Cría cuervos Review

An allegory wrapped up in a combination of the political, personal and spiritual, Carlos Saura's Cría cuervos functions, perhaps more than anything else, as an almost overwhelmingly instinctual piece of pure cinema. Its deeply mood-entrenched ability to be at once both disturbing and enjoyably satisfying makes it a film on which it's rather hard to obtain a strong grasp. Scenes and situations wash over the viewer without care for potential confusion. Though never impenetrable, even on a first viewing, it does have a willfully ethereal quality that seems to invite a struggle of analysis. On the one hand, we can see the echoes of Franco's regime and the painful Civil War as they relate to the family at the film's center. A military man as the father and the marital struggles in their history allow the viewer to read in as much or as little as desired in relation to the political climate of the country. But from the other perspective, very little understanding of these implications is needed to appreciate Saura's work here. He masterfully creates an atmosphere of melancholy that can be intuited completely on its own.

The child at the center of the film is eight-year-old Ana. She's played by the singular Ana Torrent, here helping to create the second part of an appropriate double feature with Victor Erice's The Spirit of the Beehive. That film and this one are almost unavoidable companion pieces in that they are both dominated by the young Torrent while dealing, however obliquely or directly, with Franco's Spain. (For what it's worth I prefer Cría and don't find the two inseparable in any way but merely, as stated, complementary.)  Ana is the middle sister of three. Their parents are now both dead, with the father having died while in bed with a friend's wife and the mother (Geraldine Chaplin) succumbing to an illness not long before which left the girls under the supervision of their aunt and a caring maid. An aged grandmother also lives in the large house but is not particularly well cared for, and gets wheeled in front of a wall of portraits as a means of occupying herself.

Through memories or ghostly occurrences or neither or both, Ana is seen with her mother. Further complicating the timeline are the moments when Ana speaks as a form of narration, to the camera, from twenty years in the future, with Chaplin appearing here also as the older Ana. It all sounds maybe more confusing than it becomes once the usual narrative restrictions are accepted as not entirely applying to Saura's storytelling. Part of the beauty in seeing the director, here also serving as sole writer for the first time, exercise such freedom of form comes with giving one's self over to the pacing and necessary ambiguity of having everything exist pretty much from the perspective of a child. While somewhat fragmented and even messy to a degree, the point of view we're given is an essential part of the larger puzzle. The viewer is forced to distinguish and sift through all that is seen. So despite Ana sincerely believing that she's responsible for causing the death of her father by way of baking powder, we're able to filter it through a more nuanced perspective. Still, that same kind of logic doesn't necessarily prove useful in the bigger picture. Saura lets Ana dictate the film's passage enough that we're better off trying to adjust to her rather than the other way around.

One thing that gradually reveals itself is Ana's apparent fascination with death. Aside from her deceased parents, there's also the wishing of death upon her aunt, the well-intentioned offer to poison her grandmother and the departure of her pet hamster to consider. Death is rather clearly one of the main motifs present in the film. Exactly to what end this recurring idea is intended isn't something which lends itself to simple explanation. While it's easy enough to recognize this preoccupation, it's far more difficult to assign it a concise meaning. Regardless, the little girl with a possibly unhealthy interest in death makes for a fascinating character, particularly when she's equipped with Torrent's impossibly knowing, dark-eyed gaze.

Maybe the perfect counterpoint to the inevitably uncomfortable recurrence of death is a tonally light, dance-happy pop song and that's just what we get no less than four times in Cría cuervos. As sung by Jeanette, "Porque te vas" is repeated in various contexts and one could say it anticipates everything from Wong Kar-wai's exhaustive usage of "California Dreamin'" in Chungking Express to the similarly atmosphere-defining role of music in the films of Wes Anderson. The song and its incessant playing have a definite knack for conjuring up the feeling of being a child at the very moment seen in the picture. Few things are better at letting the viewer relate to, or maybe serving as an emotional shortcut to, exactly what is being shown on the screen as a well-placed song and, here, "Porque te vas" is nigh-on perfect as a melodically upbeat anthem obscuring a darker undercurrent.

The Disc(s)

The BFI gives Cría cuervos ("Raise Ravens" in English) a Dual Format release in the UK containing both a Blu-ray and DVD in the package. The single-layered BD is locked to Region B. If a similar edition were to emerge from Region A it would likely come from the Criterion Collection, which brought the film to DVD a few years ago but (as of this writing) has not yet upgraded it to high definition.

The included booklet notes that this transfer came from a remastering of the original 35mm negative. In its proper 1.66:1 aspect ratio, the film retains a slight layer of grain, so little perhaps as to suggest the effects of DNR, while improving measurably on the standard definition offering. There's an increased depth and warmth to the picture quality. Detail is more pronounced and colors such as the red seen on Ana's shirt later in the film gain brightness and texture. The lighting choices and frequently indoor setting of what is presumably intended to be a musty, claustrophobic house offer built-in limitations to the image. If the video doesn't immediately impress then it's perhaps the result more of a tricky source than any glaring technical deficiency. Even so, there's little hesitation in declaring this experience the best we've yet seen this film for home viewing and having no reluctance in offering a recommendation.

Audio comes through in a Spanish language PCM 2.0 mono track. It offers crisp, clear dialogue and no barriers to enjoying each and every playing of "Porque te vas" in the movie. There are optional subtitles in English which are white in color. Additionally, there is an English language dub available for listening. The included DVD trades the PCM for Dolby Digital.

The Blu contains only a long trailer (3:05) and a short trailer (1:41) but the DVD adds a couple of choice extras in standard definition. "Portrait of Carlos Saura" (62:44) is an hourlong documentary about the director and his career from 2004. Those who've seen the Criterion Collection edition might recognize it from that earlier release. There's also an on-stage interview (23:04) with Saura conducted by Maria Delgado at BFI Southbank in June of 2011. The conversation here does indeed focus almost exclusively on Cría cuervos and it's quite interesting to hear some of Saura's thoughts thirty-five years after the film's release.

The BFI continues to add value by including an attractive, pertinent booklet as a substantial supplement to the package. The 32-page insert features an essay by Maria Delgado on the film which goes half a dozen pages. A couple more are devoted to a not completely fawning Monthly Film Bulletin review of the picture from the time of its release.  Three more pages are used for a rather illuminating interview with Saura, also from 1976. Short biographies of the director and Ana Torrent follow and are joined by credits and stills to round out the insert.

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