A seamless story about memory and fantasy blurring together, Cría Cuervos is unquestionably Carlos Saura’s greatest film. He made fine movies before it, and some fine ones after it, but he would never again work at quite so high a level of skill and feeling. In his first decade or so as a director, Saura had had to work against the draconian censorship of the Spanish government, but these restrictions were coming to an end while Cría Cuervos was shot: General Franco was on his deathbed. Naturally, the film was seen as a metaphor for the last gasps of Franco’s totalitarian regime, and it’s suggestive on that political level, but it works equally well as a universal portrait of childhood as a mysterious country where we are led from one darkened room to another and can’t really understand ninety percent of what we see and hear.
As the protagonist, a small girl who has lost both of her parents, the uncanny Ana Torrent is so intimidatingly serious that she puts the instinctively tricksy ploys of almost all other child performers to shame. Saura dotes on Torrent’s ability to focus any chaos surrounding her back onto the void of her enigmatic, watchful face; he knows that he’s found a nine-year old Garbo, and so we see the film entirely through her lustrous brown eyes. Saura casts his leading lady and lover of the time, Geraldine Chaplin, as both the spectral figure of Torrent’s dead mother and as Torrent herself as a grown-up, still haunted woman. Chaplin differentiates the two women visually (the mother is a flirty, miserable mess, the daughter a distant fortress) and Saura dubs in a Spanish voice for Chaplin when she plays the older Torrent; this ventriloquism stands in for the often-disorienting passage of time.
Cría Cuervos is very much a film about trapped women, with the matching gazes of Torrent and Chaplin united together in silent reproach against the philandering, fascist Spanish male. Each woman on screen is complexly delineated, especially the proudly sensual housekeeper Rosa (Florinda Chico) and the rigid but not unkind Aunt Paulina (Mónica Randall), who tries to raise the orphaned Torrent and her two sisters. Paulina is the film’s most interesting character: at every moment we see her, she seems a soldier-like, well-meaning person who is trying her best, and yet we understand exactly why Torrent hates and cannot accept her dutiful, insincere efforts at parenting.
A child can suddenly, and rightly, be afraid of just about anything, and Torrent is bedeviled by the film’s most forceful character, the shuttered, crumbling house that is her world during summer vacation, an ordinary, static place that begins to vibrate with sinister possibilities. The camerawork by Teodoro Escamilla has a contradictory sense of movement that creates a lot of tension: the camera moves seem tentative but also relentless, childlike in the best possible way. Once you yield to the rhythm and logic of Torrent’s dreams and recollections, you can accept just about anything Saura wants to show you: this is a magical movie. It lasts a little under two hours, letting us into a hermetically sealed, completely believable, recognizable world. Quite frankly, I could have watched it forever, and I think that’s because Saura discovers and dramatizes such hidden, nebulous feelings without once being obvious or doctrinaire; his tact and deep insight makes you feel like you’re finally grasping something you’ve lost. All childhood is a ghost story that we try to understand for the rest of our lives. What we, and Torrent, eventually learn about death and sex seems to bear little relation to what we have overheard about these two primal subjects as children, but this yawning gap between imagination and experience is closed, miraculously, by the film itself and its vision of remembered innocence.
Cría Cuervos deals with a lot of painful emotions, but it’s an exhilarating work because its complete evocation of our beginnings signals a kind of hope for the future, for Spain, yes, but also for our damaged, adult selves. There’s such relief when Chaplin’s grown-up Torrent says, “I remember childhood as an interminably long and sad time.” Admitting this is a simple and cleansing way of putting space between the past and the present, yet the grown-up Torrent seems to want this interminable and sad childhood back to swim around in; this perverse human impulse comes as a surprise to most of us as we get older. Death is everywhere in what we see of Torrent’s childhood, yet death is just a game she can play with her sisters out in the country, forcing them to play dead, then making them come back to life. The child in Cría Cuervos is both God and film director, as far away from the movie’s silent, dignified but helpless grandmother (Josefina Díaz) as you can get. Saura’s masterpiece reclaims childhood as a time of radical invincibility, interminable, sad, both loathed and longed for for the rest of our lives.
Image/Sound/Extras: Every dark corner of that metaphorical house is visible in Criterion’s spot-free transfer (1.66:1 anamorphic), and the murmurous soundtrack (Dolby Digital mono) is clear as crystal, which gilds the film’s repeated use of the compulsively listenable pop track “Porque Te Vas,” sung by Jeanette. On a second disc, there are interviews with Geraldine Chaplin and Ana Torrent. Chaplin, who is so movingly fragile in the film, is surprisingly robust and candid in her interview, an obviously intelligent woman with decided opinions about Cría Cuervos. She reveals that Torrent couldn’t stand her, and that it took a lot of doing to get their erotic mother/daughter scenes right. This DVD is worth viewing just to see what Torrent looks like as an adult. Her face has lengthened, of course, so that she isn’t just a pair of dark eyes anymore, and the famous eyes themselves seem more relaxed, less turbulent. Torrent continues to act, and she is a definite European-style beauty, but it’s hard not to miss the child she was and to look for that child in vain; luckily, this extra meta-textual reflection matches up with the themes of Cría Cuervos perfectly. An excellent documentary on Saura (Portrait of Carlos Saura) and a good, critical piece by Paul Julian Smith (“The Past is Not Past”) make up for the lack of an audio commentary.