Review: Cria Cuervos

As yet unavailable on DVD in the UK, this brilliant Spanish classic is now back on the big screen in a beautifully restored print. Thirty-five years after it was made, Cria Cuervos is (by and large) just as potent and relevant as it was when first released.

There is a scene, quite early on in the film, where a young girl called Ana, and her two sisters, walk into their aunt’s bedroom and start playing with her makeup and wardrobe, rouging their cheeks and applying lipstick in copious amounts. I think, at that point, almost everyone in the screening tried to hide a sardonic smile.

However, it is not for its ironies when seen in the present day that we remember this film most. We remember it because it offers us something we very rarely see in cinema: an honest, sincere evocation of childhood and the gradual, warped loss of innocence. That is the premise of dozens of films, I realise, but seldom is anything like this achieved; movies of this type are either cloying and sentimental, or else sensationalised and melodramatic. Neither obtains the poignant sense of disquiet that Cria Cuervos generates.

The film begins with Ana losing her father. Her mother, we quickly learn, died a few years ago, and Ana is left an orphan. She and her two sisters are sent to live with their aunt – a fundamentally kind, but authoritarian guardian who Ana, yearning for her own mother, instinctively rebels against. We follow Ana’s story from the time of her father’s death to the end of the summer holidays, after which she will start school with her sisters.

This, I hasten to add, is a very simplified, desiccated overview of the plot. It is a film packed with nuance and subtlety. We learn that Ana’s father was in fact a soldier under Franco’s regime, and had at one time fought alongside the Nazis. In one of the most memorable scenes in the film, Ana finds her father’s gun, still loaded, leading to a tense scene with her aunt and her aunt’s lover.

Ana is a fascinating child, obsessed with death. The eagle eyed film buff might remember the actress who plays her from The Spirit of the Beehive, another Spanish classic which deals with similar themes, albeit in a different way. Most striking are those large, brown eyes of hers; Ana is a quiet, observant child, disturbed by her brief glimpses into the adult world, gradually accumulating as she grows older. How much does she understand? Obviously, when Ana grows into an adult and narrates the story through flashback, hindsight will let her comprehend the things she has seen. But what of when she is younger?

The answer is largely subjective. The film draws many comparisons between Ana’s grandmother and the young Ana herself – the old woman is paralysed, in a wheelchair. She is capable of hearing and seeing – and understanding the things other people say; but she doesn’t say a word. Whether this is part of her affliction, or a conscious choice, is deliberately left ambiguous. What we can see is that Ana sympathises with her grandmother, and a strange, compassionate relationship evolves between the two.

I could go on. Perhaps the most impressive thing about the film is the way it seamlessly blends fact, fiction and memory so beautifully and precisely, without ever losing sight of its ultimate goal; indeed, this very blending lends the film an incredible authenticity. Ana feels isolated and alone – her fantasies, from the shocking to the seemingly banal, are desperate and painful. The opening montage, as well, of a collection of family photographs, is extremely subtle and masterful in the way it has us beginning to formulate questions and suspicions – some of which are assuaged, some of which aren’t.

What a treat this is for any film fan! Carlos Saura (the director), was of course one of the great opponents of the Franco regime, while also rated as one of the most important Spanish directors of the 1970s. This is probably his most well known and powerful film. Childhood can be a frightening, confusing, and sad time, and Saura, with what is arguably his masterpiece, has captured that beautifully. Don’t miss!

15 certificate

Review by LiveWire Young Film Critic, James Martin (September ’11)