Thursday 30 March 2017

1,001 Films: "Cria Cuervos/Raise Ravens" (1976)

A young girl creeps downstairs in the early hours of the morning to fix herself a snack, only to hear her father - a tyrannical man, prone to wearing a general's uniform and fondling the help - huffing and puffing, and then to see his ashen-faced mistress scooping up her clothes and fleeing into the dawn light. As the girl tentatively enters the bedroom to find dad splayed out on the linen, colder than he's ever been, we grasp that what we thought were the sounds of la petite mort were actually those of death itself, and that these apparent gasps of pleasure were instead a last gasp - not that young Ana (Ana Torrent) is old enough to have grasped these terms, let alone to be making the distinction between them.

All of this will change over the course of Carlos Saura's 1976 drama Cria Cuervos, a curious hybrid of coming-of-age tale and European art/history movie that seeks to describe a particular Madrid household at a particular moment in time. The moment is deliberately smudged: there is Danone in the fridge and there are posters of the young Clint Eastwood on the walls of the bedroom Ana shares with her sisters, pointing to a contemporary setting, and yet the house itself honestly appears to have been this way for decades if not centuries; painted in drab browns and blacks, it's an archaic doll's house, one the three sisters (the signifiers may be intentional, given Saura's subsequent stage work) share with their guardian, an aunt who herself shows signs of years of repression and frustration.

The impression we get is of the backward nation Spain may very well have become under Franco. (We might also say, upon observing the film's insistently muted palette, that the country really needed an Almodóvar to come along and literally brighten the place up.) Though these kids have spark of a kind, their behaviour is closer to the Victorian groundlings observed in films like The Innocents or The Others - and Cria Cuervos is itself a ghost story of sorts. Although we rarely venture outdoors - Ana's spectral vision of herself leaping off the building (to her doom, or to fly?) is a striking exception - the walls of this house appear permeable, and time is a concept unfixed: Saura rotates the house's past, present and future inhabitants, so that when Ana calls out for her deceased mother in the night, the latter (Geraldine Chaplin) can walk in as though from the next room.

The film is fluid and feminine - you can see how Saura progressed from this danse macabre to his later, vibrant musicals - and quite possibly a reaction to the patriarchal tyranny of the Franco regime, but its form shouldn't blind us to how tough it is, too. Cria Cuervos is unusual among coming-of-age pictures in recognising how childhood, as well as providing the occasional wonder year, can be a site of deep-rooted psychological trauma. Torrent - one of the all-time top five child performers, even more remarkably unruffled here than she was in the earlier The Spirit of the Beehive - is both as cute as a button and, more crucially, as blank as a blackboard, onto which all the wisdom and sins of her elders can be written.

Several times, characters remark on how much Ana resembles her mother - to the extent that Saura also casts Chaplin as an older Ana, looking back on these events - but left unsaid is how much she's inherited from her father: insisting her sisters play dead during a game of hide-and-seek, she then further tests the limits of her own control by turning amateur poisoner. Time and again, the film returns to the sight of Ana's wide, dark eyes taking in the death throes of someone around her (father, mother, pet guinea pig), and one starts to wonder how much of this is childish fascination, and how much the girl might be admiring her own handiwork. Raise ravens, as the maxim goes, and you shouldn't be surprised if they come to peck your eyes out.

What's most odd about Saura's film is that it displays precious little joy at the death of a tyrant - the joy that liberated Spaniards of this period would surely have felt - and instead gives off morbid, uncanny frissons of déjà vu, of a history bound in some way to repeat itself. When Ana sees her mother for the last time, the latter is clutching her stomach and bleeding out, a spectral sister to Harriet Andersson in Cries and Whispers; reeling on her bedclothes, her final words are the less than reassuring "It's all a lie. There is nothing." The chicken's feet in the family fridge are a constant, there at the beginning and at the end, the suffering of their erstwhile owners taken for given. It's a film about looking death in the eye, and being powerless to do anything but accept it.

Cria Cuervos is available on DVD and Blu-Ray through the BFI. 

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