of reality, of information… Might not the spectator’s frustration be part of the subversion as well? Isn’t it quite subversive to cast an ex-porn star, to give Nick all the freedom to make her satisfy his wildest fantasies, and then leave the spectator with only one quick glance at her breast? And can it really be coincidental that the heroine’s name is Jill Goddard? J.L. Godard did you say? The Godard, who subversively sings the end of cinema every now and then? Might this be why the film makes us put up with a crew of silly French-speaking hackers (who are not even really French)? If we watch the film not as an umpteenth criticism of the media’s rape of privacy but as a spirited reflection on what cinema actually is, then the far-fetched plot can be seen as a statement about the pleasures of cinema with its problematic relation to reality. In that perspective, Open Windows may be seen as reconnecting with the old genre of tragicomedy where order is eventually restored thanks to a deus ex machina device. So there may still be hope for Nacho Vigalondo after all.

Pierre Kapitaniak

This review is part of our Etrange Festival 2014 coverage.

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Shrew’s Nest

Shrews Nest
Shrew’s Nest

Directors: Juanfer Andrés, Esteban Roel

Writers: Juanfer Andrés, Sofía Cuenca, Emma Tusell

Cast: Macarena Gómez, Nadia de Santiago, Hugo Silva, Luis Tosar

Original title: Musarañas

Spain 2014

95 mins

Presented at the 47th Sitges Film Festival to a full auditorium buzzing with anticipation, Shrew’s Nest is an oblique addition to the growing body of horror-tinged Spanish dramas/thrillers that plunge their dark and twisted roots into the Civil War. Produced by Alex de la Iglesia, this first feature by Juanfer Andrés and Esteban Roel is set in the claustrophobic confines of an apartment inhabited by the agoraphobic Montse and her younger sister, who has just turned 18. As it becomes obvious that the latter is growing up and will soon want to live her own life, their neighbour Carlos falls down the stairs, breaks his leg and is rescued by Montse, who, desperately latching on to this providential new object of affection, will do anything to keep him helplessly there.

From the very beginning, childhood memories create an atmosphere of dread and doom that overwhelms the sisters’ lives, and strongly hint at the nature of the dark secrets that lie beneath respectable appearances. The bond of warped love and violence that connects the two sisters is thicker than it first seems, and as they fight over the younger sibling’s growing independence, then over Carlos, all the terrible acts that connect them are forced to the surface. The bloody ending brings a resolution of sorts, but no liberation, simply a confirmation that it is impossible to escape from the prison built so solidly by unwholesome family ties.

In that claustrophobic hothouse, Macarena Gómez is sensational as Montse, simultaneously pathetic and horrifying, loving and tyrannical, frail and violent, while Nadia de Santiago’s fresh-faced innocence becomes gradually tarnished by fear and truth. It is a hysterical film, saturated with repression, progressively descending into grotesque insanity. There are narrative incoherencies and implausibilities, but what matters here is less the story than the thick, dense, pungent mood. Plunging the audience into a world of brutalisation and oppression, of relationships distorted by abusive power, of impotent victims’ perverted strategies of survival, Shrew’s Nest cannot help but resonate with the painful history of the country. Damningly, it is a world in which the corruptions of the past leave no one is unsullied.

Virginie Sélavy

This review is part of our Sitges 2014 coverage.



Format: DVD

Release date: 1 September 2014

Distributor: Metrodome

Director: Juan Carlos Medina

Writers: Luiso Berjero, Juan Carlos Medina

Cast: Àlex Brendemühl, Tómas Lemarquis, Ilias Stothart

Original title: Insensibles

Spain 2012

101 mins

It’s 1931. A girl finds her younger sister playing with fire, quite literally: the child’s arm is on fire, but she is quite calm, telling her sister that it doesn’t hurt at all. In order to share the game, she pours lamp oil over her older sister’s head and lights it with the flames on her arm. To the young girl’s horror, her sister begins screaming in agony as she is consumed by the fire. A young boy is found with abrasions all over his body; like the girl, he felt no pain as he chewed and ate parts of his own flesh. The authorities decide the best course of action is to have these children – and several others like them – incarcerated in a lunatic asylum, where they are strapped into straitjackets (with a muzzle for the boy described above) and left in padded cells where they can do no harm to themselves or anyone else.

In the present day, a doctor survives a car crash that kills his pregnant wife, although their premature baby is alive, with a slim chance of survival. When a scan is performed on the doctor’s body after the accident, it reveals that he has lymphatic cancer, and only a few months to live. In need of a bone marrow transplant, he goes to see his estranged parents, where there are revelations in store.

This synopsis only covers the first 30 minutes, so I haven’t given much away. On a technical level, Painless is exemplary. First-rate cinematography and art direction give a yellow, musty and retro feel to the scenes in the 1930s, while most of the present day scenes possess an angular, modern and sterile look. Symbols of modernity abound in the latter thread, characterized by sleek new cars, computers and scientific equipment that are at odds with the old-fashioned medic equipment that resembles medieval instruments of torture. The high-quality technical elements are matched by superior acting, particularly from Paul Verhoeven regular Derek de Lint, as a scientist determined to understand and treat the children’s condition, and Àlex Brendemühl as the dying doctor of the modern era.

However, Painless is not easy viewing. Director Juan Carlos Medina subjects his characters to every kind of indignity, misfortune or brutality, whether it is deliberate, unintentional or arises from an unfortunate twist of fate. The children inflict horrible wounds on themselves, only to be thrown into padded cells and brutalized by the staff, who treat their condition like a child’s bad behaviour rather than a medical condition. The doctor loses his wife (and possibly his son, who might not survive), develops cancer and then discovers another painful secret that may be a significant factor in his approaching demise. Even the kindly scientist has been forced to flee from the Nazis because he’s Jewish. Examples of human kindness are few and far between, and most of those can do little to stop the tide of misery and cruelty depicted by the film. For that reason it’s not an easy film to recommend, although it’s an interesting take on the legacy of the Spanish Civil War.

Jim Harper

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Format: Cinema

Release date: 12 July 2013

Distributor: Studiocanal

Director: Pablo Berger

Writer: Pablo Berger

Inspired by the tale of Snow White from: The Brothers Grimm

Cast: Maribel Verdú, Macarena García, Daniel Giménez Cacho, &#193ngela Molina, Pere Ponce, Sofía Oria

Spain, France 2012

104 mins

The pretty girl with the boyish haircut can’t remember a thing. What’s your name? Nothing. What happened to you? Nothing. She doesn’t know where she comes from, or how she got the marks on her neck. And she clearly has no idea who these tiny men are, who rescued her the night before and now bombard her with unsettling questions. Of course, everyone familiar with the story of Snow White in its many incarnations sort of knows what has happened and where this is going, yet Pablo Berger’s witty, imaginative adaptation is more than just another reciting of the oft-told Brothers Grimm tale.

Shot in beautiful, sharp black and white with no dialogue, Blancanieves pays tribute to the 1920s European silent film era and its connections with theatrical, musical and comical forms. Set in Andalusia during the golden age of bullfighting, Berger’s folktale extravaganza centres around the adorable young Carmen (Macarena García), the daughter of a famous matador who, after a long and painful childhood under the eye of her evil stepmother (Maribel Verdú), escapes from home and finds company in a troupe of wandering, bullfighting dwarfs. Having lost her memory in a fight with the mother’s sidekick, who had orders to kill her, Carmen doesn’t realise where she, or her talent, comes from, as she follows in the footsteps of her father to become a famous matador, but it’s not long before the past catches up with her.

Guided by Kiko de la Rica’s radiant cinematography, Berger spends the first half of the film describing Carmen’s childhood (played as a child by Sofía Oria), leaving plenty of space for moments of wit and humour, while at the same time setting out the close bond between the little girl and her beloved, downcast father (Daniel Giménez Cacho), confined to a wheelchair after he was crippled in the ring and still silently grieving for his first wife, who died when giving birth to their child. Despite the obvious fairytale ambience, the film never compromises the mystical undertone that foreshadows the dark events to come. The second half, which sees Carmen eventually rising to fame in the corrida, first has a lighter feel to it, if only to build up to the tragic final act, in which the stepmother returns to the scene to accomplish her malicious plan.

In addition to the excellent performances throughout, in particular by the two female leads, what also makes this wonderfully grotesque adaptation of the Grimms’ popular fable particularly exciting is the score by Alfonso de Vilallonga, which, if slightly excessive in places, perfectly complements the creepy and dangerous atmosphere of the story.

Blancanieves may be the umpteenth reworking of Snow White, but the film, if you are willing to temporarily suspend disbelief and let yourself be enthralled by its dazzling, silent cinema magic, exhibits a boldness, and the kind of astute, fantastical entertainment, that has become all too rare. For all his command of ambitious and playful narrative ingenuity and apt technical flair, Berger’s study in demonised female vanity and the power of true beauty favours atmosphere over frenzy – and achieves it in striking fashion.

Pamela Jahn

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I’m So Excited

Im so excited
I'm So Excited

Format: Cinema

Release date: 3 May 2013

Distributor: Pathé & 20th Century Fox

Director: Pedro Almodóvar

Writer: Pedro Almodóvar

Cast: Javier Cámara, Cecilia Roth, Lola Dueñas

Original title: Los amantes pasajeros

Spain 2013

90 mins

Pedro Almodóvar has said that he has often contemplated making a film in the English language. I suspect I’m So Excited would have been the perfect film with which to start. This colourful comedy, set on a malfunctioning aeroplane, is one of the campest films he has ever made (which is saying something), so imagine what Carry On fun he could have had with ‘cockpits’, ‘touch down’ and ‘oversized baggage’ as opposed to their less-euphemistic Spanish equivalents.

On the flight, destined for Mexico but doomed to ‘doing circles around Toledo’, we have three out-and-proud flight attendants (one alcoholic, one pill-popper and one Hindu), two sexually-confused pilots, a drugs mule, a psychic and a high-class dominatrix. If you think this sounds like early Almodóvar, you’d be right, and I’m So Excited recalls the director at his most fun, his most rebellious and his most absurd. In a nod to the spiked gazpacho of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1987), the flight staff numb the passengers to the impending danger with Bucks Fizz laced with mescaline, while there’s more than one Labyrinth of Passion-style love triangle (1982), and the cabaret and lip-synching used to emotional effect in High Heels (1991) and Law of Desire (1986) are reinvented here by a hysterical song-and-dance number to the film’s title track.

It’s a relief to welcome back a puerile Almodóvar after the knowing Broken Embraces (2009) and the dark melodrama of The Skin I Live In (2011), and – with colours as bright as a high-vis jacket and his usual parade of interesting faces – nearly every frame of this film is a joy to behold.

I’m So Excited is not an entirely smooth ride though. An ensemble piece with numerous interweaving stories, the strongest plot points take place in the cabin, despite Antonio Banderas and Penelope Cruz putting in game cameos on the ground. And, although one of the characters is given a key part in the film’s emotional and narrative denouement, it’s hard to care too much about a passenger who spends most of the film conked out.

More problematic still are the film’s two rape scenes. That there are any rape scenes may escape many viewers, and this ambiguity appears to be an emerging motif in the director’s body of work (the Skin I Live In is a case in point). It might be po-faced to get moralistic with a director as irreverent and loveable as Almodóvar, but the fact is that having sex with someone who is drugged and/or asleep is rape, and that it’s not treated as such is alarming. Almodóvar made light of rape in the early film Kika (1993) and was upbraided for it then. The difference is that Kika’s response to her rape was arguably funny and part of a grander narrative about the metaphorical ‘rape’ of subjects by the media. Similarly, the director made child abuse funny in What Have I Done To Deserve This? (1984) and terrorism funny in Women On The Verge. But the rape in I’m So Excited is not funny, it’s flippant, and, for someone capable of writing an otherwise tight and comedic script, he should know better.

Luckily for him, it’s bad turbulence and not a fatal crash. Tourists to his wacky world won’t be disappointed, and those with him for the long haul will be pleased to see he is at least travelling in the right direction.

Lisa Williams

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Black Bread

Pa negre

Format: Cinema

Part of Viva! Spanish and Latin American Film Festival

Date:11 + 13 March 2012

Venue: Cornerhouse, Manchester

Director: Agustí Villaronga

Writer: Agustí Villaronga

Based on the novel by: Emili Teixidor

Original title: Pa negre

Cast: Francesc Colomar, Roger Casamajor, Marina Comas, Nora Navas

Spain 2010

108 mins

A man is attacked in the Catalan woods, brutally murdered by a cloaked assailant; his son, in the back of their horse-drawn wagon, is driven over a cliff and left to die. Found by his friend Andreu (a terrific Francesc Colomer), the boy breathes out the name of a ghost in his final moments: Pitorliua.

It’s an incredibly dramatic opening to Agustí Villaronga’s 2010 award-winning adaptation of Emili Teixidor’s novel. Set in the years immediately following Franco’s crushing victory, Black Bread is not just another story, similar to Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), of the Spanish Civil War as seen through the eyes of an imaginative child. While history is important to the narrative, the director cleverly subverts the audience’s expectations, slowly revealing a much more nuanced and layered film, with a disturbing mystery at its core. It’s a gripping, richly textured work, and if the symbolism at times seems heavy-handed, that minor weakness is more than made up for by the twists that the plot takes.

As the film begins to unfold, the audience learns that Andreu’s father, Farriol (Roger Casamajor), and the murdered man were friends and fellow trade unionists, both on the losing side of the war. Was his death some sort of revenge, a score settling? Is Andreu’s father next? In the eyes of the police, the victors, Farriol must be guilty. His only hope is to flee over the mountains and into the relative safety of France, a route many men, lucky enough to escape the purge of the reds, have already taken. Andreu is sent away to live with his grandmother, who is a caretaker for a wealthy family headed by an overbearing matriarch, who will later hold the fates of Farriol and Andreu in her hands. Along with Andreu, his grandmother also shelters his family’s abandoned women and children, including the wild Nuria (Marina Comas), a cousin who lost a hand to a grenade. Although the adults pretend that her father also escaped to France, she knows the much more disturbing truth.

At night, Andreu and his cousins live in a shadowy world of superstitions and storytelling; there’s an air of menace in the dark and gloomy, claustrophobic farmhouse, perfectly captured by Antonio Riestra’s hand-held cinematography. The children, who are outcasts and misfits, paying the price for their parents’ socialism, see intrigue and adventure around every corner. And, in some ways, the children are right: conspiracies and cover-ups are everywhere. But the biggest mystery that Andreu has to solve is how the ghost of a man who is said to haunt the woods, cursed ever since the war, could be involved in the death of his young friend.

Complex questions about guilt and innocence aren’t neatly resolved; Farriol, who still professes devotion to his ideals, is not necessarily the victim he first appears to be when he’s persecuted for the murder by the fascist mayor (Sergi López), who once pursued Andreu’s mother (Nora Navas). And when the story spins in a completely unexpected direction, it’s not even clear that the vicious crime is directly related to the war at all. The truth is that a conflict of that horror and magnitude provides cover for a multitude of sins.

While the film isn’t a witch-hunt, it is unsparing in its criticism of the Church. The clergy, on the side of the fascists, sit in judgement on their parishioners, even controlling what they eat - allowing those unfortunates on the losing side only coarse, black bread as some kind of twisted punishment. It’s perhaps not entirely surprising that, in the end, a bitterly disillusioned Andreu chooses the path that he does.

Sarah Cronin

Cell 211

Cell 211

Format: Cinema

Release date: 15 July 2011

Venues: key cities

Distributor: Optimum Releasing

Director: Daniel Monzón

Writers: Jorge Guerricaechevarría, Daniel Monzón

Based on the novel by : Francisco Pérez Gandul

Original title: Celda 211

Cast: Luis Tosar, Alberto Ammann, Antonio Resines

Spain 2009

113 mins

On the day before starting a job as a prison guard, Juan Olivier (Alberto Ammann), decides to take a tour of his new place of work. This turns out to be a very bad move, putting him in the high-security block at the same time that lifer Malamadre (Luis Tosar) has chosen to start a riot. In a desperate, split-second decision, Juan decides to pretend to be a new prisoner. The block erupts, hostages are taken, the media crews and SWAT teams close in and the tension rises. Juan’s future and his chances of getting back to his pregnant wife (Marta Etura) seem ever more doubtful in the midst of murderous cons, trigger-happy screws, corrupt cops and the duplicitous, weaselling authorities. Who can he trust, and what will he do to survive?

Daniel Monzón’s Cell 211 is a terrific, angry piece of genre filmmaking. It has the pace, the twists and turns and the forward momentum of a Hollywood production, but is a tougher, sweatier proposition; it doesn’t pussy out in the last reel, and has a political edge rare in mainstream entertainment. This is a complicated world of shifting alliances, black humour and sudden brutality where the police and government can get you killed just as fast as a psycho with a shiv, given authenticity by using real ex-cons in a genuine prison location. To be sure, some of the plot swings, the speed of the developing relationship between Olivier and Malamadre for instance, seem unreal in the cold light of day. I don’t believe that these events would happen like this in the real world, but for 113 tense, charged minutes I was wholly swept up in them.

Mark Stafford

Cr&#237a Cuervos

Cria Cuervos

Format: Cinema

Release date: 10 June 2011

Venues: Key cities

Distributor: BFI

Director: Carlos Saura

Writer: Carlos Saura

Cast: Ana Torrent, Geraldine Chaplin, Mónica Randall, Florinda Chico

Spain 1975

110 mins

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.

Cría Cuervos is released in the UK as a BFI Dual Format (DVD/Blu-ray) edition on 27 May 2013.

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.

Virginie Sélavy

Who Can Kill a Child?

Who Can Kill a Child?

Format: DVD

Release date: 23 May 2011

Distributor: Eureka

Director:Narciso Ibañez Serrador

Writer: Narciso Ibañez Serrador

Based on the novel by: Juan José Plans

Original title: &#191Quién puede matar a un niño?

Cast: Lewis Fiander, Prunella Ransome, Antonio Iranzo

Spain 1976

112 mins

Narciso Ibañez Serrador’s Who Can Kill a Child? (1976) is arguably the best Spanish horror film ever made. It’s also a classic of 70s horror, but you’re unlikely to find it on many ‘best of’ lists, from either fans or critics. This is mainly due to its half-hearted distribution; saddled with a number of other titles - including Island of the Damned and Death is Child’s Play - and shorn of up to half an hour of footage, Serrador’s film surfaced briefly on the drive-in circuit before slipping into obscurity. It did occasionally appear on television, however, and grey-market VHS copies circulated among fans of cult and horror cinema. Through this limited exposure, the film acquired a growing fan base, although it wouldn’t receive an uncut release in the USA until 2007. Finally, in 2011, Who Can Kill a Child? is being released in the United Kingdom.

Young biologist Tom and his heavily pregnant wife Evelyn (Lewis Fiander and Prunella Ransome) are on holiday in Spain. They decide to visit Almanzora, a small island off the coast. It isn’t necessarily the best place to go - there’s no doctor, no telephone and it takes four hours in a boat to get there - but they want to get away from the tourists. When they arrive, the island appears to be deserted, except for a handful of children. The shops are open, but empty, and it’s obvious no one has been there for several hours. Tom follows a group of giggling children into a building and finds them playing a game in the courtyard, swinging long poles at an object above their heads. But it’s not a piñata hanging from the ceiling - it’s the battered body of an elderly man. As Tom struggles to imagine what has happened on the island, he and Evelyn encounter one of the locals, hidden upstairs in the hotel. He tells them that the previous night the children took to the streets, laughing and playing, going from one house to another. Screams of pain and horror followed, as the children began killing every adult they could find. It’s time for Tom and Evelyn to leave, but will the children let them escape?

Like Village of the Damned (1960) and Children of the Corn (1984), Who Can Kill a Child? pits adults against children, this time working from the template established by George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968). Unlike those films, Who Can Kill a Child? doesn’t dilute the horrific premise by making his children aliens or religious maniacs controlled or directed by a supernatural entity. The children of Almanzora were, until the night before, completely normal. Even now they’re behaving much as children should - playing, giggling, running around the town having fun. It’s just the nature of the ‘fun’ that has changed. Following Hitchcock in The Birds (1963) and Romero, Serrador provides no real information that might help to understand or explain the events taking place. Tom and Evelyn have better things to do than speculate about why the children have slaughtered the adults.

Serrador’s only serious misstep occurs almost immediately. As a prologue to his film he attaches 10 minutes of real-life footage depicting various wars and man-made humanitarian disasters, always stressing the number of children who died in each instance. This establishes the continued victimisation of children by adults (accidental or otherwise), opening the door for the children of Almanzora to turn the tables. Unfortunately, footage of concentration camps and African famines makes for an uncomfortable way to begin watching what is essentially a frivolous form of entertainment. Thankfully Serrador avoids such ham-fisted moralising for the rest of the film. When Who Can Kill a Child? gets going, it’s a masterpiece of atmosphere and a deeply unsettling, original experience, and one that deserves to be seen by a much wider audience.

Eureka’s new Region 2 edition carries the same content as the US Dark Sky edition, using the same high quality, uncut print and featuring documentaries about the director and the cinematographer.

Jim Harper