El Sur

Studio: Criterion

Jul 20, 2018 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share


Like the Sphinx’s missing nose or the Venus de Milo’s arms, the history of cinema is haunted by absent parts. All those old silent films lost to time because the producers melted the stock down to extract the silver; the missing reels of Von Stroheim, Murnau, Welles; films abandoned by their makers or left to rot in studio vaults; director’s original visions languishing on cutting room floors. In many ways, cinema is defined by what you don’t see. Consider the hundreds of hours of footage and work that gets trimmed away like excess clay so an hour or two of film is left for your viewing pleasure.

Victor Erice’s 1983 Spanish masterpiece El Sur may not seem like it has a place with the rest of cinema’s damaged goods. Erice’s follow-up to his stunning 1973 directorial debut The Spirit of the Beehive, El Sur (“The South”) feels like a whole, seamless work. The story of a girl named Estrella living in the northern half of Spain during the 1940’s with her parents (who are both haunted by the Spanish Civil War), it vividly depicts one of the most sobering moments in any child’s life: when they begin to understand that their parents are flawed, possibly even weak, people.

The film is driven by the relationship between Estrella (played by Sonsoles Aranguren and Iciar Bollain when the character is 8 and 15, respectively) and her father Agustin (Omero Antonutti). An introverted, reclusive man, we at first see him the way the young Estrella sees him: a figure of mystery and magic. He uses a pendulum to dowse fields for the townsfolk; he and his wife have hushed conversations about whether or not their daughter has his gift too. Much like the way Erice uses Frankenstein’s Monster in Beehive, there’s a bit of a heightened, magical realism at work throughout the early half of the film.

Secrecy abounds in El Sur. The south of Spain where Agustin comes from is referenced time and time again like some kind of shadowy, mythical land. Questions like what’s haunting Agustin, why he stopped talking to his own father, what happened to Estrella’s parents in the war: we get hints and glimpses of the truth throughout. But like any child trying to uncover their family’s past, so much of the bigger picture remains out of reach.

As Estrella gets older and begins to see the cracks and flaws in Agustin’s veneer, the film draws us deeper into the mystery of his past. It’s a testament to Antonutti’s skill as an actor that he skillfully plays Agustin in whatever mode best matches how Estrella sees him at that moment: at first, he’s a doting and enigmatic patriarch before turning into a pathetic, miserable loner. And while father and daughter are the film’s focus, Estrella’s mother and grandmother also get to play brief yet crucial roles in the story (which is based off a novella by Erice’s partner, Adelaida Garcia Morales).

What helps make El Sur such a rich experience is Jose Luis Alcaine’s elegant cinematography. Inspired by the work of Caravaggio, he gives El Sur a soft, painterly aesthetic. We see this influence at the beginning of the film when Estrella’s pitch black bedroom gradually fills up with golden light streaming through her windows. Bowing her head as she gets up from bed, rising in front of an embroidered medieval tapestry, she looks like a holy figure posing in a oil painting.

Gorgeous shots abound: a little toy boat turned into a jagged ice dagger in a frozen pond; the dark blue sky of a town, casting a shadow on a riverbank; the golden pendulum Agustin pulls from a black box.

The most powerful visual aspect of El Sur is how Erice and Alcaine use shadows to create vast fields of pure darkness that swallow characters whole. Like the Vantablack shade of pure black that cuts out all light, there are scenes in El Sur where a deep darkness creeps into the frame that’s impossible to see through. It adds thematic resonance to El Sur’s story of buried history and secret selves:  we know something is off with Agustin when we see him step out of a shadowy alcove in a church like the darkness had swallowed him up and spat him back out into the world.

By the time the film ends with Estrella resolved to travel south and see where her family came from, it feels like a complete story. But here is where El Sur enters the history of broken things: Erice’s film is half-finished.

When Erice began filming the movie, the shoot was slated for 81 days. Erice’s producer Elias Querejeta halted filming after 48 days. The reasons for why Querejeta stopped production vary from account to account, according to Erice in a revealing interview on the Criterion blu-ray. The filmmaker clearly still harbors some bitterness over how things turned out.

Persuaded to sculpt his existing footage into a cut to be shown at Cannes, the “first half” of El Sur received such a rapturous response there that it doomed Erice’s chances of finishing the movie. How do you “finish” a masterpiece? Despite having every intention of filming Estrella’s trip down south, Erice never got his chance to finish the story.

The only glimpse of the south we see in El Sur is in the stack of gorgeous postcards Estrella keeps in a box; the real thing could never compete with those little painted windows into another world.

While the director himself wouldn’t agree, it’s for the best that he didn’t. So much of the power of El Sur lies in suggestion, in its own unanswered questions. Not meeting Estrella’s grandfather, not getting to find out why her father fled north: these missing pieces make the film a richer experience. It isn’t like seeing a “missing reel” intertitle in a silent film: we don’t know that we’re missing anything.

www.criterion.com/films/27745-el-sur




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bubble shooter
July 24th 2018
1:43am

He and his wife have hushed conversations about whether or not their daughter has his gift too.