El Sur: A Complete Incomplete Film

El Sur: A Complete Incomplete Film

On Film / Essays — Jun 21, 2018

I have lost count of the number of times I have had the pleasure of watching El Sur, but I suspect it is among the films I have seen most frequently in my life. It is a treasure chest that reveals its contents slowly over the years. Since the film’s release in 1983—just a year after the Socialists came to power in Spain for the first time since its transition to democracy after the death of Francisco Franco in 1975—my country has changed. It can no longer be considered a young democracy. We find that our population now includes a young generation that detects signs of premature aging in our political system. There are also examples of cultural output from eighties Spain—a country anxious to exercise its civil liberties—that now appear old-fashioned, like anthropological artifacts that serve only to show us what we once considered modern. In Spain at that time, there was a stubborn need to envelop everything in an aura of happy modernity. Filmmakers, musicians, writers, and visual artists were all driven by the acclaim of audiences who participated in their frivolous, uncritical enthusiasm, and created an atmosphere in which pop art, and later postmodernism, won out over any other artistic style. The past did not exist. It was in this environment of voluntary amnesia that a film appeared that looked like no other. It returned us to the forties, but it did not in the least resemble any of the other films we knew that had cast an eye to that gloomy post–Civil War era.

A decade earlier, in 1973, Víctor Erice, El Sur’s director, had released his first feature, The Spirit of the Beehive, which was also received with great acclaim by critics and cinephiles, and also depicts the Spain of the forties (under Franco, it was much more common for artists to place their work in the past, in order to avoid censorship—which goes a long way toward explaining why the postregime artists of the eighties were so eager to embrace the present). From that first film, we knew that this filmmaker possessed a gift—that he could create an atmosphere of strangeness and mystery for his characters to inhabit that also enveloped us as viewers, because we recognized in it a Spain that had never before been shown on film in such a poetic way. We came to appreciate Erice’s ability to depict space—that endless landscape in which a character finds him- or herself abandoned between the sky and the barren land, a frequent visual motif in American films but rare in Spanish ones. We also discovered his skill in entering the complex and imaginative world of a child’s perspective. He knows how to portray the way children interpret the silences and secrets of their parents, which, in the Spain of the forties, just after the war, were numerous.

“Erice speaks to us of a time and place that have disappeared, or are about to disappear, and he does this by means of cinematography, the great popular art of the twentieth century.”

Magic. Erice performs magic in The Spirit of the Beehive. He penetrates the souls of innocents and enables us to see the world through their eyes. He films in deserted Castilian landscapes straight out of a western. He employs a contemplative cadence in his depiction of time reminiscent of the work of Yasujiro Ozu, and it is with an artisan’s skillful hand that he renders the subtle and evocative details that situate us inside his story. With that film, we learned of his attentiveness and his austerity. We learned also that his rigor does not serve to keep feeling out of his films, because Erice’s work never appears cold to us. On the contrary, we think with our hearts when we watch it.

Ten years after The Spirit of the Beehive, El Sur, Erice’s second feature, arrived. The screenplay for the film is based on the novella of the same name by the writer Adelaida García Morales, who was married to the filmmaker at the time. While I have, as I said, revisited Erice’s El Sur many times over the years, I had read the story only once, and I must confess that I did so influenced by the film’s effect on me. I feel now that I read the story with a certain bias—a belief that it could never surpass the finely tuned attentiveness of the film. For all these years, I have been faithful to the notion that the true value of García Morales’s work was that it had inspired a masterpiece of cinema. The other night, however, I returned to her El Sur, because, among other reasons, Erice has always described his film as an incomplete story, it having been based on only half of the screenplay and novella. I wished to recall what happens later on in the story.

Erice’s El Sur concerns a girl, Estrella, who lives with her parents in a ramshackle house, La Gaviota (The Seagull), situated outside an unnamed city in northern Spain. Her mother carries with her the bitterness of having been a teacher persecuted by Franco, and she lives with the frustration of not being able to practice her profession. What’s more, she feels the indifference of her husband, Agustín, who does not love her as she wishes to be loved. Estrella’s father is a doctor and also a dowser who possesses the ability to find water or minerals underground by following the circular movements of a pendulum suspended on a chain. Agustín is a reticent man, and an unhappy one, and he is only occasionally able to transcend his stubborn gloominess, in showing his love for his daughter. The girl admires him and considers him a sort of magician, possessing supernatural powers that she dreams of inheriting one day. Our view of the father fluctuates, following the daughter’s point of view: we move from the attraction that makes everything seem mysterious to irritation with his self-absorbed, selfish behavior.

Estrella, imitating her parents’ evasive natures, plunges into a deep and permanent silence that insinuates itself into her being, shaping her personality. One day, she discovers that her father’s melancholy has a concrete cause: he was not able to share his life with the woman he really loved, with whom he has been corresponding, despite the distance between them and the time that has passed since they last saw each other. The girl becomes complicit in her father’s secret, and so craves closeness to him that she seems to feel no compassion for her mother. In the film version, the remote and desired woman, as Estrella discovers from a poster at her town’s movie theater, seems to be a failed actor who wishes to forget her passionate and tempestuous youthful love affair with Agustín.

Naturally, there are changes between the screenplay and the novella, but Erice considered it essential that the girl, as she does in the story, undertake a journey to the yearned-for South—during which she has a premonition that will uncover all secrets and illuminate at last the shadows that torment her father. In the book, the now-adolescent girl travels to the South and has the opportunity to discover her father’s origins, along with all the reasons for the unhappiness that has led him to despair and death. The director did not want the South to be only a place of the imagination, an evocation of romance; he wished for his film to last two and a half hours, and to end as the novella does, with that revelatory and essential journey. This did not happen. Much speculation has surrounded the reasons that led the film’s great producer, Elías Querejeta, to consider it complete when it was only halfway done; he said at the time that the production had run out of money, although neither Erice nor the film’s cinematographer, José Luis Alcaine, believe that to be the case. Even so, that story, simple and easy to credit, was taken at face value at the time, and has dogged Erice’s career ever since. 

Erice has always expressed his unhappiness about, and disagreement with, this decision, and describes his film as an “unfinished drama.” Querejeta, however, defended the result, and he was backed up by the critics, who did not miss the material that went unfilmed. Some of the aura of mystery surrounding the film might have been dispelled if the production had lasted the agreed-upon eighty-one days, instead of the forty-eight days of shooting that actually took place. Even knowing how consistently Erice has expressed frustration over the truncation of his project (and in fact, those who have had the opportunity to read the script in its entirety have proclaimed it a jewel of screenwriting), the reality is that the viewer does not experience the film as incomplete, because the South, so different from the North of Spain, is contained in El Sur as though it were a dream, inside the boxes where the girl keeps the postcards she has received from that region, signed by her grandmother and the woman who was her father’s nanny, Milagros.

One of the virtues of the film is the casting of the two girls who play Estrella. The younger of the two, Sonsoles Aranguren, portrays that time in one’s life when parents are gods to whom we grant all credit, no matter how poorly they behave. The adolescent Estrella, played by Icíar Bollaín, is the one who begins to suspect her father, and to feel she has had enough of him. She is no longer interested in understanding him and feels increasingly distant from him, though also somewhat guilty for feeling this way. Bollaín continued working as an actor and has also become a writer and director. In her performances, she has always retained her peculiar, childlike demeanor. Bollaín claims that she did not see El Sur, her first movie, until she was an adult, and that when she was filming it, she did not have a good understanding of what she was doing.

The girls create the most moving moments of the film—for example, the unforgettable nighttime conversation between the young Estrella and Milagros, who has traveled from Seville to attend the girl’s First Communion. The scene is extraordinary because it contains so many memories from our own childhoods, for those of us who had aunts and uncles who would confess secrets to us that they later regretted. Rafaela Aparicio, the actor who plays Milagros, has a way of expressing herself that makes her seem like any woman of the people from that period of time. In Aparicio’s other films, her characters are more lowbrow, more overtly taking part in a comedy of manners. But this moment in El Sur—a whispered conversation between the old woman and the young girl by dim lamplight, in which the nanny is putting on her hairnet and speaking about the outrages of the Civil War—is, for me, one of the best in all of cinema, without regard for nationality or genre. The other unforgettable moment is the restaurant meal shared by the older Estrella and her father, who is emotionally shattered. Who can forget that period in life when listening to, protecting, caring for a parent seems like nothing but a waste of time? Childish admiration has vanished; only urgency and impatience remain.

Erice speaks to us of a time and place that have disappeared, or are about to disappear, and he does this by means of cinematography, the great popular art of the twentieth century, which would manage to hold our attention here even if the film were silent. That said, it is impossible to imagine El Sur without the music of Enrique Granados, which the director uses to highlight certain moments with extreme care, or without the popular paso doble “En er mundo”—it is important to understand that that song’s evocative power comes from it being firmly rooted in Spanish collective memory. The seriousness with which Erice approaches his films shows a love for his trade, an artistic integrity that has become much harder to find today, when filmmakers are even more tightly bound by market pressures and the tastes that small-screen production has brought about. Erice filmed his great works at a time when it was still possible for a creator to hold the reins (at least stylistically), deciding how to set the tone and pace of a story—even if that pace does not take into account the way the world has accelerated. 

Having reread El Sur to prepare for writing this piece, my impression is that Erice perceived, in this novella, a narrative whose power is difficult to define. García Morales’s El Sur, like The Turn of the Screw by Henry James or Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, shows us how being immersed in the subjective reality of a person in distress, one who is locked in a suffocating situation, can produce a dose of fantasy that makes it difficult to discern what is real and what is invented. I would recommend without reservation that, after you have watched this film, and undoubtedly been shaken by it, you read the novella (included in this release) and discover for yourself what Erice found there, in those mysterious pages that speak of a family sickened by loneliness and estrangement. Of course, you can also satisfy your curiosity about what happens when young Estrella finally takes her trip to the South.

Not long ago, Erice dedicated these words to the woman who was his wife, and who died in 2014: “Adelaida was not like any other person. Nor was she a phantasmagoria. She achieved a certain amount of literary fame, which was ephemeral. She wrote from a place of real pain. Her primordial wound was very deep and long-standing. She was never able to integrate into society and her time, and this honors her.” She wrote from a place of real pain, says the director. This is exactly what we find in this story: real pain and trauma, nourished in childhood, which can never be healed.

There are silences in every family, in every childhood, between every couple, and in all nations, and El Sur defines them all with the finest brushstrokes. It portrays a past I recognize, because it is the past lived by my grandparents and my parents, between a civil war and a cruel and vengeful dictatorship. But Erice is a universal artist. He possesses the gift of reaching anyone’s heart, and when you watch this film, you recognize that, in some mysterious way, you are also partaking in the memories of your own childhood.

Translated from the Spanish by Deborah Wassertzug