The best years of life are universally regarded to be those of youth; a time filled with unadulterated fun and adventure with the constraints, monotony and rigmaroles of adulthood nothing but a distant enigma. Director Carlos Saura raises a rather compelling counter argument; he believes “it’s only our memory that tells us this period was a wonderful time, but that’s only because we don’t remember things.” Although a rather pessimistic view (Saura is no doubt referring to his own traumatic childhood growing up during the Spanish civil war), there are many that would agree with him. Cria Cuervos is a delightful exploration of one girl’s traumatic journey through childhood, giving us a warts and all portrayal of the true confusion that plagues this phase instead of glorifying it through self imposed misinformed nostalgia. Using a seemingly endless series of unhappy events, Saura throws us into a time of terrible indecision, cloaked in a suffocating atmosphere of fear. Highly regarded as one of the most insightful and politically charged pieces of Spanish filmmaking, this charming journey of child fantasy imbued in reality finally gets the re-release it deserves from the BFI.
It’s still very much Francisco Franco’s Spain when we intrude upon the Madrid household of the recently widowed Anselmo. He dies suddenly amidst the throes of passion with Amelia, the wife of his best friend and fellow army officer, Nicolas. However, it appears this was no natural death – he was poisoned! The apparent culprit of this calculated murder? None other than the second of his three daughters, Ana (Ana Torrent, Spirit Of The Beehive), a wise beyond her years girl who blames her father for the death of her beloved mother. Cria Cuervos literally translates as Raise Ravens, a Spanish proverb that reads “raise ravens and they’ll take your eyes” and is generally used for someone who has bad luck raising children!
Out of a sense of family duty, Anselmo’s sister-in-law, Paulina, soon moves into the large, yet moderately dilapidated house to care for the girls and their mute grandmother, instantly instituting her own domestic regime. The girls remain unfazed and continue with their lives in much the same manner as before, but as their summer holiday unfolds, we become privy not only to the family dynamic of this all woman household, but also the vivid fantasy world of Ana. Through a myriad of daydreams and other forms of escapism, this inquisitive, imaginative and possible deadly young girl comes to terms with the death of her mother, whilst maintaining her staunch hatred for her father and the oppressive regime he represented…
The most captivating element of Cria Cuervos has to be its seamless story, which impressively blurs together fantasy and memory, whilst maintaining a strong foothold in reality. These hauntingly vivid depictions of Anna’s numerous flights of the imagination are beautifully conveyed as a stark contrast to the repressed household she dwells within and the world around her. These flashbacks, dream sequences and daytime mirages could have easily resulted in a confusing and cluttered film, yet, through deceptively simple shooting methods (Ana’s mother wanders into the frame nonchalantly and is completely ignored by all except Ana), the camera work of Teodoro Escamilla manages to capture the intimacy of these fictitious moments between Ana and her deceased mother. This ability to let fantasy and actuality intertwine on screen, combined with the tension created by the tentative yet relentless movement of the camera, perfectly aligns us with Ana’s point of view. It all culminates in not just an enjoyably honest portrayal of childhood confusion, but a unique and exquisitely presented perspective on the gritty reality of bereavement.
Fans of Pan’s Labyrinth’s darkly unsettling, poetic depiction of child fantasy and fairytales, successfully mirrored against the violent backdrop of the Spanish Civil War, will instantly fall in love with Cria Cuervos. Both films undoubtedly share a similar thematic and stylish template, but stand out for the astonishingly professional performances from their young and engaging female leads. This in no way should detract from the enjoyment of both these films, but instead underlines how effective depicting sensitive adult themes through immature eyes can be. However, unlike Pan’s Labyrinth’s heroine, Ofilia, a young girl who radiated with childlike innocence, Ana Torrent’s performance is so frighteningly serious that you can’t help but believe that she’s more than capable of the most malevolent of acts. This, however, is a role which demands a broader range of emotion responses than your usual pedophobia thriller, yet Torrent’s expressive and incredibly watchful face never falters in portraying any of these.
The film was made whilst General Franco was on his deathbed, and was naturally seen as a metaphor for the last dying gasps of fascism and the dictator’s totalitarian regime. The film clearly stresses the disparity between Ana’s fantasy world and the political reality of fascism though numerous symbolic techniques. The house, whilst clearly quite grand, feels incredibly claustrophobic, and it can be no coincidence that the blinds on the windows seem like prison bars containing the girls from the outside world. The empty swimming pool in the garden, which the girls play around, could also represent the lost pleasures of the era or, indeed, their unfulfilled lives. Ana’s father, in his military attire, is evidently here to represent fascism within the family dynamic. His controlling nature over Ana’s mother (a once famed concert pianist) could easily be interpreted as the repression of artists such as Saura, making Ana’s murderous act seem almost revolutionary within this domestic microcosm. Unfortunately, the introduction of Paulina to rule the home, with her strict code of cleanliness and etiquette, seems to act as a warning that Spain’s transition toward democracy may not be as smooth as hoped for.
Paulina’s presence turns the home into an all female household that spans three generations; each is represented with its own distinctive soundtrack. The disparity between the girls’ incredibly catchy pop music and the classical music, which seemingly once filled the house, shows a shift away from tradition, which is equally apparent in their casual clothing – a stark contrast to the elegant dresses of their elders. It has led to many perceiving that Saura uses the female sex and their legacy of repression as a parallel to Spain’s troubled history. It’s a tenuous link, but the fact remains that many feminists still laud Cria Cuervos as a wonderfully subtle account of female socialization, specifically the way in which the girls reject the roles they are expected to fulfill. Ana’s interactions with Rosa, the maid, lead to some humorous and well crafted examples of this, but perhaps the dress up scene, involving the three girls recreating a domestic dispute, is the most obviously symbolic of them all. It’s a scene that we later realise, through one of Ana’s recollections, is an almost exact copy of an argument between her broken down mother and nauseatingly abhorrent father. Yet, in this delightfully charming recreation by the children, Ana’s portrayal of her mother is a far more assured and confrontational one, perhaps signalling a time of hope regarding women’s rights through this new rebellious generation, brought up within a new liberated Spain. It’s a subject matter dealt with cautiously by the director, who despite these countless depictions of youthful empowerment presents the future Ana (though some gently interspersed, straight to camera pieces) under an impartial light. Interestingly, Saura casts the same actress here as plays Ana’s mother, leading us to question whether young Ana is doomed to make the same mistakes.
The term ‘classic’ often gets thrown around too easily, without much regard to the importance and role of the adjective within cinematic history. Cria Cuervos, with its cultivated meditation on history, memory and childhood, combined with an intriguing political undertone, is a film which can be enjoyed on many, many levels. Whether you choose to view it as a reflective parable documenting the fall of fascism, a subtle allegory about the repressed roles of women, or just as a joyous journey into the fantasy world of an imaginative young girl, it rightfully deserves to be heralded as a true classic.