Shot in the last days of the rule of General Francisco Franco -- the Spanish Nationalist leader who came to power during the turmoil of the country’s civil war years, and who went on to become the longest-ruling dictator in European history -- “Cría Cuervos” (“Raise Ravens”) was distributed internationally a few months after the death of the former Generalísimo, and received the Special Jury Prize Award at the 1976 Cannes Film Festival. The film is a poignant meditation on death and what it means in the mind of a troubled, fantasy-prone eight-year-old girl for whom the crimes of the past, the frustrations of the present and the uncertainties of the future begin to merge into one reality as she mourns and reflects upon her relationship with the idealised image of her deceased mother (who died from cancer a few years before the events of the film) during the long school vacation she and her two sisters spend in the family villa in the centre of Madrid during the summer of 1975, after the sudden death of their military officer father.
The film was made in the midst of the oppressive atmosphere that continued to flourish thanks to the harsh and unpredictable strictures of state censorship then still being routinely imposed across the arts by Franco’s right-wing regime; and it was the work of a director, Carlos Saura, whose earlier projects (particularly his involvement with the company that co-produced Luis Buñuel’s “Viridiana”, which was banned outright in Spain) had already earned him a reputation as an opponent of the values then much associated with Franco’s militaristic form of nationalism by leftist opposition groups. In the aftermath of the Buñuel experience, Saura’s name came more readily to the notice of the Spanish censors, which necessitated him developing a rich, symbol-heavy style of film-making of which “Cría Cuervos” is the apotheosis, after his 1964 film “Llanto por un bandido” (“Weeping for a Bandit”) – a work that Buñuel also had a small role in as an actor -- was heavily cut by the authorities as retaliation.
“Cría Cuervos”, the director’s first entirely self-written screenplay, can be seen to have played a key role in the development of what might even be termed an era-specific sub-genre of Spanish cinema that came into existence during this decade, when a number of filmmakers sought to address the country’s tumultuous past in their work but had to adopt some highly creative means of evading the censor’s scissors in order to be able to do so. In many of the films made in Spain at this time, acute political comment on the country’s troubled history and its connection to the problems of the present, stemming partly from the inability to confront such issues directly because of censorship, can often be discerned as a theme operating below the surface, and yet such concerns come to be almost totally sublimated into a gracefully subtle form of poetic allegory that’s often intensely emotionally compelling, even when the viewer is without full awareness of the underlying context forming its background.
The highpoint of this refined style came about in 1973 with Víctor Erice’s enigmatic masterpiece “El espíritu de la colmena” (“The Spirit of the Beehive”), and it is hard to resist the temptation to view that deeply wonderful film and “Cría Cuervos” as being intimately linked partners -- approaching as they do very similar themes of innocence and childhood confronting lose and mortality -- despite there also being many obvious differences in the film-making tactics employed by the two directors. For one thing, they share some telling behind-the-scenes crossover in production personnel, notably producer Elías Querejeta, who worked with Saura on a total of eleven of his films in all, and also produced “El espíritu de la colmena” for Víctor Erice – a young director who had earlier once been a student of Saura’s at the Escuela Oficial de Cinematografía. Furthermore, Saura’s cinematographer for “Cría Cuervos”, Teodoro Escamilla, had been a camera operator and assistant to Luis Cuadrado, who was going blind at the time he shot “El espíritu de la colmena”, a film still considered to be his cinematic masterpiece and which is notable for its consummate use of shadow and amber light to create images that feel like timeless snapshots from a long forgotten Velázquez portrait. Both films are now considered crowning glories of Spanish cinema and their influence persists today, particularly in some of the more personal works of Guillermo del Toro’s such as “The Devil’s Backbone” and “Pan’s Labyrinth”, which proceed as similar types of coming-of-age fantasy dramas set during the Spanish Civil War, redolent in evocative metaphors that revolve around sensitive child orphans confronting the many imponderable elements of the violent and dysfunctional adult world surrounding them.
But the main and most obvious connection, and the one that is bound to link both films forevermore, is even apparent to the most casual of viewers and takes the form of the presence in both of the mesmerising child actor Ana Torrent. Seven years old at the time she was cast in “El espíritu de la colmena”, Torrent is still a high profile presence in cinema today, some notable adult roles including her appearance as the lead in Alejandro Amenábar’s debut 1996 cult thriller “Thesis” and her role as Catherine of Aragon for historical Tudor melodrama “The Other Boleyn Girl”. It’s no exaggeration to state, though, that her screen presence in Víctor Erice’s film forms the centrepiece of a work that is still widely considered to host one of the all-time great child performances in all of cinema. Erice’s film captured something effortless, ineffable, yet intrinsically humanely touching in the sorrowful, soulful gaze of this young performer, which conveys a sense of wonder and questioning innocence that it almost feels the director had made his duty to capture on camera and immortalise forever on film. Saura cast her again, a few years later and visibly slightly older, in “Cría Cuervos” as a result of seeing her performance in this amazing debut. In fact her haunting, compelling presence was one of the elements which inspired the writing of the film in the first place and Saura even went so far as to claim that he probably wouldn’t have made it without her. Her character in both films is named Ana, although the older girl we see in Saura’s story is a noticeably darker, more conflicted personality than the complete innocent depicted by Erice. The title of the film itself suggests this ambivalence and is a reference to an old Spanish proverb which translates as something along the lines of ‘if you raise ravens, one day they will peck out your eyes!’
The film begins with frozen images from a series of Polaroid snaps capturing Ana’s birth and early childhood, her mother (played by Saura’s partner at the time, Geraldine Chaplin) featuring prominently in them as an ever-caring maternal presence. The piano piece accompanying their display – Catalan composer Federico Mompou’s ‘Songs and Dances’ – we learn later to be the song Ana most liked to hear her mother play for comfort -- such occasions forming some of her most vivid childhood recollections. But the way in which we shape narratives to create a picture of what we call ‘the past’ and how this process is constantly informed by our needs and desires and informs our experience of the present, becomes one of the dominating themes of a story that plays out as a coming-of-age domestic drama, based around the experiences of this one little girl – the middle daughter of three who come from a respectable bourgeois family, headed by high ranking military official, Anselmo (Héctor Alterio), and his ex-concert pianist wife, Maria -- a delicate elfin young woman who gave up her career for motherhood.
The film starts proper just as the last remaining supporting pillar of this traditional nuclear family structure is being swept away after the sudden death of the father. Ana witnesses not only her father’s untimely demise but also his last act – an infidelity with the wife of his best friend, another important personage in the military. It also becomes apparent that Ana is responsible – or believes herself to be so – for her father’s death, and she carefully covers her tracks, after discovering his body, by washing out the poison-laced glass of milk she apparently earlier supplied him, in the kitchen sink -- just as her mother appears to enquire why she is still up so late. Only later do we realise that Maria is in fact already dead and has been so for some time. Maria continues to be ever-present in Ana’s life as an idealised phantom, conjured from fragments of memory, who often enters the girl’s present-day experiences to play out variants of scenes from their past together. This household is caught in transition between a present informed by two differing views of its history: there is the official one, in which Anselmo is a noble patriarch and his marriage to Maria an idyllic one, which is enforced by Ana’s strict Aunt Paulina (Mónica Randall) after she moves into the family villa with the three girls’ wheelchair-bound & mute Grandmother (Josefina Díaz) to look after them; and then there is the version Ana and to some extent her older sister Irene remember: the one in which adults are hypocrites who cheat and Anselmo’s indifference eventually crushes his wife’s spirit, as she succumbs alone to the agonising cancer that eventually kills her.
This can all be taken as one grand metaphor for Spain’s post-Civil War history, the family’s Madrid villa standing for the country as a whole as it deals with its past in a moment of change; while the occupants represent various aspects of then-contemporary society under Franco and, in particular, come to enact various ideas about changing female gender roles in what was still a conservative, patriarchal society rooted in Catholicism. Most of the events depicted take place in and around the villa grounds and the production design (by Rafael Palmero) and set décor both reinforce the notion of a present frozen out by an austere patriarchal 1930s past, with the house’s grand staircase and its heavy old-fashioned mahogany furnishings clashing with the modernity featured elsewhere … of kitchen appliances such as washing machines and fridge freezers; the children living in this dark, gloomy monument to a vanished age often take refuge in their shared bedroom amid a kitsch collage of film star posters, colourful glamour magazines (which the eldest cuts out and sticks in a scrapbook) and the bouncy, infectiously catchy pop song ‘Porque te vas’ by English-born 1970s Spanish pop sensation Jeanette, with its wistful lyrics about a lost love that the three of them joyfully bop about their room to whenever briefly free of adult supervision. The previously grand but now faded exterior of the villa is also a relic of a noble past, but the walled-in grounds are overgrown and the once magnificent central swimming pool abandoned and discoloured, the complex now surrounded on all sides by a bustling modern motorway and garish advertising hoardings that are indicative of a superficially modern country which is, nevertheless, still not free of its authoritarian past.
The way in which the three girls differently react to the uncertainties of their newly orphaned status becomes an allegorical take on the country’s heavily censored account of its own recent past and its transitional present, and its tentative ideas about what the future holds in a post-Franco world. As well as feeding Ana’s memories seamlessly into the 1970s present without actually resorting to dreamlike imagery, but instead emphasising their immediacy and reality for her, the film also jumps forward into a future twenty years hence in which the adult Ana (also played by Geraldine Chapman, but dubbed by a different actress) reflects upon the period of her childhood represented by the film. This means Saura sets up a strange dynamic in which the present comes to be viewed from the perspective of an imagined future (the effect is even more pertinent for present day viewers, who really are, of course, looking back at the film’s 1970s milieu as a particular snapshot of history) but each period is presented as being simultaneously just as real and lived-in-for-the-moment as the other, while also becoming phantom-like and nebulous when looked at from the other’s perspective.
Interestingly, the adult Ana, looking back and commenting on the times being portrayed in the film, can no longer give a satisfactory account of just why she believed her father was to blame for her mother’s death and why she was so determined to kill him. The film presents the past as always a reconstructed story that influences each moment in the present. Even Ana’s mute, wheelchair-bound Grandmother has the life she commemorates on a wall chart full of old photographs re-interpreted and fictionalised for her by Ana’s romantic reconstruction of her elderly relative’s past, which she recites to the puzzled old woman who can only look on and frown in bewilderment in response to Ana’s fantasy construct. What does become apparent is that the thing that fuels Ana’s belief that the tin of baking soda she used to ‘poison’ her father’s milk on the night he died was in fact deadly poison, stems from her being told just that by her mother. Aunt Paulina’s attempts to bring the children up to obey bourgeois rules of etiquette and to censor Ana’s claims about her father’s infidelities (which are backed up by the recollections of the housemaid Rosa) cannot reach into the girl’s mind to control her actual memories about the state of her parents’ relationship, but many of those recollections are idealised and part confabulation anyway -- and she clearly failed to understand that her mother’s story about the tin of baking soda was probably intended as a joke in the first place
But Ana is the middle of three sisters, and still old enough for the past to be a palpable presence for her, even when her recall of it is inaccurate. For her older sister Irene (Conchi Pérez) interest in boys and pop culture images of glamour threaten to obliterate the fairy tale version of ‘Mother’ that Ana still cherishes; while the youngest sister, little five-year-old Mayte (Maite Sánchez) is even more easily indoctrinated into the rituals of home, church and state. And all three still bear the mark of their previous socialisation even if Ana in particular consciously rejects her father and what he stands for: the patriarch still has an influence on his daughters’ development, as we see when the three girls are left military weapons in Anselmo’s will and Ana, clutching what turns out to be a loaded revolver, confronts her Aunt Paulina after catching her in a romantic clinch with the husband of the woman who bedded her father on the night of his death!
Cinematographer Teo Escamilla’s photography delivers a beautiful, subtle contrast between the darkened, mahogany-burnished interiors of the family villa and the limpid airiness of the bright, blue sky, Madrid exteriors. Although the film was written for Ana Torrent in the wake of Víctor Erice’s film, which had been released a few years previously, Saura’s technique appears to be more heavily influenced by his mentor Luis Buñuel, especially in scenes in which characters’ dreams are acted out for instance, although the writer-director for the most part avoids resorting to imagery that invokes surrealism outright, apart from for a sequence in which Ana imagines watching herself jump from the roof of one of the tower blocks opposite the family estate, and then flying above the streets of central Madrid, perhaps visualising a life beyond the constricted confines of her present circumstance. There are a number of scenes which appear to confront the conservative mores of Spanish Catholicism in much the same idiosyncratic, unsettling manner that Buñuel’s cinema was wont to do, most dramatically when Ana remembers walking in on her mother during the throes of a particularly acute attack in the last days of her life, and hearing her divulge words that seem to cut through all the candy-coated canards maintained by the rest of the household: "It's all a lie. ... They lied to me... There's nothing ..."
There’s a sharper, more cynical edge here to Saura’s use of Ana Torrent’s beguiling persona, first created for her with her central role in “El espíritu de la colmena”; and there’s a bittersweet tang to the film, tempered by the healthy realism that’s encapsulated in Saura’s repetition throughout it of the kitsch pop anthem sung by Jeannette, which is returned to again and again as the soundtrack to the girls’ progress: there’s hope for the future embodied in its upbeat rhythms, but it is suffused with an aching sense of regret that derives from the song’s melancholy lyrics, which are used as counterpoint to enhance the film’s mood of resigned cynicism. The last scenes repeat the aerial views of Madrid seen in Ana’s revelry earlier: shots that once indicated flight and dreams of freedom now document the three sisters at the end of the summer holiday, dressing for school and disappearing into the crowds of other children filing through the gates of a Catholic school. Are they at last escaping the lies and hypocrisy of their childhood by entering the world at large, or are the same lies about to be perpetuated on a much grander scale, despite the modernity that surrounds them in the bustling sun-drenched streets of 1970s Spain?
“Cría Cuervos” is released by the BFI in a wonderful dual-format edition which features a Blu-ray disc hosting a High Definition transfer re-mastered from the film’s original 35mm negative at the original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.66:1. It looks and sounds fantastic and so does the original Spanish 2.0 mono audio track accompanying it. Subtitles have been newly translated and are removable, and there is also the option of an English dub track included, although it is, of course, atrocious -- and the film should be viewed with it only after you’ve already watched it in its original Spanish language version.
The Blu-ray only features two trailers as extras but the DVD disc that comes as part of the dual-format package also contains an excellent standard definition hour-long subtitled Spanish language documentary, “Portrait of Carlos Saura”, which is a comprehensive overview of the life and work of the director, writer and photographer made by Televisión Española in 2004 and featuring interviews with the main subject as well as his producers, actors, family members and other colleagues, who provide an excellent overview of the filmography and other interests of this prolific and still active artist. Also included is a twenty-three minute interview with the director, recorded in 2011 on-stage at the BFI Southbank, in which critic and Professor of Theatre and Screen Arts at Queen Mary University of London, Maria Delgado, asks him about “Cría Cuervos” in much more detail.
Delgado also supplies the excellent lead essay in the accompanying BFI booklet, an astute, nicely written analysis of the film’s themes and imagery. John Pym’s original Monthly Film Bulletin review is also reproduced along with excerpts from an interview with Saura originally published in 1976. The film’s credits and career profiles of actress Ana Torrent and Carlos Saura (by Michael Brookes and Mar Diestro-Dópido) round off a worthwhile booklet with plenty of pertinent contextual background to enable those new to Saura to understand the intent behind what is still a superbly evocative, lingering allegory about the function of the past and its relationship with the present, and how they connect to a possible future haunted by their losses and transitions, all of it centred on the spellbinding presence of Ana Torrent. Highly recommended.
Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night!