Cría cuervos . . . : The Past Is Not Past
Review by Paul Julian Smith ago 23, 2007 at criterion
Cría cuervos . . . , Carlos Saura’s political and psychological masterpiece, was shot in the summer of 1975, as Spanish dictator Francisco Franco lay dying, and premiered in Madrid’s Conde Duque Theatre, on January 26, 1976, forty years after the civil war began. Saura could thus hardly have chosen a more momentous time for his meditation on history and memory. The film is flanked by two decisive events: the assassination of Franco’s nominated successor, Carrero Blanco, in 1973, and the first democratic elections, in 1978.
Born to a bourgeois family, but one that had been on the losing side in the war, and trained in the regime’s official film school, Saura had made ten features and attained a unique position by the time of Cría cuervos’s release. Acclaimed by Spanish critics as the only filmmaker in their country ever to have achieved a fully fledged career, he had already created the most sustained, independent, and consistent oeuvre in a national cinema plagued by exile and unfulfilled promise. Saura’s films up until then had been implicit critiques of the Francoist regime, often focusing on men and violence, such as in The Hunt (1965), where a bloody hunting party stood in for the civil war. Unsurprisingly, therefore, Saura had had bitter conflicts with state censors from the beginning. As late as 1973, successive versions of the script for Ana and the Wolves were simply turned down. Cría cuervos was the first film over which Saura exercised complete artistic control, taking a triple credit for story, script, and direction.
But although Saura was justly praised for a uniquely personal voice, especially in his complex fusion of fantasy and reality, his auteur status owed a great deal to the contributions of others. Saura’s longtime producer, Elías Querejeta, had helped shape his career, grooming him for the international festivals, where juries were eager to reward a gifted anti-Francoist filmmaker (Cría cuervos won the Jury’s Grand Prize at Cannes). And, crucially, Geraldine Chaplin, Saura’s partner and a collaborator from 1967 to 1979, provided support that was both creative and financial. Economically secure and feted by foreigners, Saura was by now relatively immune to Francoist censors, who feared the negative publicity that would come from banning his high-profile films. Unlike other oppositional projects of the time, Cría cuervos, a clear, albeit enigmatic, critique of the regime, would be passed uncut.
After an early flirtation with neorealism (his first feature, 1960’s Los golfos, had treated teenage hooligans), Saura’s special interest became more psychological than social, what he called the “ghosts inside the head.” Cousin Angélica (1974), the film that preceded Cría cuervos, had been an exploration of the inner demons of a middle-aged man who was still fixated on his childhood love for a young girl during the civil war. Saura expressed this trauma through the risky device of having the adult actor double as the child. Such tricky casting is vital also to Cría cuervos, with the twist that it is not a man but a woman who seeks release from the prison of the past. The Proustian search for lost time was thus replayed in a feminine key.
Set almost entirely in a large, gloomy house walled up against the chaotic life of Madrid outside, Cría cuervos tells the story of eight-year-old Ana, played by Ana Torrent, fresh from Víctor Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive (1973), a worthy companion piece to this, her second feature. After the harrowing death of her mother (played by the compellingly neurotic Chaplin), Ana finds her philandering father dead in bed with a married lover. Frosty Aunt Paulina arrives to look after the young girl and her two sisters. The all-female household is completed by the children’s grandmother, mute and immobile in a wheelchair, and the feisty, fleshy housekeeper, Rosa (veteran character actress Florinda Chico), who fills Ana in on the mysteries of sex.
But this relatively simple premise tells us little about the experience of watching the film. For as Cría cuervos’s apparently uneventful narrative unfolds, the dead parents continue to intrude unpredictably in the present, as does the adult Ana, also played by Chaplin, who speaks from the then distant 1995. Disconcertingly, Chaplin’s own British-accented voice is retained in her role as the mother, but as the grown daughter she is dubbed by a native Spanish actress. This retrospective perspective does not, however, resolve the film’s many mysteries: the adult Ana confesses she can no longer recall or comprehend much of what the child experiences.
The interpenetration of reality and fantasy is brilliantly played out in the opening sequence. We begin with a very slow pan around a darkened room. A little light filters through pale curtains. In her prim, white nightdress, the child Ana descends a lengthy staircase. As the camera holds tight on Torrent’s pale, impassive face, urgently whispered adult words (“I love you,” “I can’t breathe”) are barely heard from behind a closed door. A half-dressed woman, her bra visible beneath an open blue jacket, flees the house, exchanging only a troubled look with the child. On entering the now silent room, Ana finds her father in bed, his naked torso exposed. Expressionless, she takes a glass to the kitchen, where she proceeds to wash it in the sink. As she opens the fridge (we glimpse enigmatic chicken feet inside), her mother comes into the shot behind her and addresses her tenderly. It is only later that we learn the mother is dead.
Here reality and fantasy seem to swap places. The bizarre death of Ana’s father, who will prove to be a Fascist military man, is real (later the girls are forced to kiss his uniformed corpse). The apparently banal appearance of the mother at the fridge, on the other hand, is in fact fantasized by the grieving child. Through a deceptively simple shooting style (Chaplin’s character just wanders into the frame), Saura shows the intimacy with which the living and the dead can cohabit, most especially when, as is so often the case in his cinema, fragile psyches are frozen in time by trauma.
As many critics have noted, this trauma is linked to repression. The historical and social references in the film are inextricable from the psychic structures it explores. Thus the private room of extramarital sex is, in the very next sequence, crowded with the very public dignitaries of the regime, who have come to view their colleague’s corpse. In the opening credits, family snapshots of Ana (eyes dark and vacant, even at the seaside) give way to professional portraits of her father astride a horse. The little rituals of everyday life (housekeeper Rosa combing Ana’s hair or folding sheets with her) veer unexpectedly into much larger matters. As Ana and her sister Irene help to tidy the house, Irene asks Rosa when the war ended (Rosa guesses correctly that it was 1939), and the girls brandish the guns they say their father has left them (Ana will take aim at the hated aunt). There could be no clearer or more disquieting sign of the legacy of violence that is bequeathed from one generation to another, from guilty or forgetful adults to uncomprehending children. This bad education is the meaning of Saura’s enigmatic title, which cites the Spanish proverb “Raise ravens and they’ll peck out your eyes.”
The house itself, claustrophobic in spite of its ample size and extensive garden, is a transparent metaphor for the regime, which even at the late date of Cría cuervos was still frantically putting up barriers to life beyond its bunker. It is no accident that the venetian blinds on the windows seem to mimic prison bars. Wealthy but decadent, like the leisured middle classes who supported Franco, the house even boasts an empty swimming pool, a symbol of sensual pleasures lost or unfulfilled. But the deadly quiet of the family home is insistently interrupted by jarringly noisy shots of the street outside, with its lurid posters for consumer goods and oppressively heavy traffic. Saura seems to be suggesting that memories, whether personal or political, may be repressed, but, like the inescapable sounds of the city, they will return as ghosts, haunting all Spaniards as they do the characters in Cría cuervos.
While Saura’s earlier films, influenced by his then screenwriter Rafael Azcona, sometimes display an unnerving misogyny (Ana and the Wolves culminates in the rape and murder of Chaplin’s character), in Cría cuervos the psyche that serves to represent this troubled nation is female. Indeed, the film has been praised by feminist critics for its subtle account of female socialization: the ways girls come to accept, reject, or negotiate the roles imposed on them. The daughters thus submit to having their hair combed but flatly refuse to eat decorously. Little Ana holds a pistol better than she does a fork or a needle. Her silent, rebellious looks are often addressed directly to the camera, an implicit challenge to the audience. When the sisters play dress-up, it is to expertly re-create the bitter arguments of their dead parents. With their painted-on mustache and borrowed lipstick, the young actors reveal that both masculine and feminine roles are merely a masquerade.
The pressures of patriarchy, felt even in a house without men, are sometimes wished away, as in the charming scene where the girls dance together. Elsewhere, the interrupted interaction of mothers and daughters is movingly explored. Ana fantasizes that her dead mother is tenderly telling her the story of Little Almond. But she awakes distressed to discover that she is alone once more. The persistence of memory can be both a blessing and a curse.
At a historical moment when a Spanish woman still needed permission from her husband to open a bank account or apply for a passport, Cría cuervos’s adult characters, daughters of the dictatorship, have it no easier than the girls. Ana’s mother, fearful of failure, gave up a promising career as a con-cert pianist, only to be trapped in a loveless marriage. The girl’s mute grandmother, who is losing her memory as well as her speech, can do nothing but contemplate images of her married past. Ana’s single aunt is unlucky in love, tempted by an affair with a married friend. But if the position of women is intolerable in 1975, it is not clear that it will be better in 1995. The poised, adult Ana, who regularly addresses the camera, gives nothing away. And if she is played by the same actress as her mother, then surely it is because she is condemned to repeat her mother’s mistakes. In publicity shots for Cría cuervos, Torrent and Chaplin pose side by side, their deep, dark eyes and translucently pale skin made to rhyme. There could be no clearer suggestion that Saura’s women are locked in a repetition compulsion that is at once psychic and social.
Beyond the film’s laconic dialogue (characters are unwilling or unable to communicate with each other), it is Cría cuervos’s cinematography that suggests such subtleties. From the very first scene, Saura aligns us with the little girl’s point of view, using subjective shots as she contemplates her dead father. In Ana’s dialogues with her dead mother, Saura employs simple shot/reverse shot, failing to cue us that these scenes are fantasy and encouraging us to participate in the couple’s imaginary conversation. In real-life sequences, however, interaction with chilly adults tends to be shown in a long shot that distances us and the children from the action. Unnervingly high angle shots look down from the roof of a neighboring building, as the children play listlessly in their secluded garden. When Ana fantasizes that she is jumping from this uncanny position, the camera wheels wildly round, re-creating the perspective of her imagined suicide.
But if Saura deftly engages the viewer in what one critic has called a “practice of looking,” he also implicates us in a practice of listening. Three pieces of music are compulsively repeated in Cría cuervos: a muted classical piano piece by the Catalan composer Federico Mompou, which was once played by the mother; “¡Hay, Maricruz!” a traditional copla performed by Imperio Argentina (an early supporter of the regime), here played for the grandmother; and “Porque te vas” (Because You’re Leaving), a pop song of the period sung by the chirpy Jeanette, the only record Ana seems to own. The conflict between tradition and modernity suggested in Cría cuervos’s costumes (the girls’ casual denim contrasts with the adults’ formal attire) is replayed here at the level of sound. But in spite of its jaunty rhythm, the juvenile pop song that expresses Ana’s rebellion is in fact an ode to lost loves and abandoned hopes: for the singer, even the sun shining on a city window is a sign that her lover must soon leave. The present may thus prove to be as depressing as the past.
Surprisingly, such subtle techniques and melancholic messages did not harm Cría cuervos at the box office. This unrepentantly art-house film was the sixth-biggest grosser of the year, attracting a domestic audience of well over one million. While leftist critics attacked Saura for focusing on the leisured bourgeoisie and neglecting the working class, Spanish audiences clearly had no problem decoding Cría cuervos’s historical allegory and relating its individual, even idiosyncratic, vision to their wider, collective concerns at a unique moment when the nation was at a crossroads.
As Saura shows with Cría cuervos, in 1976 Spaniards looked back in fear and forward with uncertainty. Thirty years later, we now know that Spain’s transition to democracy, dismissed by some as a “pact of forgetting,” would be an unqualified success. Saura’s remarkably prolific career, on the other hand, has been more uneven since Cría cuervos than he might have hoped, with such successes as dance movies in the 1980s (Blood Wedding, 1981; Carmen, 1983) counterbalanced by failed historical epics (El Dorado, 1988) and social realist dramas (Taxi, 1996).
Although Saura’s demanding style of filmmaking may have fallen out of fashion in Spain, his achievement remains indisputable today. In 2002, Pedro Almodóvar cast Saura’s ex-muse Geraldine Chaplin as the highly strung ballet teacher in Talk to Her, a role not so distant from the neurotic pianist she played in Cría cuervos. He was paying proper homage to the director who was for many years the best known in Spanish cinema. Still as moving and compelling as when it was made, Cría cuervos seems now not diminished but enhanced by its growing distance in time, benefiting from a retrospective perspective that, appropriately enough, is subtly explored within the film itself.