Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
In 1976 actress Ana Torrent was a beguiling little girl with dark, expressive eyes that suggested a melancholy intelligence. Carlos Saura is still considered Spain's greatest film director, and the making of Cría Cuervos reportedly hinged on the availability of Ana Torrent to star - he'd seen her in The Spirit of the Beehive, another film about dark secrets from the Spanish Civil War. Saura's story of a little girl disturbed by a troubled past was immediately taken by Spaniards as a metaphor for a country still divided. The girl's father, a fascist officer, dies in the very first scene; Spanish audiences equated him with Generalissimo Franco, the dictator who would die the same year.
Anselmo (Héctor Alterio of The Official Story) suffers a fatal heart attack, and his three daughters become the wards of their kindly Aunt Paulina (Mónica Randall) and the maid Rosa (Florinda Chico). The other two girls adjust well enough, but Ana (Ana Torrent) indulges in hallucinatory memory visitations from her mother (Geraldine Chaplin), who died not long before. With her curiosity about the past ignored, and feeling resentment toward her father, Ana's silent rebellion starts to show in little ways ... like the way she saves a can of what she's been told is a deadly poison.
A synopsis of Cría Cuervos leads one to expect a 'demonic child' thriller, although it's more closely related to The Curse of the Cat People, Val Lewton's tale of an emotionally troubled child who invents a fantasy play friend. Director Saura makes little Ana -- representing the youth of Spain -- the sad inheritor of unspoken injustices from the past. Ana is unconcerned with the death of her father, even though it happens in the middle of the night. We then see Ana interacting with her mother, who seems weirdly unaware. Only later do we realize that Mother is only a ghost memory that comes to Ana in times of loneliness.
Aunt Paulina orders the maid Rosa to stop talking about the sordid family history, leaving the intelligent Ana to draw her own conclusions regarding the deaths of her mother and father. Ana knows that her father was sleeping with his best friend's wife when he died, and she relives her parents' arguments in dreams. Aunt Paulina cuts short any discussion of these subjects and expects Ana to forget the past. Not unlike the prince Hamlet, Ana concludes from the available evidence that her father's cruelty killed her mother. Ana obsesses by 'punishing' her dolls. Paulina tells the girl that a small tin contains a powerful poison (probably ordinary tobacco) so Ana hides it away for future use. She also immediately goes for her father's pistol, and brandishes it when she finds her aunt kissing the soldier-husband of her father's mistress.
Cría Cuervos never becomes the killer kid movie suggested by its title: "Cría cuervos y te picarán los ojos" is the full phrase that means, "Raise ravens and they'll peck out your eyes." It's sort of a Spanish version of "As ye sow so shall ye reap", applied to families. We see extended scenes of fairly normal life in an insulated all-female household. When Ana plays with her two sisters, their dress-up skit naturally becomes a husband & wife argument, mimicking what they have learned from their parents. Ana's grandmother lives in the house too but sits speechless in a wheelchair and is mostly ignored. Ana shows the old lady photos and asks her if she wants to die. Unable to communicate with the adults, the withdrawn Ana plays her little Rock 'n' Roll record repeatedly. Aunt Paulina is a good and proper woman who would like to find a man of her own, and doesn't approve of Rosa's openness with the children. When they're alone, Ana suddenly asks if she can see Rosa's breasts. When the large woman proudly complies, Ana stares with wonder. So much of life seems to be hidden!
Without ever speaking a word of politics, Cría Cuervos became a success in Spain because the public took it as a metaphor for the country in the last days of Franco. The military junta suppresses truth and mistreats the public (Ana's mother). Complacent citizens (Paulina) are silent collaborators and any mention of past crimes and injustices is suppressed. The result is a new generation of disaffected rebels who hate life. Hopefully the Ana character will grow and learn more about people before she does anything really violent.
Geraldine Chaplin makes for an ethereal 'memory mom,' showing up unannounced at odd moments. Saura visualizes the phantom in surreal terms, with no signal device to tell us when the fantasy begins and ends. If little Ana can't make a clear distinction, why should we? Chaplin plays an even stranger second role, as little Ana aged twenty more years, and speaking to us from the future (1995). This adds a second level of memory, as the adult Ana observes herself in the past as a confused young girl. The movie seems to ask, what kind of country will Spain be in twenty years?
Criterion's disc of Cría Cuervos is a stunning enhanced transfer that recreates the film's moody and sometimes dreamlike atmosphere. While playing with her sisters in the country, Ana runs to join the adults. Her dead mother is there too, walking with the others and wearing the same dress she wears in all of Ana's memory daydreams. The effect is more haunting than an overtly surrealist visualization might be, because it erupts from within an established naturalistic context.
Disc producer Kate Elmore lines up an impressive group of extras. An entire Carlos Saura documentary from Spanish TV called Portrait of Carlos Saura has been licensed for the disc. Excellent interviews and rare clips give a rounded assessment of one of Europe's least publicized great directors. Geraldine Chaplin appears in a new candid interview speaking about her years with Saura. Filming her scenes with little Ana Torrent required a lot of patience because the girl had a strong dislike for Chaplin. When Ana gives loving looks to her mother off screen, she's really interacting with the first assistant director, on whom Ana had a powerful crush!
Ms. Torrent appears in her own new interview segment, talking about being a child actor when she didn't really understand what was going on. Her mystique hasn't faded an iota; she began acting as a lark and has made it her career.
Film scholar Paul Julian Smith provides the key text essay for the Cría Cuervos insert booklet, examining Carlos Saura's films in both political and psychosexual terms. In October, Criterion's Eclipse series will present Saura's "Flamenco trilogy", which includes his much-anticipated Flamenco Carmen with Laura Del Sol and Antonio Gades.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Cría Cuervos rates:
Supplements: New interviews with Geraldine Chaplin & Ana Torrent; Spanish TV show Portrait of Carlos Saura, essay by Paul Julian Smith
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 20, 2007
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson
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