There's a strong suggestion of a great movie in Victor Erice's second feature, made 10 years after his celebrated debut The Spirit of the Beehive. Erice's breathtaking use of natural light demands comparison to Vermeer, while his ability to evoke a child's wonder and terror at the mysteries of the world make him an art cinema antecedent to Spielberg. But financing woes halted filming on this story of a girl's attempt to solve the riddle of her enigmatic father. While Erice edited the footage to what he considers a finished film, it's clearly lacking a satisfying final act (in which the daughter travels to the father's hometown carrying clues to his past).
But the narrative is just as compromised by moments that stray from the child's first-person perspective, Erice's strong suit. Scenes where the father corresponds to an old flame diffuse the suspense, though they give the film clarity in its truncated form. A running voiceover narration by the girl as an adult reinforces a sense of pastness that further dilutes the primacy of the moments Erice offers us, a number of them visually stunning.
It's strange that Erice would allow a voiceover to structure a film whose underlying thesis is the futility of words: the father's anguished letters leading to no good outcome; his awkward conversations with his daughter and virtual non-communication with his wife. Instead, it's objects, images and gestures that link the characters: an amulet, a drawing of a woman, a joyful communion dance, the incessant pounding of a cane on floorboard. These are also Erice's best forms of communicating, and what ultimately links this film to his viewers.
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The following citations were counted towards the placement of El Sur among the 1000 Greatest Films according to They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?
Javier Aguirresarobe, Nickel Odeon (1994) Mirito Torreiro, El Mundo (1995) Shiori Kazama, Kinema Junpo (1999) Ursula Vossen, Nickel Odeon (1997) Dirigido Por, Best Spanish Films (1992) Kinema Junpo, The Greatest Foreign Films (1999) Nickel Odeon Spanish Canon (1995) Nickel Odeon The Films of Our Life (1994) They Shoot Pictures Recommended Films
''EL SUR'' (''The South''), opening today at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema, is the second feature by Victor Erice, the Spanish director whose first film, ''The Spirit of the Beehive,'' was one of the critical hits of 1976.
As was Mr. Erice's method in ''The Spirit of the Beehive,'' the new film reveals its concerns in small, seemingly unimportant details, much in the manner of a traumatized psychiatric patient. Every gesture is loaded with associated meanings. Objects are symbolic. Yet the emotional inhibitions, which had political significance in the first film, aren't particularly provocative here. The movie seems to whisper when there seems no reason why it can't speak in a normal voice.
''El Sur'' is nicely acted by Omero Antonutti as Agustin and Iciar Bollan as the teen-age Estrella, though it lacks a dominating performance like that of Ana Torrent in ''Beehive.'' Everything about ''El Sur,'' including the highly theatrical lighting, is so artfully composed that it seems to be more about film making than characters or ideas.
-Bosley Crowther, The New York Times, January 15, 1988
On the surface, despite the presence of a different fictional source (a story by Adelaida Garcia Morales) and scriptwriter (Jose Luis Lopez Linares), Victor Erice’s second feature seems to bring back some of the haunting obsessions of his first, the wonderful Spirit of the Beehive (1973): the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, the magical spell exerted by movies over childhood, and a little girl’s preoccupation with her father and the past. But as English critic Tim Pulleine has observed, a reference to Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt in El sur (South, 1983) points to an elaborate system of doubling and duplication that underlies the film’s structure as a whole, operating on the level of shots and sequences as well as themes (north and south, father and daughter, real and imaginary). Although this subtle spellbinder ends somewhat abruptly, reportedly because the film’s budget ran out, it seems to form a nearly perfect whole as it is: a brooding tale about an intense father-daughter relationship and the unknowable past, mysterious and resonant, with the poetic ambience of a story by Faulkner.
- Jonathan Rosenbaum, The Chicago Reader
El Sur is a simple film, rich in interesting childhood observations and perspectives. It is marred, however, by underdeveloped characters and the lack of a sense of closure.
The character Estrella (Sonsoles Aranguren) is well developed and thoughtful. Estrella's actions and emotions are full of meaning and insight and not too na"ive. The film successfully explores a unique father-daughter relationship and the accepting nature of children.
Agustin (Omero Antonutti), however, is not fully developed as a character, despite his central role in the movie. Although the father character is meant to be mysterious, the reasoning behind many of his actions often needs more explanation. For example, his feelings for a past lover are never fully explained, leaving the viewers with an awful sense of being shut out. This and other underdeveloped aspects of the film ultimately affect the film's ending, which is unfulfilling, predictable, and not at all tragic.
- Ricardo Rodriguez, The MIT Tech, February 28, 1989
INTERVIEW WITH VICTOR ERICE
Geoff Andrew: I'd like to move on to your next film,The South [El Sur, Spain/France, 1983]. Some of you may remember it from when it was released in 1983. It's a quite wonderful film, I think, and is totally coherent, yet it's a film that was never finished. You weren't allowed to shoot everything that you wanted to, and it's shorter than it would have been as part of the story isn't there. Was that a very painful experience for you?
Victor Erice: Yes, it was very painful for the drama [of the film] but, of course, for film-makers this is quite a common occurrence. The film was interrupted for financial reasons. On the other hand, in terms of production it went very well, it was a happy time. Even in the state it is in, the film had a lot of commercial success in Spain, and especially from the critics. It should have been one hour longer, although many critics and spectators have applauded the fact that the south - which would be the south of the country - is never actually seen in the film. My taste is a little more common: I wanted to show it, especially as I was born in the north but lived many years of my life in the south. I felt that this was a wonderful opportunity to have the north and the south coming together in the film. Naturally this was a metaphor for the divisions that became apparent in the Civil War and, similarly, the divisions in a person who can't assimilate or join two parts of his own being.
The figure of the father in The South is a man divided between two loves: his romantic passion and his mundane life with his wife. It's about a man who always wants to go to the south but never manages to go. The train is always going past the station but he never manages to get on. He returns home like a clandestine person and he dies. And in a sense he leaves a mandate because, when he is about to die, he leaves under the pillow of his daughter the symbol of the communion, the thing that tied them together in their youth. This is the last thing that he does in his life so he is there, working like an impulse to provoke the daughter to make this trip that he was never able to make - and she does do what he could never do.
In the part that was never filmed, this girl does reach the south in Andalusia, where her father was born and lived his own childhood, so it completed the story of her father's death. In this way she was able to reconcile herself with the image of her father. This was the original project of the film. The film as it is now is still under the weight of the pain and, of course, the visit to the south was the redemption and she could grow up and become an adult. I can't say it would have been a happy film but there would have been a new energy and vitality because, in every story, to understand the history of one's parents is so important for every human being.
- Interview at the National Film Theatre, London, September 2 2003
Based on the novel by Adelaida García Morales, El Sur is a deceptively lyrical and delicately realized, yet haunting portrait of maturation, estrangement, alienation, and dislocation. Victor Erice achieves an atmosphere that is both naturalistic and mystical by shooting in natural light to visually reinforce hues and gradations that, in turn, reflect Estrella's gradual perceptional shift towards her father. Exploring similar themes that would also pervade Theo Angelopoulos' subsequent 1986 film, The Beekeeper, Victor Erice draws an implicit correlation between geographic division and the legacy of civil war: the parallel rites of passage between the marriage of Spyros' daughter in The Beekeeper and Estrella's first holy communion in El Sur; the profoundly isolated Spyros' apicultural migration to the south that represents a similar lure of an ephemeral (or unrequited) paradise lost to the melancholic and withdrawn Agustín (as well as both filmmakers' paradoxical characterization of the south as a destination that represents vitality and figurative death); the complex role of the cinema as a place of escape and also a contemplative medium for introspection and personal assessment. Erice further integrally incorporates cinema into the development of the multilayered narrative through a passing homage to Alfred Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt (through a preview poster at the CineArcadia) that uncoincidentally bears a similar plot of a young woman's demystification of her idolized, charismatic uncle with whom she believes she shares a profound connection (also note a similar integration of homage and narrative Erice's earlier film, The Spirit of the Beehive and the James Whale film, Frankenstein). However, unlike the intrigue of the seminal Hitchcock film, the mystery of El Sur unravels with the imperceptible weight of a tossed skein of red yarn - exposing, not a barbarous crime, but the unendurable realization of being ordinary and unremarkably human.
- Acquarello, Strictly Film School
Víctor Erice’s second feature, shot 22 years ago, ten years after his first, El espíritu de la colmena (The Spirit of the Beehive), took as its starting point a 47-page story by Adelaida García Morales that was published two years earlier. I’d recommend reading it after watching El sur, mainly because its last 12 pages allow us to imagine how the film would have developed if Erice had been allowed to shoot his adapted script in its entirety (the story originally concludes in southern Spain). For reasons never sufficiently explained, or openly discussed – though I do have a theory of my own about these complex, deep motivations – the shooting of El sur was halted, allegedly for the Christmas holidays, never to be resumed. Perhaps naïvely hoping to finally be allowed to shoot a second part – which was never intended as such or to be a separate movie – Erice kept diplomatically quiet, and edited a coherent film from the material available to him; it was sent to the Cannes Film Festival where it was hailed as a masterpiece, and the second part was silently but definitely shelved.|
Once you know that what you’re going to see, or have just watched, is only half the movie Erice wanted to make, and despite the fact that there are some things which never get explained or fully developed, you should forget this knowledge and enjoy what there is to see and hear, which is plenty. Regardless of the understandable frustration Erice still feels about the issue, while shrinking from others descriptions of the film as a masterpiece, El sur is still substantively a great film like Stroheim’s Greed (1924) or Peckinpah’s Major Dundee (1965). If you haven’t read either the original screenplay or the tale, you might never imagine that the film is not a fully mastered and completed work. In fact, despite its unfinished state, El sur is for me – and others – one of the greatest films ever made in Spain, and perhaps Erice’s most refined and mature work as a director.
From the opening sequence – in my recollection the most impressive since Dreyer’s Ordet (1964) and Ford’s The Searchers (1956) – one gathers that everything in this picture has been thought through and carried out with extreme care and precision; that there can be no loose ends, only cut threads owing to the film being only half of what Erice intended at over three hours. If the South announced in the film’s title remains a felt, mythical presence, almost dreamt but never reached or seen (only glimpsed on postcards while accompanied by the chords of Enrique Granados’ piano music on the soundtrack), it nevertheless remains a key reference, a significant motif in the film’s narrative. Although uncompleted, El sur is a much more accomplished, richer, deeper, complex and moving picture than El espíritu de la colmena. It marks a decisive step forward in Erice’s progression as a filmmaker. El sur is much more dense and allows us to get much nearer to several of the characters; its silences are not of the same kind as those that are so significant in El espíritu de la colmena. There is more interaction, and much more feeling and confrontation too, in El sur. In contrast, most adults in El espíritu de la colmena, even the parents – who never exchange a word - are kept mainly at a distance, in a different, separate world from that inhabited by the two sisters who are so alone that they are ready to see ghosts. The relationships in El sur are more real and painful.
- Miguel Marais, Senses of Cinema
In The South we watch a group of mostly disconnected individuals try to deal with the legacy of a receding past; the Civil War and the divisions it has forged within families and between generations. Although this film is a somewhat truncated version of Erice's original vision—he conceived of a final section actually set and filmed in the 'south'—its refusal to move outside the isolated northern community which the family inhabits, in a kind of exile, leaves open the potentiality for the processes of imagination and creative subjectivity that define Erice's work (as well as his characters). In a scene reminiscent of the Stereoscope sequence in Malick's Badlands (1973), Estrella, the young girl who is the 'focus' of the story, uses the material things that surround her to create an understanding and sense of the somewhat inconceivable world beyond her immediate experience. Because her parents rarely discuss the past, she has to extrapolate from the old-fashioned hand-coloured photographs she finds in a family album, or imagine her father's past lover from a lobby card she picks up at the local cinema (as in The Spirit of the Beehive, cinema is used as a means to spark imagination and to create identity). The worlds of Erice's films emerge as a collection of disconnected but connected signs—aural and visual—that enable the characters to come into being.
It is the look and sound of Erice's films that is often their most remarkable and telling characteristic. His work is full of ambient, often isolated, perhaps not even adequately sourced, sounds. It is often these sounds which most clearly haunt and disturb the characters. These sounds are also an indication of a world outside of the explicitly framed—this is a cinema full of frames-within-frames, doorways, windows, metaphors of entrapment—and often boxed-in environments we are shown (gunshots, barking dogs, train whistles, vehicles shifting gear). Sound is often figured as a site of the imagination and the unknown, a trigger for processes of creativity, memory and identity formation. For example, early in The South the narrator tells of her first memory (assumedly 're'-constructed at a later time from a story told by her parents), in which her father mysteriously 'designates' her gender while she is still in the womb—the first of a series of uncanny connections that bind father and daughter together in this family romance. Thus, it is not just sounds but words that are central to the make up of the characters.
- Adrian Danks, Senses of Cinema Great Directors Biography
Erice is concerned with the exploration of myth, and the fragile balance that exists between its positive and negative qualities: the positive being the capacity of myth to provide explanations for the inexplicable, to help us to bear the unbearable, and the negative being its potential for aiding mass manipulation and subjugation. (Both qualities exploited freely by the Franco Regime, although that is not the focus here.) The godlike power of creation, control over human destiny and (to a greater or lesser extent) over the consumer form a basic link between cinema and the myth of the father in this film. The paradox lies in that, although we may not live so easily without them, if myths remain unquestioned, we run the risk of becoming their victims. Myth offers coherence and consolation, but should also provide a focus for the kind of curiosity aroused in Estrella that will, sooner or later, destroy it. El sur is a celebration of the way film constructs its own myths, and the cinema is an ideal vehicle for the analysis of our capacity and need to construct personal versions and visions of life as we 'see' it. It is also a moving illustration of the power of cinematic myth and of the paradox that we are safest in our enjoyment when we can acknowledge with more confidence than Agustín that 'las cosas que ocurren en el cine son mentira'.
- Jo Evans, University College London
ABOUT VICTOR ERICE
Victor Erice has directed just three features and two shorts in a little over thirty years (the shorts, included in portmanteau films, bookend the three features he has made roughly ten years apart). (2) In its studied and contemplative approach to cinema, as well as its meagre productivity, Erice's career can be compared to that of Carl Dreyer and Terrence Malick. The connections to the work of these great, visionary filmmakers do not end there. Like Malick & Dreyer, Erice is a filmmaker who explores his environments through precise, lyrical, light-filled or filtered compositions. He also presents characters that are inseparable from or mired in particular times, spaces and historical moments. Erice's first two films (like Malick's) also feature strong, structurally central female characters forging their identity within masculine environments (a striving which often stages itself as act of speaking, of finding voice). (3) Although his films are artfully composed, Erice also shoots in a manner that, like Malick, is responsive to the sound-image possibilities and accidents that emerge on location. But whereas one can imagine, or even fantasise about, the philosophical questioning of Malick and the spiritual contemplation of Dreyer occupying them between films, Erice throws up another 'picture' all together. Although he actually has made his living writing film criticism, screenplays and directing for television (including a surprisingly large number of commercials) one would rather imagine, or at least easily conceive, that his films are the product of a deep, extended process of reflection, of repose, the outcome of an accretion of details and minute, precise observations captured over a sustained period of time (a process/practice suggested by the knowledge that he insisted on filming every day during the two-month shooting schedule of his third feature, The Quince Tree Sun —resorting to video when film stock, and the money for it, intermittently ran out).
The most remarked upon quality of Erice's cinema is its visual dimension. His films are dominated by the juxtaposition of often stark long shots and beautifully composed and lit vignette– or tableau–like compositions. His camera moves intermittently, but usually only to reframe or follow the characters. Thus, his films do have a studied, contemplative quality on a compositional level (they are full of repeated set-ups and move between a sense of closeness and distance). The most remarkable element of his films' visual dimension is the qualities of light that they capture—not unlike a painting by Vermeer or Valázquez (though modern, this also hints at the timeless, partly anachronistic quality of Erice's cinema). This light is often sculptural, its physical dimensions affecting both the perception of the spectator and the actions of the characters. (For example, the browns, burnt yellows and oranges that dominate the bleak interior and exterior landscapes of The South express the muted anguish of the characters, but also seem to shape their literal movement in space.)
Both The South and The Spirit of the Beehive are films about the experiential realities of characters, communities—and a country—in isolation. They each primarily focus on female characters attempting to forge their own identities within somewhat barren, chilly and mute environments. Erice's films are also remarkable for the space they give to all of their characters—even the woman (played by Aurore Clément) only seen in the film-within-a-film in The South is able to express herself through the long letter she sends to Estrella's father. This virtual dialectic, between specific, knowable entities/characters and the world that surrounds them, is carried over to a general understanding of the connections between images and sounds in Erice's cinema. Thus, although many of the images and sounds of his films seem to partly exist for themselves—highlighted by the common use of the fade to black, which tends to isolate shots—they are also part of a rich fabric of associations. In regard to this, Erice's films constantly play upon the tension between movement and stillness, ambulation and repose, the isolated observation and its macroscopic implications.
- Adrian Danks, Senses of Cinema Great Directors Biography
Geoff Andrew: You were a film critic yourself and you've always been a cinephile. What was it that attracted you to the cinema in the first place? When did you become interested in films?
Victor Erice: It's difficult to say. It's more like an experience. I don't feel that I chose cinema or films. I feel they chose me. I don't mean this to be pretentious. In my childhood, films were fundamentally important. In a country that, especially in the 1940s, was very isolated from the rest of the world and marked by the Civil War, films gave me an extraordinary possibility to be a citizen of the world.
GA: And did you always want to make films as well? Obviously, maybe not as a kid, but you did become a critic when you were quite young...
VE: It was an evolution, I suppose, and I became conscious of it when I was about 19. But you don't choose to be a film director when you are small. You would be a small monster. Also, you can say that nobody chooses whom to love.
- Interview at the National Film Theatre, London, September 2 2003
It was like this - through writing - that one day I began to think about cinema, and discovered another way of prolonging its vision, of realising it. It was in the summer of 1959, after having seen The 400 Blows at the San Sebastian Film Festival. At the end of the screening, I came out onto the street, moved. And that same night I felt the need to put into words the ideas and feelings that had been awoken in me by François Truffaut’s images. It was the first time that such a thing had happened to me. The years have passed and, though I have been able to shoot a few films, I continue to write every now and then.
We did know it, without a doubt, though perhaps we forgot: ‘Cinematography, art of the Century’. This is precisely what was once said of cinema when, in a gesture not exempt from bad faith, justice was sought by virtue of bestowing upon cinema all the privileges conferred by social recognition. Never, not even at that solemn moment, did we imagine that with the passing of years cinema would become an essential element of our memory, the container capable of holding the images that best reflect the human experience of the century that has just died. How could we not find in that gaze that we project backwards, suspended in the air, the figure of the angel of melancholy! It is, in some way, inevitable. Since that single history, that of cinema and the twentieth century, is confused, irremediably, with our own biography. I am referring to the people of my generation, born in the time of silence and ruin that followed our civil war. Orphans, real or symbolic, were adopted by cinema. It offered us an extraordinary consolation, a sense of belonging to a world: precisely that which, paradoxically, Communication, in its present state of maximum development, does not offer.
Cinema nowadays, since it is based on technical reproducibility and universal dissemination, features accelerated by the effects of video and television (both capable of multiplying these aspects ad infinitum); cinema as product and nothing more than product (according to the rules of the Market – more unrelenting than ever, to the extent that it has accomplished the alienation of the notion of the author), is merely allowed, socially and on a global scale, by the established powers, a sole destiny: a destiny proper to the entertainment industry [la industria del espectáculo]. It is for this reason that, at the present crossroads, cinema may have no alternative other than to fall back on itself so that it may, once it has assumed its solitude, affirm itself in its dignity: a dignity conferred onto it by virtue of being the last of the artistic languages invented by man. This is its differentiating quality, what truly distinguishes it from other audiovisual communication media.
Every now and then, transformed into ghosts, the bodies that are present in the images of those films that (as Jean Louis Schefer has written) ‘have looked at our childhood’ rise from their graves and appear on the small screen of the television, at the latest hours, nearing dawn. Offering themselves to our insomniac eyes, they seem to tell us something: what? Amongst other things, that cinema today exists so as to bring back what was once seen. Its future, in this sense, is its past, though on the condition that we contemplate it with an undeceiving eye, with no dread. Given that, as Jean-Luc Godard affirmed, ‘cinema authorises Orpheus to look back without letting Eurydice die.’
- Victor Erice. Originally published in Banda aparte no. 9/10 (Valencia, January 1998). Reprinted with permission of the author. Translated from the Spanish for Rouge by Carlos Morrero. Thanks to Alvaro Arroba.