The film starts by focusing on an upper middle class family’s bulletin board in Spain, 1975. We see picturesof three young sisters playing, looking serious, running and jumping. We see their fragile nervous mother, (Geraldine Chaplin), hugging them and hovering in the background. Their stiff military father, Anselmo, (Héctor Alterio), commands the center. The action cuts away to their house at night. The middle sister Ana, (Ana Torrent), walks down the stairs to confusing noises, (“I can’t breath. I’m suffocating”) and watches her father’s mistress Amelia, (Mirta Miller), flee from the house while buttoning her blouse. She then discovers her father’s dead body in the bed. As Amelia runs out the door we see that a thick concrete wall surrounds this crisp modern home. The tall wall isolates the house from Madrid but not from the piercing loud sound of the sirens outside.
In a few minutes we have been introduced to a family and to a country. When Carlos Saura made Cría Cuervos Spain was about to undergo a sharp transition. Though he couldn’t have known that right wing dictator Francisco Franco would be dead within a year of its release, this film would forecast the end of his regime with remarkable clarity. Within this fortress of a house, the political and the personal are fused. History as embodied by the three generations within the home: those from before the Spanish Civil War, the generation that grew up during Franco’s regime, and their children are waiting to be freed.
The supplements on Criterion’s much appreciated release of Cría Cuervos place the film and the work of Saura within the conflated artistic and political realm that he favored while reassessing the film’s value and relevance over thirty years after its release. The Spanish television documentary Portrait of Carlos Saura is a good introduction, tracking his evolution and the recurring imagery and themes that emerged through his work. He rose to prominence in the late fifties and sixties determined to criticize Franco from within Spain, using metaphoric plotlines ingenuous enough to slip past the censors.
He befriended Luis Buñuel at Cannes and the elder master became a casual mentor. Saura says, “Back then, reality was just what you saw before you. Social realism and all that. But I’ve always felt reality was much more vast, and that came from Buñuel. He offered that breadth of vision, a much greater scope where you could use your mind to bring in the past, present, and future—everything. That was a huge discovery.”
In Cría Cuervos this idea is combined with fantasy and light surrealism to create a searing personal and emblematic psychological portrait of a lonely child in a time of upheaval.
Orphaned after their father’s death, the sisters are cared for by their no-nonsense Aunt Paulina, (Mónica Randall), who is mysteriously fierce and fragile. Ana bristles at her forceful parenting style while taking comfort in the silent remembrances of her grandmother, (Josefina Díaz).
Torrent’s sad saucer eyes absorb the world around her. Her view of the world it distorted by attempting to make sense of it. Her performance is as impressive as in the just completed Spirit of the Beehive, but it cannot be attributed to an old soul aura since Torent says in a recently taped supplemental interview. “I didn’t understand what I was doing, that movie was not for kids.”
Chaplin, who was married to Saura, offers the most illuminating commentary in a separate interview. She says, “I think Ana is Carlos…lost in a world that she doesn’t understand, that she thinks she has control over.” Saura came of age during the Civil War, which she says interiorized his conflicting emotions. Ana and Saura’s mothers were both training to be concert pianists and abandoned their ambitions when they married.
Ana is smart and assertive, but struggles to make sense of her world, which becomes the film’s thin source of dramatic thrust. She confuses life and death, trying to poison her aunt,(it’s baking soda), fantasizes meetings with her mother, remembers fights between her parents that may or may not have occurred and recreates them with her sisters. In Portrait Chaplin says that Ana is “the little girl who observes everything and has the power to create her own world and it’s a dark world.”
In their games, the three sisters are rebelling against yet imitating the bullying, chauvinistic dynamics of their parents. Their prime inheritance is the violent and abusive power dynamics of a Fascist regime, represented by the constant philandering of the parents, their relatives and friends going on behind closed doors.
At the film’s climax Ana takes one of her father’s guns and says it was given it to her by her father. Her older sister Irene (Conchita Pérez) claims a rifle, while the youngest Maite,(Maite Sánchez), takes the “Legion flag.” The housekeeper,(Florinda Chico), tries to take Ana’s gun away, but she runs into the room where Paulina and Amelia’s husband are necking. He jokingly takes the gun from Ana, finds that it is loaded, and Paulina slaps Ana. “I can’t take it anymore!” screams Ana as the couple collapses into each other’s arms, forgetting the child. According to Paul Julian Smith’s booklet essay, the “enigmatic title” is a reference to the Spanish proverb, “Raise ravens and they’ll peck out your eyes.”
It should be mentioned that the movie is not all bleak. There is a melancholy tone held throughout, but co exists with Saura’s dark deadpan humor, attributed by the director to his native Arágon. Chaplin says the humor is that of the silent observer, who tries not to judge, but can’t help but laugh at what he sees. This dual nature is best captured by the scene with the gun and the frequent use of a dippy yet affecting pop song about love and loss, “Porque te vas,” that Ana plays for emotional solace.
Chaplin says in her interview that, “Cría Cuervos was not meant to be a political film”...but the moment you represent…a family in a country that has very strong political repression you are making political criticism even though what you are doing is making social criticism…Anselmo is Franco, Maria represents Spain, a hurt sick Spain, and Ana represents youth, new Spain, maybe trying to kill the old Spain…It got by because what he was showing was the ideal family according to that regime.”
That the Franco ideal was so corrupted they didn’t realize that representation is denunciation has a perverse appeal. But it’s hard to believe as the politics are so ringing and clear and his political advocacy is so thoroughly demonstrated throughout the Criterion set, that Saura did not intend to deliberately criticize the state of Spain.
Through Ana Saura expresses his anger at the seemingly unbreakable patterns of this conservative environment. Each new generation replicates the previous one’s behavior. As Smith points out, the grandmother, Ana, and her mother each take refuge in a song from their era. The structure draws back on itself like a Spirograph, with Saura employing the same sideways gliding camera movements to indicate repetitive cycles. Sometimes a grown-up Ana comments on the action from the future. She is played by Chaplin, indicating a connection and continuation between Ana and her mother.
And yet, by projecting into the future Saura encourages thoughts of change. Hope lies outside the walls. The cacophony of sirens seems to be tearing them down. The younger generation, the spirit of these women, is impatient. Smith cites Pedro Almodóvar paying homage to Saura by casting Chaplin in Talk to Her. That movie has a similar fantastic Freudian tone. In a weird way, much like the way the death of Anselmo anticipated the death of Franco, the female characters foreshadow Almodóvar’s celebration of vibrant Spanish women. The flower prints on the wallpaper and their clothes are like muted versions of Almodóvar’s sun splattered color schemes waiting to blossom.
In the Portrait of Carlos Saura, Antonio Saura says of his father’s films, “There’s always the idea that people pin their life up on bulletin boards. But you never see that in any Spanish home! That’s his own personal quirk! But there is that obsession that people collect things and fashion a portrait of themselves and live in its midst. It’s true. It’s the ‘Saurian office.’”
Considering that it takes place within such a specific politically charged setting, Cría Cuervos is maturing nicely without age-specific baggage. If this film is a portrait, it has the quality of a living photo, where the eyes of the subjects pierce through the unknowable circumstances of past eras. Saura’s intersection of the personal and the fictional has created a potent vibrancy within the film’s decaying world. History battles the stagnation of memory, rolling forward in a circular and linear motion, and something timeless is achieved.