Director: Carlos Saura
Screenplay: Carlos Saura
Starring: Ana Torrent, Geraldine Chaplin, Mónica Randall, Florinda Chico
Producer: Elías Querejeta
Running Time: 110 min
BBFC Certificate: 12
One thing I love about writing about films and getting sent screeners to review, is discovering great films I've never heard of. I still have to request the titles and don't have time to ask for all that get offered, so I tend to do a little research beforehand to pick and choose. This entails looking up a few reviews from trusted sources, so for films I don't know much about I do develop a certain level of expectation based on the critical response to them. However this can be a help and a hindrance. Living up to hype is always difficult and some classic films may be admirable or groundbreaking but not necessarily have the same impact they once had within a film landscape that perhaps they helped shape. Once in a while I get a film like Cria Cuervos sent over though. I must admit I hadn't heard of the film, but on looking up a couple of reviews and noticing it had been added to the Criterion Collection I figured it would be worth a watch. And it certainly was.
Cria Cuervos (translated 'Raise Ravens'), directed by Carlos Saura, is set in Madrid in a mansion seemingly cut off from the rest of the city, despite being set in the heart of it. As the film opens we see eight-year-old Ana (Ana Torrent) creep downstairs in the middle of the night to hear her army general father die during a sexual liaison with his friend's wife. Later we learn that Ana believes she killed him using 'poison' (actually baking soda) that she had promised her (also dead) mother to throw away long ago. As an orphan, Ana has to grow up with her two sisters under the care of their aunt Paulina (Mónica Randall). Ana doesn't get on with her aunt, who is more strict and cold than her mother was, and she develops a desire to 'kill' her too. The only solace she gets is in her visions of her mother she conjures up in her imagination and memory.
It's a peculiar film which is hard to pin down. A number of critics describe it as an allegorical piece hitting out against the Franco regime, of which Saura was an outspoken opponent. To me however, having little knowledge of Spanish politics and history, the film worked in other ways. In particular, as a look at life and death through the eyes of a child the film is incredibly powerful.
We experience everything from Ana's perspective, viewing adult situations and tragedy from an angle that skews them without losing their impact. She's old enough to know what is going on around her, but doesn't always fully understand it. She gets lost in her own little world, often ignored by adults and occasionally by her sisters (she is the 'middle child'). Much of the film is spent following Ana simply playing with them or by herself as she listens to her favourite song ('Porque te vas', translated 'because you are leaving'). She likes to spend time with her mute grandmother too who is also ignored and pushed aside by the rest of the family.
These scenes are all played out beautifully and very naturally, but where the film becomes most poignant is in its scenes with Ana and her mother. Scenes seamlessly shift into fantasy or flashback as Ana remembers time spent with her or 'brings her back' to help get through present day troubles. Playing both Ana's mother and the adult Ana (the film breaks out into an interview with the character occasionally), Geraldine Chaplin is luminescent. The actress, who was in a relationship with Saura for many years, perfectly captures the warmth, tenderness and fragility of the mother character, who had sacrificed a lot to be with her husband and family, yet got little in return. A scene where she lies in agony, close to death, and tells Ana that after death there is nothing is brutally devastating and, simultaneously, simple scenes where she helps Ana get to sleep are truly touching.
Ana Torrent is equally as effective in the lead role. Having a child actor carry a film is always an incredibly difficult task, but after watching The Spirit of the Beehive (which I still haven't seen) Saura found the perfect girl for the job. Her face alone is magnetic to watch, carrying a certain sadness within her deep, dark eyes. It's one of the finest child performances I've seen for such an age.
The whole film has an odd mix of innocent beauty alongside darkness and pain. It's a remarkable look at childhood that doesn't sentimentalise or glamorise that period of life. In its own very soft and subdued way it is quietly devastating. It may be too short on plot for some, but I found it utterly captivating from start to finish and I'm not ashamed to say it had me in tears on several occasions. Cria Cuervos is a true masterpiece of naturalistic fantasy which deserves to be wider known.
Cria Cuervos is out on 27th May on dual format Blu-Ray and DVD in the UK, released by the BFI. I watched the Blu-Ray version of the film and the picture quality was fantastic. Free of damage, but without overdoing the cleaning process. Audio was strong too.
Beyond the standard trailers you get two special features. First up is a 23 minute on-stage interview with Saura, which is very informative and the director is in good humour. On top of this, you get an hour long documentary on Saura and his work. This is brilliant, bringing in a large number of his colleagues, offering a great insight into what made him tick as well as the troubles he came across during Franco's regime and beyond. It also looks at his photography which seems equally as impressive as his film output.
As is standard with BFI releases you also get a booklet of essays, reviews and biographies and as usual this is a rich and informative collection of writing on the film, its background and production.