There is a sequence of three consecutive scenes in Carlos Saura’s Cría cuervos that encapsulate the dominant themes and essential thesis of this extraordinary 1976 Spanish film. One of these scenes, the first of the group, stands among the greatest in cinema history. The series begins as 8-year-old Ana (Ana Torrent) sits back on a bench and listens to a record by Jeanette, barely mouthing the words to the recurring pop song “Porque te vas.” Her stern Aunt Paulina (Mónica Randall) enters the room and interrupts the sing-a-along. When Paulina leaves, Ana restarts the record. She is joined in the room by her younger sister, Mayte (Maite Sánchez), age 5, and her older sister, Irene (Conchi Pérez), age 11. As the music continues, all three girls begin to dance with each other, smiling and moving in a loosened fashion not yet seen to this point in Cría cuervos, and rarely observed afterwards. It’s a charming moment — sweet, casual and revealing of the sisterly bond vital to these girls during a time of difficulty; a joyous digression in an otherwise somber feature.
Soon thereafter, the girls’ grandmother (Josefina Díaz) buzzes for assistance. The elderly woman is wheelchair-bound and unable to speak, so Ana plays the adult in the room and visits her ailing relation. She sees her grandmother scanning a wall of photographs while the old woman listens to her own record, one from years gone by. This brief scene becomes a poignant mosaic of music, memory and imagery, the same components that generally elevate Cría cuervos. The third part of this tripartite sequence, like the previous two, remains detached from the primary narrative of the film (truth be told, there isn’t much of a “story” here to begin with), but it’s nevertheless integral to the overriding topical keynotes. The three girls are again together, this time trying on their aunt’s wig, makeup and adult clothing (Irene even slips an oversized bra over her shirt). They act out a scene in which Ana and Irene take on the roles of their quarreling parents, both of whom are dead, suggesting bitter frequency of these arguments and indicating the pronounced imprint such regular spats have left on their consciousness.
These three sequences combine the key ingredients of Cría cuervos: the distinct yet interrelated influences of the past, present and future, what these girls remember, who they are and what they imagine. They are at a crucial time in their lives, where memories and expectations are challenged by the sad insights of reality, and all of this blurs in an emotional blend of adolescent confusion.
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The family photos in the grandmother’s room first appear under the opening credits of Cría cuervos, illustrating the fragmented, partial portrait of a life to this point, times both happy and sad, and family members alive and dead. From the snapshots, a particularly piercing set of eyes erupt from the static poses, enrapturing the viewer and never quite letting go. These deep, dark and thoughtful orbs belong to Ana, who is played by Torrent in what is surely one of the finest child performances ever committed to celluloid (she had already made an impression in her 1973 debut, The Spirit of the Beehive, directed by Víctor Erice). The beguiling identification with this young girl is immediate and permanent. Throughout the film, her stares, held with a perceptively fixed focus by Saura and cinematographer Teo Escamilla, disclose an enigmatic and melancholic mix of curiosity, doubt and concern. Hers are searching eyes, inquisitive eyes, and much of Cría cuervos’ strength emanates in the shot-reverse-shot back and forth of her face, what she sees and how she reacts (if she even does react, her inexpressiveness is just as telling as her more animated responses).
As Cría cuervos begins, Ana bears acoustic witness to her womanizing father, Anselmo (Héctor Alterio), a senior Army officer, as he audibly dies in the midst of a vociferous lovemaking session with, as it turns out, the wife of a family friend. Once Anselmo passes, the woman, Amelia (Mirta Miller), flees as she attempts to get dressed, only to reappear at his funeral, much to the young Ana’s puzzlement. Ana’s mother, Maria (Geraldine Chaplin), has already died, but her spectral presence remains. In fact, save for the arresting dance sequence, it is only at the ethereal sight of her deceased mother that a smile breaks through Ana’s robotic trance. The warmth and tenderness conveyed in these illusory moments of elation make the loss that much more tragic.
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Cría cuervos is a film preoccupied with death. It surrounds Ana and obsesses her. Starting with its sobering preamble, the picture is inundated by threatening (and tempting) mortality. The adult Ana (also played by Chaplin, who was in a lengthy relationship with Saura and appeared in 10 of his films) occasionally appears, facing the camera and reflecting on her childhood some 20 years later, bridging time and space as only distanced recollection can. She admits that, as a young girl, she held her father responsible for her mother’s sadness, sickness and eventual death. It was this notion that led her to instigate her father’s death, or so she thought. Having long ago been told that innocuous baking soda was a fatal poison, the young Ana takes the substance and mixes it in her father’s drink. Once he dies, she inspects the mostly emptied glass by his bedside and dispassionately washes it. Success. (She later tries the same tactic with mean Aunt Paulina.)
But there are other less mischievous — frankly, less disturbing — times when death fascinates a mystified Ana. Her guinea pig dies, an occasion she greets with burial reverence (does she recognize the natural purity of its passing?), and at one point, she fantasizes about jumping off the roof of a nearby building (a child’s projection of flying, or a genuine contemplation of suicide?). Her encounters with death are sometimes touching, sometimes unnerving. She attempts to aid her exhausted grandmother, who nods that, yes, she wants to die, and nods that, yes, she wants the young girl to help, but sweetly rebuffs Ana’s offer to administer the powder, which the grandmother reads is clearly baking soda. On the other hand, Ana is mortified by the sight of her mother as she writhes in pain, exclaiming “It’s all a lie. There’s nothing…I’m afraid!” Filmed by Saura in excruciating close ups of Chaplin in debilitating discomfort, the agony is unpleasant enough as a Cría cuervos spectator, one can only imagine what Ana must be feeling as she looks down with terrified bewilderment, leaves the room and covers her ears.
The death of Maria is obviously the key catalyst of Ana’s torment. But her mother’s passing is also a figurative occurrence in the symbolic sociopolitical stance of Cría cuervos. As critic Paul Julian Smith has pointed out, the film premiered January 26, 1976, 40 years after the Spanish Civil War began. “Saura could thus hardly have chosen a more momentous time for his meditation on history and memory,” he writes. Spanish dictator Francisco Franco was on his deathbed during production, and the film was therefore “flanked by two decisive events: the assassination of Franco’s nominated successor, Carrero Blanco, in 1973, and the first democratic elections, in 1978.” Barely given more than an archetypal role as a militaristic, domineering individual, Anselmo stands as a representative figure of the old guard, a cold type of person who, at least in Ana’s mind (and subsequently, in one’s own emotionally engaged perception), has taken away beauty, youth and life. This is why the overbearing Aunt Pauline is likewise greeted with such scorn — she, too, is reminiscent of an authoritarian rule that is getting steadily usurped.
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For Smith, the political implications of Cría cuervos also extend to the Madrid manor in which Ana and her family reside, and in and around which most of the film takes place. Indeed, the outside world is scarcely glimpsed; it is more often heard than seen. This family lives an insular existence, where overlapping time gets muddled and lost in day-to-day banality. “The house itself, claustrophobic in spite of its ample size and extensive garden, is a transparent metaphor for the regime,” notes Smith, “which even at the late date of Cría cuervos was still frantically putting up barriers to life beyond its bunker.” Smith contends that even the venetian blinds mimic prison bars, while “the house even boasts an empty swimming pool, a symbol of sensual pleasures lost or unfulfilled… Saura seems to be suggesting that memories, whether personal or political, may be repressed, but, like the inescapable sounds of the city, they will return as ghosts, haunting all Spaniards as they do the characters in Cría cuervos.” Some of that may be a stretch, but the home is certainly a visually striking location, even if just in terms of pure aesthetics and not allegorical relevance.
Cría cuervos, which won the Grand Jury Prize at the 1976 Cannes Film Festival, derives its title from the saying, “Cría cuervos y te sacarán los ojos,” essentially translated as “Raise ravens, and they’ll take out your eyes.” In other words, raise your children well or their behavior will come back to punish you — reap what you sow. Despite this portentous message, though, and even with all its despair and the chaste uncertainty, Cría cuervos remains a blissful film. And that comes squarely down to its seven key actresses: Torrent, Randall, Sánchez, Pérez, Díaz, Chaplin and, as the family’s maid, the affectionate, voluptuous Rosa (Ana marvels at the size of her breasts), Florinda Chico. From Díaz’s subtle expressiveness to Randall’s fierceness to the girls, who can’t help but exude a childish authenticity (the two youngest look directly, naturally, at the camera and the off-screen crew), this is undeniably a film riding on the shoulders of these various women. Though there is anguish for nearly all involved, Saura celebrates their remarkable strength, perseverance and unity.
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Through it all, the girls are granted one notable weekend of happiness, oddly enough when Pauline takes them to the home of Amelia and her husband. They play hide and seek (albeit a somewhat twisted version that ends with Mayte and Irene — surprise, surprise — playing dead), and for a time, they are nothing more than kids after all. But then, it is back to school. Summer vacation has ended. Life goes on, and the sorrow of the weeks depicted in the film will soon fade. Or will it? Like Saura’s Cousin Angélica (1974), the film that immediately preceded Cría cuervos and similarly deals with the youthful recollections that fixate and haunt its main character, this picture is a passionate invocation to the perhaps ignored impact that everyday occurrences have on children, some of whom, like Ana, are more sensitive than they let on. “I can’t understand people who say that childhood is the happiest time of one’s life,” laments the adult Ana. “It certainly wasn’t for me. Maybe that’s why I don’t believe in a childlike paradise or that children are innocent or good by nature. I remember my childhood as an interminably long and sad time filled with fear. Fear of the unknown. These are things I can’t forget. It’s unbelievable how powerful memories can be. So very powerful.”
Jeremy Carr (@jeremyrcarr) teaches film studies at Arizona State University and writes for the publications Film International, Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI’s Notebook, Cinema Retro, Movie Mezzanine, Cut Print Film and Fandor’s Keyframe.