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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » El Sur: Criterion Collection (Blu-ray)
El Sur: Criterion Collection (Blu-ray)
Criterion // Unrated // June 19, 2018 // Region A
List Price: $39.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Randy Miller III | posted June 15, 2018 | E-mail the Author

Doomed to suffer the fate of its central character, Victor Erice's sophomore film El Sur (1983) concerns two members of a rural Spanish family who fail to make a connection during their short years together. It's largely told from the perspective of Estrella (played as a child by Sonsoles Aranguren, a teenager by Iciar Bollain, and narrated as an adult by Maria Massip), who is captivated by her sometimes affectionate but largely distant father Agustin (Omero Antonutti). Estrella's interactions with mother Julia (Lola Cardona) and housekeeper Milagros (Rafaela Aparicio) are often short and stilted, so she frequently spends time searching for clues about why her father seems to push away from his family. After discovering the sketch of a woman named Irene Rios in their dusty attic, Estrella's curiosity is piqued and it's not long before her spiritual search becomes a physical one. Yet as she digs deeper, his absences become more frequent.

El Sur nails down a few key elements tightly, creating an accessible atmosphere and a small assortment of characters that viewers will care about. Much of its success, however, is rightly due to fantastic cinematography by the prolific Jose Luis Alcaine (Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Volver); it's designed to mirror classical paintings and features lots of deep shadows, natural light, and occasional bursts of muted color that give it a stark and dreamlike appearance. Not surprisingly, this serves the many flashback scenes quite well, evoking a yearning sense of nostalgia for the earlier lives of its central characters' incomplete relationships. Music cues also work strongly in the film's favor; many were composed by Spanish pianist Enrique Granados (d. 1916), whose life story is a fascinating but ultimately tragic read.

Unfortunately, production on El Sur was halted (reportedly for financial reasons) after 48 days of shooting; with more than a month left on the schedule, the film ended up being roughly two-thirds of its original scope. The final 95-minute cut was regarded as "an unfinished work" by the director, who only submitted it to Cannes and other festivals at the request of friends and colleagues. Erice was somewhat surprised at the warm reception by audiences and critics alike (not enough to warrant a "sequel", for lack of a better word), but it's hardly a shock when taking El Sur's wisftul, mysterious narrative into account. This is a film about a young girl's longing desire to understand her distant father...so when it ends before her final push southward to discover more about his past, we're allowed to draw our own conclusions. No one can say that El Sur is better as-is than it could have been, but most films that share its fate don't turn out nearly as well.

El Sur's handicap didn't end with a shortened production, either: though also warmly regarded by several American film critics back 1983, it has never been released on Region 1 home video before Criterion's new Blu-ray. (Erice's better-known debut film, Spirit of the Beehive, was released on DVD by the studio in 2006 and will hopefully get the Blu-ray treatment soon.) As expected, this is a well-rounded package with an excellent A/V presentation, several valuable bonus features, and a softcover copy of Adelaida Garcia Morales' original novella is even tucked inside. A keeper for sure.

Presented in its original aspect ratio, this 1080p transfer of El Sur represents the film's domestic home video debut and, not surprisingly, looks fantastic right out of the gate. The exquisite lighting and cinematography by Jose Luis Alcaine is a real standout and, according to the man himself in an accompanying interview, a career highlight. Modeled after 16th, 17th, and 18th century classical paintings, the moody locales and shadow-heavy interiors were, for the most part, lit naturally and create a memorable, often muted atmosphere. (Interestingly enough, the never-shot second half of the film was intended to have a lot more color.) Image detail, saturation, and textures are quite impressive at times, though the intended presence of haze and strong film grain often give El Sur a more darkened, dreamlike quality than what first-time viewers may be expecting. No obvious digital imperfections, including excessive DNR and compression artifacts, could be spotted along the way. Overall, this is a fantastic effort from Criterion and fans should be pleased.

NOTE: The images on this page do not necessarily represent the title under review.

The audio presented in its original Spanish DTS-HD 1.0 Master Audio format and, in comparison to the visuals, sounds a bit less impressive to my ears; this is likely due to its source material. The high end is quite harsh at times, as a few segments of on-screen music are mixed loudly when compared to the typically quiet dialogue. (The accordion at Estrella's party is almost unbearable, but then again I'm not a fan of the instrument.) El Sur is not heavy on dialogue, but it's quite thin and whispery at times; Maria Massip's narration, on the other hand, sounds more full and dynamic. Optional English subtitles, advertised as a new translation, are included during the film and extras for translation only.

Criterion's interface is very smooth and easy to navigate with access to a timeline, chapters, and bonus features. The disc is locked for Region A players only; it's packaged in Criterion's standard "stocky" keepcase with a cover design by Michael Boland and appropriately moody interior artwork as well. There are two inserts tucked inside: a fold-out Booklet features a new essay by novelist/critic Elvira Lindo and notes on Criterion's A/V restoration, while the other is a new edition of the eponymous 1985 Novella by Adelaida Garcia Morales on which the film is based (48 pages, paperback).


The main extras (which are, in their presented form, exclusive to Criterion) include a 2003 Video Interview with director Victor Erice (21 minutes) and a new Retrospective Featurette featuring interviews with actors Omero Antonutti, Sonsoles Aranguren, and Iciar Bollain; cinematographer Jose Luis Alcaine; and camera operator Alfredo Mayo (25 minutes). Both offer extremely valuable first-hand perspectives about the film's inception, production, and impact; topics of discussion include the early end of shooting after just 48 days, the regret of an unfinished project, the story's narrative arc, starting the production process in December 1982, assembling a final cut from the incomplete footage, the film's surprising success with critics and audiences, details about the missing second half, assembling the cast and crew, developing El Sur's distinct cinematography, memories of the on-set experience, working with the director, and much more.

Also here is a 1996 episode of Spanish film review series Que grande es el cine Espanol (61 minutes) featuring critics Miguel Marias, Miguel Rubio, and Juan Cobos, who discuss El Sur and Victor Erice's career thus far. This is an interesting program in which the critics -- and presumably, the viewing audience -- are treated to a screening of the featured film, which is introduced and then discussed in detail afterwards. Some information is repeated, but there's plenty of valuable insight and the second-hand analysis is appreciated after hearing from the cast and crew in other interviews.

El Sur should be a pleasant surprise for those unfamiliar with Spanish director Victor Erice's small body of work: filled with memorable visuals and a glimpse of the fractured, vaguely nostalgic relationship between a father and daughter through the years, there's a lot to appreciate about what it brings to the table. Equally interesting is El Sur's unfinished status and production history, which strangely ends up fitting its wistful, mysterious narrative like a glove. Criterion's new Blu-ray represents the film's Region 1 home video debut and, not surprisingly, is an impressive package: featuring a strong A/V presentation and three extremely valuable supplements (not to mention a copy of the novella it was based on), El Sur will appeal to established fans of the director and curious newcomers alike. Highly Recommended.

Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work and runs a website or two. In his free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs, and writing in third person.
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