Criterion // 1976 // 109 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Tom Becker // August 14th, 2007
"Raise ravens and they'll peck out your eyes."
-- Spanish proverb
"I can't understand people who say that childhood is the happiest time
of one's life."
-- Ana, as an adult (Geraldine Chaplin)
Stumbling out of bed in the middle of the night, 8-year-old Ana (Ana Torrent, The Spirit of the Beehive) finds herself standing outside her father's bedroom door, listening as he makes love to a woman. He starts complaining that he can't breathe, and then there is silence. A woman hurriedly leaves, but she and Ana lock eyes.
Ana sits with her father's corpse, then takes a glass from the room and washes it. In the kitchen, she sees her mother, María (Geraldine Chaplin, Nashville), who speaks to her affectionately and then sends her to bed.
It turns out that while Ana did witness her father's death, her mother has been dead for some time. Now orphaned, Ana and her sisters are being cared for by their earthy housekeeper, Rosa, and their mother's sister, Paulina, who is at odds with the role of surrogate mother that has been thrust on her. Also part of the household is Ana's wheelchair-bound grandmother. Perhaps crippled by a stroke and unable to speak, she spends her time staring at a wall of family photos depicting happier times.
In some ways, she is not unlike Ana, who only seems happy when she is recapturing the past, whether it is her visits with her deceased mother or when she and her sisters are play-acting fights that took place between their parents. The toll of loss has affected Ana in another way: She seems obsessed with death, frequently talking about it or wishing it on others, either genuinely or as part of play.
Carlos Saura's Cría Cuervos is both a strikingly crafted meditation on memory, grief, and childhood and a bold statement on Spain in the waning days of the Franco regime.
Ana and her sisters are being raised in a middle-class home in Spain in the 1970s. Their father was an officer in Franco's army, their mother a gifted pianist who chose the security of marriage over the uncertainty of a career in music. Ana is the middle child, with sisters a couple of years older and younger.
Ana's memories of her mother are of a beautiful, kind, and loving woman. But memories are not always reliable, even recent ones. It is to these memories that Ana increasingly turns for comfort and clarity, drifting farther into her own world. Although she has frequent, and very real, interactions with her dead mother (and, at times, her father), Cría Cuervos is by no means a ghost story. The dead do not haunt so much as they merge, the past commingling with the present.
We flash forward 20 years for comments from adult Ana (also played by Chaplin, though with a different actress's voice dubbed). Ana will eventually turn into her mother, who, in addition to being beautiful and loving toward her daughter, was also neurotic and fragile, and who also had death wishes, but for herself, not others. Adult Ana seems no less neurotic, but she has replaced the fragility with a hard veneer of bitterness.
The acting in Cría Cuervos is uniformly excellent, with Ana Torrent giving an exceptional performance as young Ana, her large, soulful eyes more expressive than pages of dialogue and narration. This is not a typical child performance. Torrent keeps her cards close to the vest. Ana is alternately sympathetic and fearsome, with a world-weariness one wouldn't associate with a relatively sheltered 8-year-old. Pay attention to the lyrics of the sprightly sounding pop tune that seems to be Ana's favorite.
Although all the major players are women, men permeate the story. Part of María's misery is due to her husband, who is selfish and unfaithful; the closest Ana has to an epiphany is understanding her father's attraction to his mistress (who was also the wife of his best friend), coming to see the woman as warm, affectionate, and sensual. The woman's husband believes his marriage a failure and seeks solace from someone who is the inverse of his wife. The girls' bedroom is typically filled with pictures of boy pop stars, but the boys in these pictures seem to be ever watching over the girls.
In an interview, Geraldine Chaplin explains that Saura was not intending to make any political statements through the film, but it is impossible to watch Cría Cuervos without seeing the parallels to the Franco regime. The family lives in a large house that still seems cramped, with all three girls sharing a bedroom and the rest of the world far away, but close enough to hear the traffic. The children play with guns, a legacy of their father. The three generations of women are like three generations of Spanish citizenry: the pre-war, left mute and immobile with only their memories; the current, stifled and sickly; and the future, uncertain, but for whom freedom seems available. The film closes with the girls leaving the confines of the home to return to school, though as they meet up with other children, they are all wearing the same uniform and become indistinguishable from each other.
The picture quality is a tad dull, but still a solid anamorphic transfer, and the mono track is a good presentation of both dialogue and music. For extras, we get an excellent one-hour documentary, Portrait of Carlos Saura, which features clips and interviews with the director, his collaborators, and friends and family. There are also two interviews, one with Chaplin (Saura's companion for many years) and another with Torrent. These interviews were filmed for this release. It's interesting to see Torrent now, at 40, and listen to her own memories of making this film (particularly when compared to Chaplin's recollections).
While the documentary and interviews are very good, the less than 90 minutes of extra material barely justifies this being a two-disc set. A commentary track would have served this movie very well. The closest we really get to insight specific to the film are an excellent essay by Paul Julian Smith and Chaplin's observations during her interview. Clearly there are film scholars and major participants from the production who would have been able to provide a track. Also, and this might just be me, I don't like the stacked double-disc set up. The packaging for Ace in the Hole was also like this.
There is comparatively little of Saura's oeuvre represented on Region 1 DVD. It would be great if this release opened the door for Peppermint Frappé, La Caza, ¡Ay, Carmela!, and other Saura films.
Cría Cuervos is a beautiful and demanding work of art that invites repeat viewings. Despite the scarcity of extras, Criterion is commended for once again bringing us a film that might have otherwise fallen into obscurity.
Review content copyright © 2007 Tom Becker; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.66:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Spanish)
Running Time: 109 Minutes
Release Year: 1976
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Interview with Geraldine Chaplin (21:00)
* Interview with Ana Torrent (7:30)
* Feature: "Portrait of Carlos Saura" (62:00)
* Essay by film scholar Paul Julian Smith: "The Past Is Not Past"