Despite bearing his last name and a close resemblance to him—the high cheekbones, the slightly drooping lips and prominent front teeth, the piercing yet empathetic eyes—remarkably, Geraldine Chaplin has never seemed obscured by the shadow of her iconic father, Charles. Now sixty-six, Chaplin—who first appeared on-screen at age eight in her father’s Limelight (1952)—can proudly boast of an impressive career of her own that has stretched from 1965’s David Lean epic Doctor Zhivago to more recent international hits like Pedro Almodóvar’s Talk to Her (2002) and Juan Antonio Bayona’s The Orphanage (2007). That career has spanned not only decades but continents—the actress, whose mother was Oona O’Neill Chaplin (Eugene’s daughter), was born in California but educated at a Swiss boarding school, is fluent in French and Spanish, and has headlined films in Spain, France, England, and the U.S. Chaplin’s most adventurous and fecund period was the seventies, when she worked with such important directors as Robert Altman (Nashville, A Wedding), James Ivory (Roseland), Richard Lester (The Three Musketeers), and Jacques Rivette (Noroit). But her most frequent collaborator was the Spanish auteur Carlos Saura, with whom she had a twelve-year romantic and professional partnership and a child.
When she met Saura in 1967, Chaplin was already en route to establishing her own identity outside of her family: after years of ballet training, she had turned to acting instead, landing a leading role in Jacques Deray’s Crime on a Summer Morning (1965), with Jean-Paul Belmondo, before her Doctor Zhivago breakthrough. Meanwhile, Saura had become one of Spain’s most important artists, managing to make political films right under Franco’s nose. Crime on a Summer Morning had shot in Spain, and Chaplin adored the country, ironically finding personal freedom in a place that, as she soon discovered, was in thrall to a dictator. She wanted to stay and work in Spain, and was soon introduced by casting agents to Saura, who was in preproduction on the expressionistic Peppermint Frappé (1967); this eventual Berlin Film Festival Silver Lion winner would be their first project together, as well as the beginning of their romance and her entry into political movies. For the next decade, the two would make acclaimed, daring films that subtly critiqued the Franco regime. In a Criterion interview, Chaplin says, “At that time, to make a movie you had to be a contortionist intellectually to get by the censors, if you were doing anything remotely political. And we did it, and we had fun doing it.”
In 1975, however, in the midst of their years of collaboration—which thus far had produced the acclaimed La madriguera (1969) and Ana and the Wolves (1972)—Franco died, opening the country’s possibilities for artistic expression. The immediate result for Saura and Chaplin was 1976’s Cría cuervos . . ., the first film that Saura, freed from the meddling of state censors, had complete control over, from conception to realization. At this point, Chaplin was an essential ingredient in Saura’s cinema; the director said in a 1976 interview, “Geraldine is very important in all my films because in a certain way she helps me just with her presence.” And what a presence she has in Cría cuervos . . ., which would go on to win the Grand Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival and become Saura’s most internationally lauded film. In it, in fact, Chaplin is all presence: she presides over the film as a spirit.
Appropriately for a film made in Spain immediately following Franco’s death, Cría cuervos . . . is about emerging from shadows. Saura burrows into the subjectivity of an eight-year-old named Ana (played by The Spirit of the Beehive’s extraordinary Ana Torrent), who is suffering a trauma. The middle of three sisters who have lost both their parents to separate natural causes, she is haunted by the memory of her dead mother, who was stricken with cancer. Though in a sense the film belongs to the enigmatic, saucer-eyed Torrent, who takes in the world around her with a gaze that fluctuates between mischievous and mercenary, it is unthinkable without the sublime Chaplin, who embodies both the mother (seen in flashbacks, and by Ana as a wraith wandering the halls of her home) and the grown Ana, speaking to the audience in a direct address from the future, with a graceful enchantment and melancholy that evoke the actress’s past as a dancer.
The mother is necessarily one-dimensional, an idealized vision rather than a true character. Chaplin knew this would be the case, and at first planned to instead play Aunt Paulina, who comes to take care of the children but whose well-intentioned efforts are rebuffed by the angry Ana. Ultimately, she chose to play the ghost because, she says, “I was head over heels in love with my mother.” Her performance as this ethereal being, then, is as penetrating and personal as the film itself; when playing the part, Chaplin recalled her mother’s flirtatiousness, her smells, her soft kisses and caresses. On-screen, she is lissome and affectionate, her connection with Torrent nearly erotic in its physicality.
In the below poignant scene, Ana imagines her mother visiting her bedroom at night. Is she apparition or memory? Fantasy and reality dissolve in Cría cuervos . . ., and all that’s left is the sadness and confusion of a childhood. (Interesting side note: the tale of the little almond told by Chaplin in this scene is based on a bedtime story Saura’s mother told him as a child.)