Sunday, January 06, 2008

Carlos Saura: Cria Cuervos

Cria Cuervos takes its title from the Spanish proverb which says, "Raise the ravens and they will peck your eyes out" - sort of Spanish version of "As you sow, so shall you reap" applied to families and bringing up of children. In the context of the film it also captures the way traumatic memories of childhood work. You can wish them away, but the repressed memories will keep coming back in newer and more unsettling forms, however strong your will to forget may be. Again in the context of the film, the personal experience gets merged with the collective repression of trauma resulting from the experience of Spanish civil war and the dictatorship that followed it.

As the description makes it clear, this film shares a lot with Victor Erice's masterpiece The Spirit of the Beehive, a film which is very close to my heart. The fact that they both feature Ana Torrent, the miraculous child actor, at the center of the story only makes the parallel between the two even more clear. Carlos Saura was actually inspired to make it after watching Ana in The Spirit of the Beehive. He had to wait until she was available again to act in his film. Watching both of these films together in a double-bill will be a perfect introduction to these films, such is the level of inter-communication between the two. Or may be, if triple-bill is your kind of thing then round off these two with a screening of Pan's Labyrinth, which in so many different ways communicates with these two films too. In fact there are some really striking similarities with this film and not just in the way the two mothers look and suffer.

At the center of the story is young Ana (her character was named Ana in Beehive too) who has seen her mother succumb to cancer after suffering extreme physical pain. She is convinced that it is her father, who is a military officer in Franco's Spain, who is responsible for her mother's suffering and death, contributing to it by his philandering and emotional brutality. After he dies in a heart attack, Ana mistakenly begins to think that she has poisoned him. She becomes obsessed with the thoughts of death and dying and even concocts plans to dispatch her frosty aunt, who has come to take care of her and her two sisters, and her catatonic grandmother in the same manner. Meanwhile her mother continues to haunt her imagination by appearing out of nowhere. The film doesn't distinguish between reality and fantasy in the visual sense, thus avoiding the pandering to child's imagination which ruins most of these kinds of films. Saura respects Ana's imagination and it is through her subjective experience that we see the reality. It is actually this factor that makes the film succeed so well more than any other.

The narrative of the film is very elliptical. The story is narrated by a grown-up Ana (played by Geraldine Chaplin who plays her mother too) reminiscing about her childhood. The flashback itself contains many flashbacks and "fantasy" sequences. The way Saura withholds information and makes the narrative unfold slowly is absolutely masterful. Only after a while do we learn that the figure of mother played by Geraldine Chaplin is in fact dead, and that she is present only in Ana's imagination. The subplot of the poison becomes clear only towards the end as well, when we see her cleaning the glasses after a similar attempt.

The political critique is much less oblique in this film than in The Spirit of the Beehive. The father figure obviously represents the fascist, military leadership of Spain and the bitterness and despair at the way Ana's mother (who in a way represents Spain) suffers is evident and obvious too. In one aspect it is quite similar to The Spirit of the Beehive - in its quietness and a complete absence of anger. It is full of despair but there is also an understanding of what happened and a feeling of resignation. We wait for some emotional catharsis, a scene of extreme violence or opening up but it never comes. It is actually only natural in a film which deals with repression of traumatic memories as the main theme. (Luis Bunuel's Viridiana has its share of anger and cathartic violence alongwith bitterness and despair. Bunuel was Saura's artistic mentor and it is interesting to compare parallels between these films too.)

The film is very well-acted by its all-female cast. Ana Torrent is of course magical in this film too. The way she stares at the camera, her dark sad eyes and her abrupt pronouncements about death are sure to haunt anyone who has seen this film for days after watching it. The film also uses music very imaginatively, specially two tunes. One a muted classical piano score and the other a chirpy pop tune called "Porque Te Vas" (Because you are leaving) - they both evoke a feeling of loss and sadness in totally different ways, one from an adult perspective and another from children's.

Like I said in my post on The Spirit of the Beehive, it is extremely difficult to capture children's subjectivity without pandering, paternalising or making it seem childish. The fact that both these films succeed and succeed so well speaks volumes about the skill, sensitivity and intelligence of both the filmmakers. I don't think one can ask for a more perfect and a more beautiful film than these two. If you haven't seen them, you should leave everything you are doing and run to the nearest rental library. Both these films are available in excellent double-disc criterion collection DVDs with lots of interviews and background documentaries. It is again a relief to see Ana Torrent grown-up into a normal woman. Watching these two films you start worrying for her emotional well-being. In an interview Erice says that he felt sorry for robbing her of a few years of her childhood. Ana's interviews are actually very disquieting - she herself, like the rest of us, seems to be searching for Ana of the two films who seems to have vanished somewhere. Moreover she says that she doesn't remember much from the time and she didn't understand what she was doing anyway. Whatever it may be, no one can deny that she is a miracle personified. There are few haunting presences in film like the figure of Ana Torrent in these two films. Like I said, not to be missed. A trailer here. The foot-taping Spanish pop song "Porque Te Vas" in full here (English translation here.) Also a nice essay on the film at the criterion site.


anurag said...

Nice write up.

I need to see The Spirit of the Beehive.

Also, there is a very delicate relationship between Ana and her grandmother (Ana thinks nobody takes care of Grandma except her, and even offers her to "help" her die), a sort of 'skip' level. The youngest generation taking care of the oldest - or to translate it politically/socially - the upcoming youth taking care of the traditional Spain.

Alok said...

Also Pan's Labyrinth if you haven't seen it yet. The more I think of it, the more it seems it almost copied at least a few scenes and plot elements. Or else all these films are so deeply rooted in the same historical period and the same collective consciousness that they assume similarities unconsciously, which is probably a more fair judgement.

I found those scenes with Ana and her grandmother so full of sadness. Specially in which she shows her the pictures of her life. Ana doesn't understand the exact meaning time or even of death (not that we adults fully understand these) but the way film shows her grappling with these things.

Also agree with your interpretation but I felt that there was a hint of sadness (in that photograph scene) with the realization of passage of time and resulting feeling of loss - that life she lived is only there in the photographs, fit only to be looked at.

anurag said...

ya, there was ample sadness in Grandma's eyes.

Mona Molarsky said...

I loved your piece about "Cria Cuervos" and am so happy to see that somebody is making the connections with "Spirit of the Beehive" and also "Pan's Labyrinth." The first two are two of my very favorite films of all time. "Pan's Labyrinth" not so much. In fact, "Labyrinth" seems to have stolen huge numbers of elements from "Beehive" but managed to miss its intelligence and soul in the process. Where a deft hand is required, del Toro uses a sledgehammer. Erice understands the magic that emerges from ellipsis. Del Toro just doesn't get it. He comes from a younger and more brutalized generation, of course. Ironic that the two directors who came of age under fascism were less brutalized that one who was a product of a democracy. But there you have it. Mass culture has brutalized us in some ways that are harder to fight against than iron fists. I also loved your comments on Saura's use of the song "Porque te vas." I think this is one of the most effective uses of music I've ever experienced in a film.