THE SPIRIT OF THE RAVENS

Raise Ravens spirit of the beehive

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It’s been a while hasn’t it! Did you miss me? Since my last post I have been completely wrapped up in life and work. The result of this personal shift in my life is my absence from this space. However, I have not forgotten about you dear readers and I am happy to present one of my favorite essays on two of my favorite films; Raise Ravens and The Spirit of the Beehive. Enjoy below!

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Victor Erice’s critically acclaimed directorial debut El Espiritu de la Colmena (The Spirit of the Beehive) and Carlos Saura’s equally brilliant drama Cría Cuervos (Raise Ravens) not only represent two of the finest Spanish films of the seventies but also provide viewers with a bewitching and utterly mesmerizing portrait of the inner turmoil and beauty of childhood. Released during the final days of Francisco Franco’s dying dictatorship, El Espiritu de la Colmena and Cría Cuervos seamlessly blend fantasy and reality resulting in a more “mature” form of surrealism. It is through this blend that we as the audience witness the world through the eyes of a child, coincidentally the same child, actress Ana Torrent.

The dark-eyed beauty of Ana radiates with an unwavering wisdom and exudes the natural curiosity that one associates with adolescence. In El Espiritu de la Colmena the character of Ana (names were kept the same so the Ana Torrent who was six at the time would not be confused) becomes obsessed with finding and meeting a spirit while an older Torrent copes with the loss of her mother in Cría Cuervos. Death and depression are coupled with the social and political influences alive during the time of both auteurs. The beauty in each film is how the heavy subject matter is layered and even concealed under the dual portrayals of innocence and the loss of it. Although Ms. Torrent (much older now but still haunted by both roles) is no stranger to portraying a child struggling with understanding traumatic events, the two characters of Ana are similar yet significantly different.

Released in 1973, it is hard to believe El Espiritu de la Colmena was Victor Erice’s first feature. Visually stunning with a laconic script, Erice’s masterwork proves that image and action speak volumes. According to professor Paul Julian Smith author of the Criterion essay entitled Spanish Lessons, The spirit of the Beehive is a classic example of a specific type of filmmaking to emerge during the Franco regime. Smith elaborates by stating, “Like many repressive regimes, Francoism attempted to use cinema to change its negative image abroad and to create the impression that freedom of expression was permitted (1)”. Under the Franco rule filmmakers had to turn to clandestine methods to speak their minds or critique life under the totalitarian leader. “…This “Franco aesthetic,” a term used to describe artistically ambitious movies of this time that made use of fantasy and allegory. These characteristics, which remain so magical to modern audiences, were used in the period [the early seventies] as a form of indirect critique (Smith 2).”

As a member of the “modern audience” Smith refers to, it is easy for one to become lost in the slow almost pensive pacing and gorgeous cinematography by Luís Guadrado and forget that there is a message beneath the beauty and the darkness that permeates throughout. As stated before, the Franco aesthetic combines fantasy and allegory, two things that are strongly apparent in El Espiritu de la Colmena; another element that sets Erice’s film apart from others is its unique allusion to the horror genre.

The film tells the story of Ana, a young girl residing in the small Castilian village of Hoyuelos during the 1940s. The arrival of a traveling cinema changes Ana’s life after she and her sister Isabel (played by Isabel Tellería) view the film Frankenstein. Not being able to separate fact from fiction Ana asks her sister why the little girl and the monster in the film were killed. Isabel tricks Ana into believing that there is a spirit living nearby, as the film progresses, Ana becomes obsessed with coming face to face with said spirit. In one particular scene, Ana and Isabel are preparing for bed, Isabel is on the brink of sleep when Ana asks “Why did he kill the girl, and why did they kill him after that?” “Him” being Dr. Frankenstein’s monster. Isabel responds, “They didn’t kill him, and he didn’t kill the girl…everything in the movies is fake. It’s all a trick.” She then continues to tell Ana about how she has seen the monster herself and that he is a spirit.

Ana Torrent, who was only six at the time of filming, had trouble separating fact from fiction, just like her character for she was not acting but truly living the role. Erice has stated that he feared the young actress might have been scarred while making the film because she had to endure some frightening and upsetting moments at such a young age. Arguably, one of the most iconic moments in the film and the best example of the statement above is when Ana fulfills her quest and literally comes face to face with the spirit in question.

Near the end of the film Ana becomes increasingly disinterested in daily life and the people surrounding her. Her family, consisting of her father, Fernando, mother Teresa and older sister Isabel, are often left to their own devices and never appear in the same frame together. The lack of establishing shots and individual framing of the characters leave the audience somewhat lost and constantly curious, like our young protagonist. In an interview on the film with Linda Ehrlich she states that Fernando and Teresa are empty vessels and that even upon reading the screenplay “they are representatives of the adult Spaniard following Franco’s rise to power.” The pacing in El Espiritu de la Colmena begins to quicken when Ana runs away from home to find the spirit. The stillness and emptiness that runs through the parents ripple to life when their daughter goes missing near the end of the film. Cinematically they are still kept apart but their goal now shares a common thread, to locate Ana.

The setting and locations of The Spirit of the Beehive emulate the characters; the land outside of the village is barren and nearly deserted. The remaining buildings are nothing more than hollow shells of their former selves, devoid of any activity. Ana walks alone in the woods away from any signs of life, it is dark and the forest is alive with the sounds of nocturnal life. We follow Ana as she walks alone on the river bank, she settles at the edge and peers into the water starring at her reflection. The ripples change and distort her face until her reflection morphs into the monster that has possessed Ana’s mind from the start. Erice’s Frankenstein monster walks out from the dense forest and straight towards Ana whose doe eyes gaze upon him. She does not run, scream nor flinch as he draws near. She simply stares at the creature she been searching for.

Early versions of the script are both more explicit and more political than the final film. Originally, the story had a frame narrative in which the adult Ana explained in voice-over the mysteries that she could not fathom as a child… (Smith 3). Like the above there are more mysteries throughout El Espiritu de la Colmena that Ana could not grasp and the use of a voice-over would have spoiled them. The reason Erice’s film is so authentic in its portrayal of the mind of a child and why it continues to capture audiences till this day is its ability to unapologetically immerse the audience in Ana’s life. There is no need for explanation, voice-overs or even a complete understanding of the historical context the film layers underneath each frame. In a way we are like Ana struggling to grasp the mysteries El Espiritu de la Colmena presents us with but being so in awe of them we have no choice but to stay with each character and search for the monster our own monsters.

Unlike the character of Ana in Erice’s El Espiritu de la Colmena, Carlos Saura’s Ana has grown up. One might say that Cría Cuervos or Rise Ravens acts as a companion film to Erice’s film. Also starring Ana Torrent (Raise Ravens is her second feature), Cría Cuervos directed by Carlos Saura is hailed as a political and psychological masterpiece and has striking similarities to its predecessor. “…shot in the summer of 1975, as Spanish dictator Francisco Franco lay dying, and premiered in Madrid’s Conde Duque Theatre, on January 26, 1976, forty years after the civil war began.” (Smith 2007). Like El Espiritu de la Colmena and other Spanish films of the seventies, Francisco Franco’s reign comes into play once again. Cría Cuervos was made during a pivotal time in history and according to Paul Julian Smith “The film is flanked by two decisive events: the assassination of Franco’s nominated successor, Carrero Blanco, in 1973, and the first democratic elections, in 1978.”

The first lines of Cría Cuervos are hushed whispers spoken in the gloomy dark of a home; “I love you, I love you” is said but the speakers are not on screen. Slowly little Ana makes her way down the stairs, her white nightgown illuminating the dark. Off screen two people are making love, as the scene progresses Ana hears her philandering father die in the act and watches stoically as the woman involved rushes out of the house. When Ana discovers her father (who is later revealed during the wake to have been a in the military) he is sprawled out on the bed, his eyes open in the face of death. She climbs on the bed and proceeds to stroke his hair, and then washes out the glass of milk resting on the nightstand, ignorant of her father’s death, or just unfazed. Through flashbacks we see Ana’s father flirting with the maid “The stories I could tell you about your father”, and talking down to the mother. After the glass is washed and placed with the others Ana moves to the fridge; a woman walks into the static frame and watches her, she asks why she is up so late. This woman is Ana’s mother and she is dead.

Like El Espiritu de la Colmena, Cría Cuervos also infuses surrealistic elements into the narrative without calling any attention to them. It is only later in the film do we learn that Ana’s mother has passed, leaving Ana and her siblings motherless. Smith puts it best when he states “…Saura shows the intimacy with which the living and the dead can cohabit, most especially when, as is so often the case in his cinema, fragile psyches are frozen in time by trauma. ” A Trauma linked to politics and repression of the era as well as the fragile mental state of children, in this case Ana, who seems to be most susceptive to the supernatural.

The first viewing of Cría Cuervos may leave the average viewer a bit confused for several reasons; not only do Ana’s dead realities frequent the film, but an adult Ana speaks to us as well. Ana herself, only an older version, explains some of the films mysteries and breaks the fourth wall by speaking directly to the audience and holding our gaze. Also, the same woman, actress Geraldine Chaplin, plays older Ana as well as the deceased mother. An interesting thing to note about Saura’s decision to keep the casting for both characters the same is that he does not make a huge effort to help the audience differentiate between the two.

It is said that fantasy and reality collide at its best in the opening of the film but there are moments throughout Cría Cuervos that are much stronger and even heartbreaking. One such instance is when Ana is in bed after having a brief encounter with her aunt who has taken in Ana and her siblings. She lies in bed and looks towards the doorframe as if expecting someone to enter her room or walk by. Her wish is granted when her mother strolls by the open door, she walks by a few times, occasionally stopping to look at her daughter, before finally entering the room. When she does, she stays with Ana and tells her a bedtime story called “little Almond.” The camera remains in a close up of Ana for the remainder of the story then slowly pushes back reveling that her mother is not there.

Traumatized, Ana cries out to her mother but only attracts the attention of her aunt Paulina, who, in turn, tried to comfort Ana the same way her mother did, by telling her the story of “Little Almond.” Ana says she wishes she were dead and wishes death on her aunt as well. Ana and her siblings are surrounded by so much death but it appears to affect Ana the most. Another point in the film where Ana begins to grow and tap into emotions that is very mature for her age is when she is outside with her grandmother. She stops pushing her wheelchair and looks up; on the roof of a building standing amidst the noise of the city is she. Ana looks down at herself then jumps off the building, floating above the city. This outer body experience puts the audience in the mindset of the troubled child and allows us to linger like Ana does in the sky, on how disturbing it really is. The title of the film itself stems from a rather gory Spanish proverb, “Raise ravens and they’ll peck out your eyes.”

Although Saura’s film is full of rich allegory and dark subject matter, cinematically Cría Cuervos is not a dark film. Majority of the movie is shot during the day and there are several exteriors, yet there is still a strong sense of loss and longing. There are also several auditory refrains throughout the film; “Three pieces of music are compulsively repeated in Cría cuervos: a muted classical piano piece by the Catalan composer Federico Mompou, which was once played by the mother; “¡Hay, Maricruz!” a traditional copla performed by Imperio Argentina (an early supporter of the regime), here played for the grandmother; and “Porque te vas” (Because You’re Leaving), a pop song of the period sung by the chirpy Jeanette, the only record Ana seems to own” (Smith 2007). These songs almost identify each character and embody their presence, for example; the first song played is the song of the mother “¡Hay, Maricruz!” a beautiful somber melody that it is played while her husband is sleeping with another woman.

Both Carlos Saura’s film Cría cuervos and Victor Erice’s El Espiritu de la Colmena are two beautiful examples of the growing pains attached to coming of age films. Within them nothing is sugar coated or spoon fed to the audience or the young characters interacting within the worlds that directors envisioned. Surrealistic elements blend with reality creating a bittersweet harmony that is not easily forgotten or ignored.

WORKS CITED

Raise Ravens.” Dir. Carlos Saura. Ana Torrent, Geraldine Chaplin, and Florinda Chico. 1976. Film.
Smith, Paul Julian. “The Spirit of the Beehive: Spanish Lessons.” 18 Sept. 2006. Web. 06 Mar. 2012. <http://www.criterion.com/current/posts/447-the-spirit-of-the-beehive-spanish-lessons>.
Smith, Paul Julian. “Cría Cuervos…The Past is not Past.” 13 Aug. 2007. Web. 06 Mar. 2012.
< http://www.criterion.com/current/posts/527-cria-cuervos-the-past-is-not-past>
“The Spirit of the Beehive.” Dir. Victor Erice. Ana Torrent, Fernando Fernán Gómez, and Teresa Gimpera. 1973. Film.

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Another paper down! This paper was written in 2012 and as usual has not been altered. Soon I will be running out of old college work to share but that means I will be forced to write more essays and maybe even brief reviews on my favorite films. Stayed tuned and thank you for stopping by!

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2 Comments

  1. Morgan Miller September 16, 2016

    Lovely post! Really interesting xx
    Morgan
    http://www.justmorgs.com

    Reply

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