Director: Carlos Saura
Writer: Carlos Saura
Cast: Ana Torrent, Geraldine Chaplin, Mónica Randall, Florinda Chico, Conchita Pérez, Maite Sánchez, Héctor Alterio, Germán Cobos, Mirta Miller, Josefina Díaz
Synopsis: An eight-year old girl believes that she has poisoned the authoritarian father whom she blames for the death of her mother.
Probably Carlos Saura’s most celebrated film outside of Spain – which I would partly connect to the fact that it is one of the few to have been widely available in subtitled form – Cría cuervos (the title refers to the Spanish proverb “raise ravens and they’ll peck out your eyes”) won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 1976. This was the only one of Saura’s films – apart from the dance films and ¡Ay, Carmela! (1990) – that I had seen before I started the original run of the Carlos Saura Challenge. I first saw it 15 or 16 years ago on VHS, at a point when I had seen very few Spanish films. In common with another Spanish classic from the same era – El espíritu de la colmena (Víctor Erice, 1973) – it’s a film that I find easier to admire than to like. Less elliptical than El espíritu de la colmena, Saura’s film nonetheless likewise acquires much of its lasting power from the combination of Ana Torrent’s dark-eyed, solemn gaze and its representation of how an impressionable child can have their imagination activated by events they don’t fully understand.
Eight-year-old Ana – Torrent, in a role that Saura wrote specifically for her – overhears her military father (Héctor Alterio) having sex with a family friend (Mirta Miller) and subsequently dying, with the woman fleeing the house. The little girl believes that she has caused her father’s death after putting an unknown white powder – which she has been told is poisonous – into his drink. She holds him responsible for the prolonged illness and painful death of her mother (Geraldine Chaplin) a few years earlier. Saura effectively uses a child’s perspective to depict Spain in the dying days of the Franco dictatorship.
Saura manages to capture some great scenes of sibling interaction, including general squabbling and evidence of the gullibility of younger siblings. The three sisters (Torrent, Conchita Pérez, and Maite Sánchez) delight in music – if you didn’t already have Jeanette’s Porque te vas stuck in your head, you do now – and general silliness (such as when they dress up in Aunt Paulina’s (Mónica Randall) wigs and make-up, and enact hysterical scenes of domesticity), which acts to momentarily lighten the mood in what is otherwise a sad narrative of loss and suppression. Their mother’s sister, Aunt Paulina arrives to put the house and girls in order. She is of the belief that children should be seen and not heard, forgetting that that implies the presence of silent observers – and that grievances fester when they are left unspoken. Ana doesn’t take to her aunt’s disciplinarian ways and begins to plot her death as well.
The camera makes no distinction between the past, present, or future – the blurring is assisted by Chaplin again playing multiple roles, here the dead mother as well as Ana some 20 years later, talking straight to camera about the sadness of her childhood – and therefore we experience the narrative as Ana’s own stream of consciousness. Her belief in something is enough to make it true, a continuation of Saura’s repeated attempts to represent in a tangible form how the present is shaped by our understanding and memory of the past. Filmed while Franco was dying, death permeates the narrative – whether Ana’s obsession with death and dying, or the deaths of her father, mother, and the much-loved Roni the guinea pig. But despite the suffocating atmosphere of the house, the camera also repeatedly insists on showing the noise and bustle of life in the busy streets beyond the walls of the grounds. Along with Ana’s defiant stance, this glimpsed outside world suggests that the regime’s days are numbered.