Dir. Carlos Saura, Spain, 1976
by Brendon Bouzard
The prospect of writing a review of CrĂa cuervosâ€¦, recently released for the first time on DVD in the U.S. by Criterion, has proven foolishly daunting for me. Daunting because itâ€™s a film of intangible uniqueness, a gentle, almost comforting lyric on the amorality of childhood and the promises of a New Spain emerging from fascism; foolish because all my previous efforts have dissolved into overzealous bluster. In little under a year since seeing it for the first time (as part of last yearâ€™s Janus-at-50 retro), CrĂa has become a minor obsession of mine, a cult film without a cult, and as such it proves difficult to specifically identify its power. Flitting effortlessly between fairy tale, somber modernism, and mordantly comic soap opera, it represents one of many high points in the career of director Carlos Saura, not least of all because it comes at the historical dividing line that informs his filmmaking trajectory. Completed while Francisco Franco was lying on his deathbed, CrĂa synthesizes many of Sauraâ€™s formal and thematic interests and serves as the centerpiece of his career-long project of illustrating the Spanish national character on film. It starts off as a mystery of sorts, and expands into a low-key chamber drama about the sadness of childhood, before transforming into an allegorical, cryptic memory film on life under fascism.
Franco-era Saura produced caustic, BuĂ±uelian satires on the absurdities of Spanish fascism and the bourgeois scum who rose to its top. Los Golfos, Sauraâ€™s first feature, is a bitterly existential neorealist bullfighting drama. The Hunt is an angry dissection of privileged machismo. The Garden of Delights is misanthropic surrealism about the greedy family of a paralyzed amnesiac trying to access the bank account numbers trapped in his head. After Francoâ€™s death, however, his work settled into more contemplative meditations on Spanish cultural traditions, including a famous series of engagingly kinetic, formally daring flamenco films (the first three of which feature in an upcoming Eclipse box set) and his 1999 Goya in Bordeaux. The tone of CrĂa, like its often overlooked companion Elisa, My Love, strikes a balance. Given his careerâ€™s later left turn, itâ€™s impossible to describe this as Saura in full bloom, but he presents a middle ground between his intensely political allegories and his more romantic, lyrical dance tendencies. The directorâ€™s bitterly ironic sensibility is, for once, tempered by a moderate degree of hope.
Saura situates CrĂa in a ceaselessly cacophonous Madrid, wherein the only quiet is found in the orphan Anaâ€™s (Ana Torrent) cryptlike home, where she lives with her sisters, aunt (Monica Randall), and sickly grandmother. Set over the summer following her fatherâ€™s possible murder, the film follows the travails of this newly adjusting clan of women as Anaâ€™s increasingly troubling behavior begins to get the better of her aunt. The houseâ€”or is it Ana?â€”is haunted by her mother (Geraldine Chaplin), perpetually wandering the halls in a soiled aquamarine nightgown. From this fairy-tale set-up, the film skips back and forth in time and addressâ€”from prolonged flashbacks to life before her parentsâ€™ deaths to direct-address narration by the grown Ana (also Chaplin). Every moment, however, is haunted by the young Anaâ€™s naĂŻve comprehension of mortalityâ€”her dizzying fantasy of suicide, her secret stash of a deadly white powder, her deadpan at the sight of her mother writhing in agony.
Itâ€™s impossible to stress enough how integral the performances of Torrent and Chaplin are to the filmâ€™s success. As in The Spirit of the Beehive, Torrentâ€™s guilelessly sad kewpie doll eyes and understated line readings are hauntingly evocativeâ€”she claims in a brief interview presented on the releaseâ€™s supplemental second disc that she had very little understanding of what the film was about and what she was doing in it. Chaplinâ€”Sauraâ€™s lover for thirteen years and his muse for much of his adventurous middle periodâ€”filmed CrĂa not long after playing the outsized BBC twit in Altmanâ€™s Nashville; thereâ€™s a daringly performative quality to both roles, an almost complete lack of interiority (Chaplinâ€™s character is, of course, merely a memory) that nevertheless conveys a bruised hurt. Itâ€™s an incredibly daring portrayalâ€”when in one scene Ana finds her mother in bed reeling from the pain of her ovarian cancer, she gives off a blistering feral quality. Remarkably given their authentically affectionate on-screen rapport, the interviews with Torrent and Chaplin included with the disc reveal that the former hated working with the latter; indeed, in their later collaboration Elisa, My Love, they share no scenes.
Similarly, Saura derives tremendous power from the dual musical themes repeated throughoutâ€”the somber Satie-lite Federico Mompou piano composition and Jeanetteâ€™s rollicking bubblegum pop â€śPorque Te Vas.â€ť The former serves as a perfect companion to the filmâ€™s muted, low-key design and deliberate camera moves. The latter is the filmâ€™s left-field ace in the hole, a perfectly chosen bit of pop ephemera imbued by the filmâ€™s painterly compositions and Torrentâ€™s doleful face with an almost impossible weight. By the time the film recycles the song for the third time during the final sequence, its banally festive horns and flat vocals become strikingly anthemic, a hopeful marching ballad for the emerging New Spain.
Sauraâ€™s international reputation has waned over the past two decades as heâ€™s focused more insularly on exploring traditions of Spanish art and folk culture. He remains eclipsed by more heralded figures of Spanish cinema (his mentor BuĂ±uel, the increasingly sanitized AlmodĂłvar), and though his work was featured earlier this year in a stellar Lincoln Center retrospective, it went largely unwatchedâ€”even his best-known films were played to near-deserted houses. Heâ€™s a filmmaker deserving of a reputation much greater than the one he currently possesses, and while Criterion and Eclipseâ€™s discs are one important step in rediscovering his vital oeuvre, it might also take a healthy dose of unchecked overzealous bluster to force this onto peopleâ€™s Netflix queues.
So here goes: this movie is damn near a masterpiece, a touchstone of Spanish cinema, and an essential viewing experience for anyone who considers him or herself serious about film as a medium. Now go watch the damn thing.