Cria Cuervos (1976)
Director: Carlos Saura
Starring: Geraldine Chaplin, Ana Torrent, Monica Randall
Release date: January 26 (SP). I’ve had some proper tough, growed-up films in my initial batch of titles, I’m thinking this could be a throwaway comedy from Spain… It’s not. I’ve landed another subtitled brow-furrower. May contain a corvus corax and spoilers…
Three orphans, Irene, Ana and Maite are looked after by their Aunt Paulina (Monica Randall) and housekeeper, Rosa (Florinda Chico) after their father dies in the arms of a lover… Y’know what, I’m not going any further with the synopsis. For me, there are two ways of watching Cria Cuervos; as a commentary on the sadness of childhood’s end or as a political allegory. For the latter, you need to know something of Spanish history, specifically the end of Franco’s oppressive, fascistic reign. I know rock all. My viewing therefore contained no such enlightenment and my scribbling shall henceforth continue in ignorance. If you do know your Spanish history, then Cria Cuervos will give you another pair of eyes into the film. And can I just say I love that poster… what am I saying, of course I can it’s my review.
What I found brilliant about Cria Cuervos was its steadfast refusal to adhere to cinematic convention when following the paths of reality and fantasy, past and present. In this rarefied atmosphere anything is possible – so my advice to you is to rip yer oxygen mask off and take a deep breath. I recall reading an interview with a director who detailed the importance of always allowing the audience to know where they are in a time-shifting story, through a subtle use of colour or some other device. Director Carlos Saura isn’t tipping you off. He trusts you to follow him. The opening is a good example; Ana (Ana Torrent) can’t sleep. She wanders downstairs and comes to a halt outside a room. She/we can hear voices, adults in intimacy. But something is wrong, the voices fall silent. A woman rushes from the room partially dressed, her attention flickers guiltily toward Ana, then she is gone.
Ana enters the room. Her father, Anselmo (Hector Alterio) is lying motionless, eyes open. It is clear he is dead. She sits awhile with him, then takes a used glass from a bedside cabinet and diligently washes it in the kitchen. She opens the fridge to get some lettuce for her pet guinea pig. Her mother Maria (Geraldine Chaplin) moves into frame, gently admonishing Ana, “Do you know what time it is? It’s terribly late…” The line is a recurring motif (as are the chicken feet in the fridge). We follow Ana back to her room. But the scene doesn’t end with a muffled scream and the discovery of the body. In the next sequence time has passed and the orphaned children are getting ready for father’s wake. Mother takes over the combing of Ana’s hair. If you didn’t pick up on it the first time you will now. M. Night’s seen this too I reckon…
Ana’s mother is dead. She died a few years before of an unspecified disease. It’s a harrowing reflection seeded by Ana’s memory; Maria in bed, twisting in pain. “Nothing exists. They cheated me,” she tells her uncomprehending daughter. “I’m afraid. I don’t want to die.” Maria’s eyes though are already vacant, it’s disturbing to watch. Even more disconcerting is we see Maria again, speaking directly to camera. Ah, but wait, it is Ana, twenty years later and all grown up. The older Ana is again played by Geraldine Chaplin but her voice has been dubbed. This skilfully avoids the fact that while Maria speaks Spanish it is with an English inflexion. Ana, as a child, does not speak in such a way and wouldn’t do so as an adult. Nicely thought out, that. In one deft camera move we pan off young Ana across to adult Ana, same room, same wall. She speaks to us of the Past but it’s impossible to tell what has become of her life beyond she seems to be occupying the same space as her younger self. Ana has become the image of her mother, perhaps even as sickly and unhappy. What has become of her family? We just don’t know. Yet she seems a happy enough child, dancing around to a favourite pop record – Porque Te Vas by Jeanette, this tune got lodged in my skull for hours after – with her sisters Irene (Conchita Perez) and Maite (Mayte Sanchez) or playing a hiding game (vaguely creepy, to be honest). Tellingly, we also see them dressing up as adults, putting on makeup and acting out an imaginary argument. They don’t seem to be aware of the serious undertones. Why should they be? They’re just kids playing at grown-ups.
Watching Cria Cuervos reminded me a little of Pan’s Labyrinth and I wonder if Guillermo Del Toro may have drawn inspiration from Saura’s film. Pan’s flights into fantasy are classical – but still engaged in the mind of its dying protagonist; Ana’s fantasy arrives in the form of memory, it does not serve as an escape from misery as depicted in Pan’s. Played down but suggested is the cruelty of Anselmo, a philanderer who views Maria as a weakling and refuses to entertain her fears of illness. You know what, I say memory but it’s almost not memory… it’s almost a haunting of the mind, supernatural. Ana looks up at a tall building and imagines herself standing up there. I assume it’s her imagination; it could just as easily be her doppelganger. She jumps but doesn’t fall, she flies and amid heightened traffic sounds we experience her POV, looking down at herself. Later, as she relaxes in her room, Ana suddenly sits bolt upright and begins to preen and pull her mouth in vain mimicry of Aunt Paulina. But it’s like a possession; the wraith girl up on the roof has swooped down and taken possession of Ana. But more of this scene shortly, I’m getting ahead of myself…
Certainly, this isn’t the Ana we’ve been watching so far, she transforms into someone older, wilier… maybe even dangerous. It’s a top piece of work from Torrent. It is this version who speaks to the wheelchair-bound and mute Grandma (Josefina Diaz). Beginning with a matter-of-fact commentary on a picture pinned up to aid the old timer’s fading memory and finally, seeing Gran’s distress at the loss of her happiest reminiscences asks her; “Do you want to die? Do you want me to help you die?” Whoa, where’s the real Ana, what have you done with her! This is the Angel of Death! Well, an Angel of Death armed with only baking soda… Cria Cuervos is based on a Spanish proverb; ‘cria cuervos y te sacaran los ojos’ roughly translated as ‘raise ravens and they will peck your eyes out’. I think we’re in the same ball park as ‘do not bite the hand that feeds you’ but there appear to be several translations and I’m not sure which is the most pertinent. So, if there’s anyone out there with a stronger grasp of Spanish, knock yerself out.
It really is an exceptional performance from Ana Torrent, whether in her quiet moments of reflection or demanding to see Rosa’s tits, or better still, wandering worryingly into Paulina’s romantic interlude waving a loaded Luger around. I can draw a parallel with Pierre Blaise in Lacombe, Lucien and his unresponsive, closed face. Ana seems similarly detached yet her face is open, her childhood struggling to swim in those dark, saucer-sized eyes. She’s seeing everything, storing, judging. She believes her father is responsible for her mother’s death and likewise believes that she, Ana, is responsible for her father’s death. She put ‘poison’ in his milk. But this is only a child’s memory of a mother’s joke; she gave Ana a can of baking soda past its sell-by date to throw away. Her curious daughter wants to know what it is – poison? Yes, poison, strong enough the kill an elephant, throw it away at once…
But Ana doesn’t, she keeps it safe. Why? I could call it kid logic but it’s not; it’s adult logic. Resenting Aunt Paulina for taking the place of her mother, Ana gives her the soda-in-the-milk treatment, which brings me back to the scene I briefly alighted on previously. This time it is the 9 year-old Ana who speaks to camera (to us?), listening again to the deceptively chirpy Porque Te Vas, a song about lost love and abandoned hopes. As she stares into the lens you believe this child is capable of murder in the moment: “Dead. Dead. I want her dead.” It’s chilling and supremely effective – more than anything in any recent ‘evil kid’ movie you’ve seen, the hairs mohawked on the back of my neck. Yet, Ana isn’t all that disappointed when Paulina wakes up alive and well in the morning. It’s more of an awakening – the loss of her childhood in a way. The Past is past, the fantasy put away. Back to school.
Cria Cuervos isn’t a laugh a minute; it’s a haunting portrayal of an unhappy childhood bent out of shape by the loss of a parent. It’s also a master class as a study of the inner workings of a child’s mind. Saura has denied any form of political message, oblique or otherwise. You be the judge…
I’ll go with 4 Ravens out of 5.
ThereWolf, March 2012