Omero Antonutti as Agustín Arenas and Sonsoles Aranguren as eight-year-old Estrella (Criterion)

Action at a Distance: The Father in Víktor Erice’s El Sur

The Father is the wielder of profuse potency but it can only be maintained through distance and the renunciation of understanding, the willingness to embrace the mystery without examining it. But, necessarily, the child must penetrate that veil.

El Sur
Víktor Erice
19 Jun 2018

Every family is suffused with a mythic grandeur. Myth attempts to answer the imponderables. Where do we come from? Why are we here? Why is life the way it is? Myths evolved from the human desire to account for our place in the world, our thrownness into a situation not of our making but within which we bear an ineluctable responsibility. Life is a gift and a burden; indeed, we are indebted for this unbidden gift and must find a way to live up to it. The doctrine of original sin (regarded here with respect to its mythological rather than theological importance) nicely encapsulates this tension: we are born under the obligation of debt. If we are inherently sinful, then we owe repentance. Our guilt derives from our debt (a conflation captured in a wonderfully concise manner by the German term Schuld, meaning both “debt” and “guilt”).

And yet, from whence did such guilt come? The answer is troubling: from the sins of our earthly father. The burden of our existence, at least in part, predates our actual existence; we are surrounded by the phantasmagoria of events and characters we have never directly known. Before we were even born, our guilt and our debt were already manifest. This is, of course, the crucial conundrum of Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts, of nearly the entirety of William Faulkner’s output, and of the 1983 landmark Spanish film El Sur by Víktor Erice: a central component of the meaning of our lives resides in a mythical age before our appearance on the scene and so we always wrestle with the ghosts that both haunt us and make us what we are.

The mythological standing of our parentage is partly of our own making and partly societal, stemming from our psychological constitution and perhaps even our biology. Our parents are always already more than the particular biographical entities reflected in their personal histories; they are archetypes, they are the peculiarly flawed deities that descend unto us, that inspire us with awe even when we see they have feet of clay, that bewilder us even when we puncture their mystery, that place an existential demand upon us even when we realize that they are people like anyone else, that astound us even when we discover we may not admire them all that much.

Of course, those biographical entities don’t always coalesce so readily with their archetypal roles. The Mother is the great nurturer while several individual mothers fail to fulfill that expectation. Indeed, it is the disconnect between the archetypal grandiosity and the human mundanity that fuels the engine of a lifetime of reflection, disappointment, angst, and even joy. Our parents seem so close at hand (I can question them, observe them, ask others about them) and yet so far away (those very acts of surveillance only achieve greater distance; they concretize the abyss separating these human figures from their deific archetypicality).

In realizing that the mythic greatness of our parents was illusory, we paradoxically come to accept that we all attain the status of the deified—we are all larger than life, we all surpass the limits of our quotidian existence. This is the lesson of the doctrine of original sin. In grappling with the past that precedes our birth (which, in essence, is the very crux of our encounter with our parents), we, in the words of Proverbs 11:9, trouble our own houses and thus we “shall inherit the wind”. Life simply is our wrestling with that trouble, wresting the wind from its unfathomable origins, the eternal existential agon; and when the struggle ends, so does life.


Víktor Erice’s El Sur, based on the eponymous novella by Adelaida García Morales (the director’s wife of that time), explores a girl’s maturation with respect to her relationship (gradually moving from awe to confusion to disappointment and loss) with the persistently mythical presence of her father. The girl, Estrella (played by two different actresses—Sonsoles Aranguran and Icíar Bollaín—to depict her at the ages of eight and 15, respectively), is born into a world where her father Augustín (Omero Antonutti) already occupies a position of mysterious power and withdrawal. The family lives in the environs of a small walled city in the north of Spain where Augustín works as a doctor and sidelines as a dowser; that is, he purports to be able to divine the location of water or minerals beneath the earth by employing a forked rod and, more importantly, a pendulum.

The pendulum as magical item plays an outsized role in the lives of Estrella and Augustín. It’s the emblem of his enigmatic presence and the powers he seems to possess. The connection between father and daughter was, from the very beginning, forged through the medium of that pendulum. Like many children, Estrella has long been told stories of her pre-natal existence—her life before birth, so to speak. These stories form a central part of our personal mythos. We grow up with a legend pertaining to a self we did not and could not fully know. We recognize, in some bodily manner, that we did not simply appear fully formed on the calendar date of our birth. We are born roughly nine months old—in at least the trivial sense that our DNA was assembled at the time of conception. But that pre-natal existence is, in a very real sense, estranged from us. We were a different manner of being then—but one that informed this being that we currently are. Our lives stretch back into the uncharted (and unchartable) reaches of our parents’ past, their time together before our advent, their time apart in the secret enclosures of their souls and inner lives.

For Estrella, that pre-natal Other that informs her current self is bound up in her father’s pendulum. One of her earliest memories involves being told of her mother’s pregnancy with her, when her father suspended that pendulum over her mother’s inflated belly, predicted that the child would be a girl, and decided upon the name Estrella. This is, of course, a memory that cannot, strictly speaking, be a memory at all—that is, it cannot be Estrella’s memory. It’s at best the memory of her mother or perhaps an embellished tale the mother tells her daughter. Our lives are suffused with such tales—tales from before we were born or from that period of our childhood beyond the reach of memory—stories we cannot possibly remember for ourselves but that we have heard so many times that they have become engrained in our personalities, have become an informing element of our personhood.


For most of my life my mother has narrated a story from a time before my memories found any permanent purchase in my consciousness. I was three years old and had an early bed time. In the evenings, finally having a chance to settle down and relax a bit by herself, my mother would enjoy a snack. I apparently would inadvertently spoil these snacks by calling down from my bedroom on the second floor to her (“Are you having a cookie, Mommy? Is it good?”) and creating a bittersweet sense of guilt that likely both enhanced and ruined the treat. On this occasion, my mother began choking on a pretzel that wouldn’t come back up and refused to be swallowed. Supposedly, I called out “I save you Mommy,” and butt-slid down each of the stairs from the second floor to the first, where my mother struggled to dislodge the pretzel. I then ran up behind her and slapped her on the back; the pretzel, freed from its constraint, flew across the room. Victorious, I returned to my room.

This is a story that my mother has repeated to everyone to whom I have ever been close. Its veracity is beyond my ability to ascertain but it certainly has a symbolic truth for my mother and for me. It places me in the role of the savior of my mother. For my mother, it represents her truth that her life was given meaning (hence saved) by being in the role of the Mother. It also indicates, in her mind, that I have an intrinsic need to assist others; that I am, in some small way at least, heroic. For me, it has long been a strangely meaningful if somewhat ambiguous tale. It is, of course, for me, simply a tale. I have no intact recollections of anything prior to the age of five (and even then the memories are scant). In essence, this tale tells me (or seems to tell me) something about myself that I couldn’t possibly know on my own. It serves as mythological proof of the close connection I have always felt to my mother. Before I was conscious of it, the bonds were tight and secure. It also holds a disciplinary function. It tells me what I ought to be. If maturation means, for many, to become more of what we always already were, then that tale informs me of what I am and ought to become, or to augment. Such tales inject a sense of destiny into our mundane existence.

The pendulum story is of key significance for Estrella and her sense of identity and identification with her father, Augustín. Born of the chaos of her mother’s body (a realm of becoming and inchoate potentiality), the child in this tale was given her being, her sense of self (her sex, her name), from the divinatory potency of the father. The pendulum holds a particular urgency as a symbol in this story. Its ability to prognosticate derives not from direct contact (the pendulum is suspended above the ground in determining the distance of water, suspended above the swollen belly in predicting the sex of the fetus) but rather from action at a distance. It forges a predictive and determining connection at a spatial and ontological remove—spatial in the sense that it vibrates sympathetically with the object of investigation without touching the object and ontological in the sense that there is nothing apparent in the physical makeup of a metal pendulum that should allow it to accurately predict water or sex. Through some occult power, the pendulum operates across the chasm of space and being, uncovering a deeper, non-physical connection between two seemingly disparate things.

In this sense, the pendulum is the physical manifestation and emblem of the relationship between Estrella and Augustín, a relationship that transcends that chasm of space and being that exists between the young girl, desirous of knowledge, and the father, who always seems to recede further into the shroud of unintelligibility, the unknowable, the unseen. Estrella longs to possess her father’s powers as further proof of their connection. Of course, it is significant that it is the father to whom she longs to bond. The family myth assigns differing roles to the Mother and the Father.


Sigmund Freud and many other authors in the psychoanalytic literature discuss the, at first, indissoluble link between Mother and child. Indeed, Freud, at the beginning of Civilization and Its Discontents, suggests that our pre-natal connection to the Mother may be one explanation of the “oceanic” feeling of connection some people experience in relation to the universe at large—and thus one possible explanation for the belief in divinity. When in the womb, our needs are taken care of immediately, we are within the functioning apparatus of the mother’s body, literally surrounded by a presence that we cannot separate entirely (if at all) from ourselves and our sense of self, in whatever inchoate form that happens to be present prenatally. Hence, the egocentrism of the infant and the lack of a concrete experience of individuality. The prenatal child and the infant may experience, Freud contends, a sense of self but it is an unbounded self, not an individualized one. Freud suggests that maturation involves the gradual carving out of the individual self by severing the self from a range of others that occupy the world and may be indifferent entirely to our existence.

And yet, the connection to the Mother persists. The relationship to the Father is quite different. The Father is inscrutable, always the Other and yet (in the family myth, not necessarily in reality) always there. If in some ways we have to learn the distinction between the self and the Mother, the Father is there as a distinct presence, an outside being that is mysteriously connected to us. We are not of his body in the way we are of the Mother’s. Indeed, his physical connection to the corporeality of our self seems strikingly akin to the action at a distance through which Estrella’s father operates via the pendulum. For Freud, the relationship to the Father is what assists in forming the super-ego. The super-ego says simultaneously “You ought to be like this (like your father)” and “You may not be like this (like your father).” The Father is the source of identification and rivalry, the recognition of what is allowed to us (what is licit) and what is proscribed to us (what is illicit, the provenance of the other). But Freud is very clear that our relationships here, the ones that lead to our moral sensibility through the formation of the super-ego, are not to our parents as they are but rather to their “higher natures”; that is, to our parents as archetypes.

Religion, morality, our social sense—all derive from this Father-oriented structure of the super-ego. In this archetypal sense, we never meet the Father, we cannot meet him; he is an archetype, an ideal, not real while having a very real effect upon us. He is shrouded in mystery, the holder of the enigma, the source of untold power. Augustín perfectly represents this archetype. He comes from a southern city (hence the title, El Sur, the south serving as the locus of Augustín’s puzzling nature) that Estrella has never visited and to which he vows never to return. His past is spoken of in whispers and vague allusions. He is visibly discomfited by the world, remains in the dark vestibule of the church during Estrella’s confirmation, locks himself for hours on end in his study. The door remains locked, Estrella’s mother declares, in order to keep his power from escaping. That’s a telling justification for why Estrella ought not to disturb her father. His power is locked in obscurity, too close of scrutiny and it will be dispersed, lost.

The Father is the wielder of profuse potency but it can only be maintained through distance and the renunciation of understanding, the willingness to embrace the mystery without examining it. But, necessarily, the child must penetrate that veil. The motivations are obscure, perhaps. On the one hand, the child seeks further proximity, a closer connection. On the other hand, the child cannot help but pierce the idealized façade of the archetype. Part of the maturation process is the realization that our father is not our Father, that the quotidian man is not the god-like figure of our imagining. The father cannot help but be a disappointment. This is what Estrella learns over the course of the film. Her father loses the grandeur of mystery but not the mystery itself. This is not a film that charts the coming to know a father on the part of the daughter. He remains distant, remains unknowable. It is the manner in which he is unknown that changes over the course of the film.

In the first half of El Sur, the Father is the outsized magician who acts at a distance, who loves his daughter from that distance, and who can impart his wisdom, his efficacy to her. This will be their special bond, the enigma that resides at the foundation of their shared manner of being, the mark of difference that makes them both special—outside the common lot of the world and yet essential to its functioning. In the second half, the father is the sad and lonely man, incapable of communicating with others (including the daughter that he loves but not enough to occupy a concerted role in her life), who whiles away his time in cafes and bars, drinking too much, pining for a lost love in a remote and forsaken past. He makes a spectacle of himself when at his favorite café with her, waxes nostalgic over the dangers and whimseys of youthful love, pretends to intimacies with her that he has not cultivated. His distance is no longer the emblem of his power but rather a symptom of his weakness.

El Sur is a powerful and moving film. The director’s handling of light, in particular, imbues the work with the haze of brittle memory and haunting nostalgia. Although released in 1983, the film exudes a classic stature that makes it feel timeless and eternal—just like the father-child dynamic it so brilliantly investigates. Erice often laments (including in an interview included with the Criterion Collection’s new edition of this film) that he was unable to completeEl Sur to include the latter half of the source novella. I respectfully suggest that the film would have lost something by being any longer and any more explicit about Augustín’s past than it already is. The film as it stands navigates Estrella’s transition from credulous child to the burgeoning and skeptical young adult who goes from worshiping her father to recognizing his failings, from all-consuming admiration to a mild disdain. But through it all, what remains constant is the ineluctable mystery of the father, his eternal remove from the grasping consciousness of the daughter. She may have come to acknowledge the foibles and missteps taken by Augustín as her father, she may have begun to discern some of his secrets and regrets, but she will never entirely break through to the power that she rightly recognized resided in her father when she was a child. There is an enigmatic power in the Father that belongs, ultimately, not to any quotidian father of flesh and blood but rather to our formation of our self, our coming to grips with the mysteries of the otherness of the world.

Criterion Collection has recently issued a new blu-ray edition of Víktor Erice’s El Sur. The film is gorgeous and Criterion presents it in all of its understated glory. Extras include a 2003 interview with the director, a 2012 “making-of” feature, and an episode concerning El Sur of a fantastic Spanish television show on film, ¡Qué grande es el cine!. Also included is an edition of the novella by García Morales on which the film is based. Reading the novella is fascinating in its own right—and really ought to be thought of as almost entirely separate from the film. Many of the characteristics of the young girl of the novella are not shared by Estrella and ultimately the relationship with the father is quite different. Both are wonderful meditations on the strange connection across the abyss that we seem to have with our parents but in remarkably distinct ways.

RATING 6 / 10