Film by Carlos Saura, Spain, 1976
Cria Cuervos is a dark, engrossing film by Spanish film maker Carlos Saura. I watched it for film studies last semester and absolutely loved it. This was an essay I wrote about it. I think it is interesting to know the historical and political context of the film, but even if I had not known them, this wonderful, disturbing film would still have moved me. This is a must see!
Saura’s work as a film maker is inextricably entwined within the social and political climate in which he lived and grew up, and within whose constraints he was forced to work.
In this essay, I will look at the historical influences on film under Franco, the auterist movement Saura was part of that tried to move towards social realism, whether through New Wave cinema, or allegory, as Saura did, and at how Cria Cuervos reflects Saura’s obsession with his country’s dark history and stifled present through allegory.
Francoism brought about the concept of Hispanidad, a kind of German Fascist inspired idea of the ideal of the Catholic, Hispanic race as an ideal, and the creation of an imaginary utopian past for the nation. With government control of media, propaganda was spread to promulgate this fiction.
The film industry was torn apart by the Francoist regime, with Republican sympathizers forced to flee the country, the positions were taken by Francoist sympathizers, and those willing to do what it took to make their living as a film maker or actor, no matter what the moral compromises. During the dictatorship, ‘the country’s literary, and, above all, dramatic heritage played a leading role in imposing certain norms, always of an old-fashioned kind’. The only kind of cinema that existed made audiences feel ‘alienated, if not actually hostile’. (Borau, 1999: xviii- xix)
Film censorship had grown more and more powerful since 1937, but with no real written guidelines, their decisions were ‘arbitrary and always infallible, leaving no recourse to the film maker to question a decision.’ (D’Lugo, 1991: 17) Film makers were inevitably forced to censor their own films to try and ensure they passed the censors. The films of this era, while not explicitly to do with the war, clearly reflected the values and historical view present in Francoist ideology. Most post war film consisted of ‘folkloric comedies and romantic genre films’
The 1941 film, Raza was actually written by Franco himself under a pen name and sought to film what the Francoist dictatorship saw as a void in the area of a film about ‘heroic Spanish ideals’. (D’Lugo, 1991: 17) This film brought about the constant in François propaganda of using the family unit as a ‘microcosm of Spain itself’ (D’Lugo, 1991: 18) and to portray the Fascist ideals and struggle, becoming the structural and idealistic guide for films of the era. Saura would later turn this family metaphor very cleverly on its head in his own films, such as Cria.
Saura describes Spanish film makers as ‘self-taught’, sheltered from the good films of the rest of the word, only hearing of them from word of mouth from the lucky friends who got out of the country. They had to create their own visual language to escape the censors.
At the time Saura attended it; Spanish film school still greatly limited what its students were allowed to see, as it was government controlled.
‘For me therefore, Neorealism came as a shock. The Italian Cultural Institute brought a “Week of Italian Neorealist Cinema”… and they invited members of the film School to the proceedings. It was a fantastic experience. I will never be able to thank them enough for that… And it was then that we started to formulate the problem for ourselves… a cinema within the terms of Spanish underdevelopment, that is to say, with more of a basis in realism and a cinema of a very modest production scale.’ (D’Lugo, 1991: 15)
In 1951, Ruiz-Gimenz’s rise to minister of education began a ‘liberalization of the Spanish university system’. The university magazines founded under this new, slightly gentler educational regime would form some of the first dissenting voices. In 1955, Spain’s separation from Europe ended when it was allowed into the United Nations, although still harshly repressing the growing resistance. (D’Lugo, 1991: 20)
The film magazine Ojetivo, which ran only from may 1953 to Spring 1955 before being shut down by the government had, despite its short run time, a significant impact, offering the first avenue for an alternative version of film and cultural criticism. This, also, was strongly influenced by New Wave Italian cinema and cinema journal Cinema Nuevo. And especially praising films with social realism. They also founded the Salamanca conversations, which were to prove as lasting legacy of their work. These ‘Conversations on National Cinema’ ‘where Spanish film makers from diverse backgrounds came together to reject the Francoist cinema and demand a new kind of cinema that could address contemporary social problems in Spain and achieve international recognition abroad.’ (Kinder, 1993: 3) would reinforce the liberal spirit among young film makers of the era. Though created by liberals, the conference was not biased, featuring film makers and critics of all political ideals. Unfortunately, the most immediate output of this conference was to identify the radicals to the government and make them targets.
“At Salamanca I was a really a spectator, although totally fascinated by something which had never crossed my mind before: the formulation of Spanish cinema in political terms; the possibility of making films rooted in reality; the return of realism” (Braso, 1974: 34 in D’Lugo, 1991: 22)
‘Saura’s films pursued a narrative style that moved away from social realism to be consciously allegorical, including autobiographical elements and making increasing references to both his own films and those of others’. (Bentley, 2008: 21) he created ‘A new language that would help characterize the New Spanish Cinema’ Spanish cinema in general. (Kinder, 1993:12)
In a film industry marred by censorship, Saura’s turn to allegory was an ingenious way to evade censorship. ‘It was felt that Saura’s work had become so hermetic and difficult to understand, that it would in any case only appeal to minority groups who were already negative to the regime.’ (D’Lugo, 1991: 114-5)
However, Saura was not merely doing this to evade censorship, but also for artistic reasons, he ‘tried to signal the break from Bardem and Berlanga and the move toward a second phase by claiming the exiled Bũnel and the French new wave as his models instead of neorealism.’ (Kinder, 1993: 7)
Saura’s metaphor ‘is a poetic figure constructed so that the vehicle of the metaphor does not replace the tenor, but in which both are present simultaneously.’ he does not let this ‘spoil the illusion of reality’. (Monegal, 1998: 207)
Saura's films were both a personal and wider cultural narrative. ‘Work[ing] within the heritage of Franco without ever claiming they can transcend or escape from it.’ (Conley, 1998: xviii) They spoke of the malaise of a culturally stagnant and controlled country. The film makers of whom Saura was a part saw themselves as the children of Franco, “emotionally and politically stunted children who were no longer young; who, because of the imposed role as ‘silent witness’ to the tragic war that had divided country, family, and self, had never been innocent; and who, because of the oppressive domination of the previous generation, were obsessed with the past and might never be ready to take responsibility for changing the future.” (Kinder, 1983: 57)
Saura’s own fragmented childhood memories of the war allowed him entrance to the state of a child in his narrative, writing partly autobiographically. Scenes of horror that he saw as a child stayed with him vividly, marking both his childhood and adulthood.
Saura’s films ‘focus on the family, divided and dysfunctional, as a metaphor for Spanish society, confined to a big house with or without a garden, representing ‘private past experience and the collective past of Spain [..] a search that is at once personal and collective’ (Kovacs, 1981:46 in Bentley, 2008: 214). In the setting, the empty pool could be said to symbolise the empty pool of national memory. The particularly poignant scene where the speechless paralysed grandmother wants Ana to show her the photos of her life. it is not clear whether Ana really know the stories or is re-imagining them, and this seems to reference the re-imagination of Spanish history and the notion of having lost any sense of what is real or true anymore.
In Cria Cuervos, “a moving tale of a sensitive child’s loss of innocence; but also a brilliant allegory of Spaniards trying to “reason” their own emotional liberation from captivity in the prison house of François ideology.” (D’Lugo, 1991: 131) We see not just a little girl dealing with the death if her parents but a nation dealing with the loss of a tyrannical father figure and their lack of direction or knowledge where to go.
‘The film [Cria] presents three generations of women, each identified by her own musical theme, as the victims of hypocritical patriarchal values and of the military… since Ana’s father is an army officer… women are often representative of the silent victims of the regime.’ (Bentley, 2008: 216)
Ana’s role is allegorical, but also painfully obvious of Saura’s remembrances of his shattered childhood. Ana is so open and easy to identify with, an intelligent, imaginative child whose life has been rocked by death. She is clearly representative of a ‘child of Franco’. In a scene where Ana and her sisters, while playing families, imitate the squabbles and problems of the generation before them, it seems to imply an unguided generation that will repeat the mistakes of the past.
The pervasive nature of soldiers (all high ranking) in the film is clearly indicative of the fascist nature of the state. Every single man in this film is a soldier. And all are in uniform in almost every scene. The scene where the girls’ father is in his coffin surrounded by the soldiers with a camera angle slanted up towards them makes us feel dominated and afraid, both like a child, and from a position of no power and weakness. Children are unable to control their lives, as were the people under Franco.
The funeral clearly intimates the end of Franco, but it is not with a feeling of relief, but with an overall pervasive air of dread that this scene is filmed, which is significant. The old woman, pushed into the shadows may represent the marginal role of women in the perfect world of the Francoist dictatorship, and also the old life before the dictatorship happened, pushed into the shadows, and changed. The little girl moves into the shadows to be with the grandmother, she does not have a way to go and will be lost herself.
Her aunt’s ‘authoritarian’ regime follows on after the death of her father, showing that such things are not easily put in the past and one dictator or regime often rises to take the place of the old one, however, the people, represented as children, cannot take care of themselves, and need someone to guide them.
The use of an ‘elliptical narrative’ form in Saura’s films such as Cria create a feeling of both the cyclical nature of time and the inescapable nature of fate ‘The mnemonic traces of a personality immersed in painful events from the past and to the iterative traces of collective history and dominant ideology.’ (Kinder, 1993: 133)
Saura leaves the ending of Cria very open for, although we see the future grown up Ana talking about her childhood- we do not glimpse her future, nor that of the country. Clearly he is reflecting an uncertainty for the future of Spain. She reflects on the sadness of her childhood, but not on her current life. Is she happy, what is the state of the nation? We are not even afforded a glimpse of what this future looks like; she is filmed wearing a plain top in front of a featureless grey wall. She could even be in a prison or government building. In this way, the future always has an ominous presence, but is never truly revealed, reflecting the complete unknown of the future after Franco. The empty wall and setting has been said imply ‘an empty future’ (Bentley, 2008: 216)
Ana’s mother also gave up much for her family and philandering husband. She had been a talented piano player and given it up when she was married, and maybe she could have been great. Saura's own mother was a piano player who gave it up when she had a family and it seems his own personal musings on the subject have influenced his outlook.
Saura’s films have been described as ‘indirect’ and ‘highly interiorized’. (Kinder, 1993: 67) By using allegory Saura manages to make his movie more poignant and personal and far more revealing than with an obvious narrative. Although it has been agued that the ‘veiled allusion or clever innuendo… ultimately eluded even the grasp of audiences.’ (Borau, 1999: xix) However, even if this is so, his films are rich and deep and a huge contribution to Spanish culture, and help today in an understanding of life after the Spanish Civil War and the heightened political climate of the time that pervaded all aspects of life.
It is clear that Saura’s experiences of fascism under Franco profoundly shaped the films that he made. Not only is life under and after Franco the topic of most of his films, but his entire technique and filmic styles, have also been altered by the constraints under which he made films, only to become more ingenious.
Therefore it can be said that the historical and political conditions under which a film are made supremely influence both film and those who make film. It would be interesting to see what Saura’s films would have been like had a been born into a different country, and whether, had he not been forced to work under, admittedly frustrating and difficult conditions, his work would have been half so ingenious and touching.
Bentley, B. 2008, A companion to Spanish Cinema, Woodbridge ; Rochester, NY : Tamesis.
Conley, T. 1998, ‘Foreword: A Land Bred on Movies’ in Talens, J., Zunzunegui, S. (ed.), Modes of representation in Spanish cinema, Minneapolis : University of Minnesota Press. pp xi-xxvi
D’Lugo, M. 1991, The films of Carlos Saura: The Practice of Seeing, Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press.
Borau, J. 1991, ‘Prologue: The Long Mach of the Spanish Cinema Towards Itself’ in Evans, P. (ed.), Spanish Cinema, the Auterist Tradition, Oxford; New York : Oxford University Press. pp xvii-xxii
Higginbotham, Virginia, 1988, Spanish Film under Franco, Austin: University of Texas Press.
Kinder, M. 1983, The Children of Franco in The New Spanish Cinema, Quarterly Review of Film Studies, vol. 8, no. 2 pp 57-76
Kinder, M. 1993, Blood Cinema: the Reconstruction of National Identity in Spain, Berkeley : University of California Press.
Monegal, A. 1998 ‘Images of War: Hunting the Metaphor’ in Talens, J., Zunzunegui, S. (ed.), Modes of representation in Spanish cinema, Minneapolis : University of Minnesota Press. pp 203-215
The film starts by focusing on an upper middle class family’s bulletin board in Spain, 1975. We see picturesof three young sisters playing, looking serious, running and jumping. We see their fragile nervous mother, (Geraldine Chaplin), hugging them and hovering in the background. Their stiff military father, Anselmo, (Héctor Alterio), commands the center. The action cuts away to their house at night. The middle sister Ana, (Ana Torrent), walks down the stairs to confusing noises, (“I can’t breath. I’m suffocating”) and watches her father’s mistress Amelia, (Mirta Miller), flee from the house while buttoning her blouse. She then discovers her father’s dead body in the bed. As Amelia runs out the door we see that a thick concrete wall surrounds this crisp modern home. The tall wall isolates the house from Madrid but not from the piercing loud sound of the sirens outside.
In a few minutes we have been introduced to a family and to a country. When Carlos Saura made Cría Cuervos Spain was about to undergo a sharp transition. Though he couldn’t have known that right wing dictator Francisco Franco would be dead within a year of its release, this film would forecast the end of his regime with remarkable clarity. Within this fortress of a house, the political and the personal are fused. History as embodied by the three generations within the home: those from before the Spanish Civil War, the generation that grew up during Franco’s regime, and their children are waiting to be freed.
The supplements on Criterion’s much appreciated release of Cría Cuervos place the film and the work of Saura within the conflated artistic and political realm that he favored while reassessing the film's value and relevance over thirty years after its release. The Spanish television documentary Portrait of Carlos Saura is a good introduction, tracking his evolution and the recurring imagery and themes that emerged through his work. He rose to prominence in the late fifties and sixties determined to criticize Franco from within Spain, using metaphoric plotlines ingenuous enough to slip past the censors.
He befriended Luis Buñuel at Cannes and the elder master became a casual mentor. Saura says, "Back then, reality was just what you saw before you. Social realism and all that. But I've always felt reality was much more vast, and that came from Buñuel. He offered that breadth of vision, a much greater scope where you could use your mind to bring in the past, present, and future -- everything. That was a huge discovery."
In Cría Cuervos this idea is combined with fantasy and light surrealism to create a searing personal and emblematic psychological portrait of a lonely child in a time of upheaval.
Orphaned after their father’s death, the sisters are cared for by their no-nonsense Aunt Paulina, (Mónica Randall), who is mysteriously fierce and fragile. Ana bristles at her forceful parenting style while taking comfort in the silent remembrances of her grandmother, (Josefina Díaz).Torrent’s sad saucer eyes absorb the world around her. Her view of the world it distorted by attempting to make sense of it. Her performance is as impressive as in the just completed Spirit of the Beehive, but it cannot be attributed to an old soul aura since Torent says in a recently taped supplemental interview. "I didn't understand what I was doing, that movie was not for kids.”
Chaplin, who was married to Saura, offers the most illuminating commentary in a separate interview. She says, "I think Ana is Carlos…lost in a world that she doesn't understand, that she thinks she has control over.” Saura came of age during the Civil War, which she says interiorized his conflicting emotions. Ana and Saura’s mothers were both training to be concert pianists and abandoned their ambitions when they married.
Ana is smart and assertive, but struggles to make sense of her world, which becomes the film’s thin source of dramatic thrust. She confuses life and death, trying to poison her aunt,(it’s baking soda), fantasizes meetings with her mother, remembers fights between her parents that may or may not have occurred and recreates them with her sisters. In Portrait Chaplin says that Ana is "the little girl who observes everything and has the power to create her own world and it's a dark world."
In their games, the three sisters are rebelling against yet imitating the bullying, chauvinistic dynamics of their parents. Their prime inheritance is the violent and abusive power dynamics of a Fascist regime, represented by the constant philandering of the parents, their relatives and friends going on behind closed doors.
At the film’s climax Ana takes one of her father’s guns and says it was given it to her by her father. Her older sister Irene (Conchita Pérez) claims a rifle, while the youngest Maite,(Maite Sánchez), takes the "Legion flag." The housekeeper,(Florinda Chico), tries to take Ana’s gun away, but she runs into the room where Paulina and Amelia’s husband are necking. He jokingly takes the gun from Ana, finds that it is loaded, and Paulina slaps Ana. "I can't take it anymore!” screams Ana as the couple collapses into each other’s arms, forgetting the child. According to Paul Julian Smith’s booklet essay, the "enigmatic title" is a reference to the Spanish proverb, “Raise ravens and they’ll peck out your eyes.”
It should be mentioned that the movie is not all bleak. There is a melancholy tone held throughout, but co exists with Saura’s dark deadpan humor, attributed by the director to his native Arágon. Chaplin says the humor is that of the silent observer, who tries not to judge, but can’t help but laugh at what he sees. This dual nature is best captured by the scene with the gun and the frequent use of a dippy yet affecting pop song about love and loss, “Porque te vas,” that Ana plays for emotional solace.
Chaplin says in her interview that, "Cría Cuervos was not meant to be a political film"...but the moment you represent...a family in a country that has very strong political repression you are making political criticism even though what you are doing is making social criticism...Anselmo is Franco, Maria represents Spain, a hurt sick Spain, and Ana represents youth, new Spain, maybe trying to kill the old Spain...It got by because what he was showing was the ideal family according to that regime."That the Franco ideal was so corrupted they didn’t realize that representation is denunciation has a perverse appeal. But it’s hard to believe as the politics are so ringing and clear and his political advocacy is so thoroughly demonstrated throughout the Criterion set, that Saura did not intend to deliberately criticize the state of Spain.
Through Ana Saura expresses his anger at the seemingly unbreakable patterns of this conservative environment. Each new generation replicates the previous one's behavior. As Smith points out, the grandmother, Ana, and her mother each take refuge in a song from their era. The structure draws back on itself like a Spirograph, with Saura employing the same sideways gliding camera movements to indicate repetitive cycles. Sometimes a grown-up Ana comments on the action from the future. She is played by Chaplin, indicating a connection and continuation between Ana and her mother.
And yet, by projecting into the future Saura encourages thoughts of change. Hope lies outside the walls. The cacophony of sirens seems to be tearing them down. The younger generation, the spirit of these women, is impatient. Smith cites Pedro Almodóvar paying homage to Saura by casting Chaplin in Talk to Her. That movie has a similar fantastic Freudian tone. In a weird way, much like the way the death of Anselmo anticipated the death of Franco, the female characters foreshadow Almodóvar’s celebration of vibrant Spanish women. The flower prints on the wallpaper and their clothes are like muted versions of Almodóvar’s sun splattered color schemes waiting to blossom.
In the Portrait of Carlos Saura, Antonio Saura says of his father's films, "There's always the idea that people pin their life up on bulletin boards. But you never see that in any Spanish home! That's his own personal quirk! But there is that obsession that people collect things and fashion a portrait of themselves and live in its midst. It's true. It's the 'Saurian office.'”
Considering that it takes place within such a specific politically charged setting, Cría Cuervos is maturing nicely without age-specific baggage. If this film is a portrait, it has the quality of a living photo, where the eyes of the subjects pierce through the unknowable circumstances of past eras. Saura’s intersection of the personal and the fictional has created a potent vibrancy within the film’s decaying world. History battles the stagnation of memory, rolling forward in a circular and linear motion, and something timeless is achieved.
Cria CuervosSubtitle: Criterion Collection
Director: Carlos Saura
Cast: Héctor Alterio, Geraldine Chaplin, Florinda Chico, German Cobos, Mirta Miller
MPAA rating: N/A
US DVD Release Date: 2007-08-14